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A temple still under construction in China’s Hebei province offers a quiet hike up a hill.

A temple still under construction in China’s Hebei province invites a quiet hike up a hill.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

BACKCOUNTRY
ADVENTURES IN THE
MIDDLE KINGDOM

There's more to China than temples and tourists, Nathan Vanderklippe writes. Venture off better-trodden paths to sample mare's milk tea, party hearty with the locals and visit the unrenovated Great Wall – with nary a tourist in sight

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The list is a bit predictable. Adventure-lust hits and your mind turns to the Rockies, a beach in Thailand, maybe Vegas.

Chances are the Middle Kingdom is not on the list.

In the brochures at least, China is as dignified as it is boring: a land of ancient temples and contemplative settings, tossed together with a bit of calligraphy and a roast duck dinner. Even the Lonely Planet, that supposed guidebook to more stimulating pursuits, highlights China's scenery and its "awe-inspiring antiquity."

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But China gets a lot more fun when you take that scenery and rip across it in an ATV. Or climb atop that antiquity with a few beers to watch the stars.

Throw a bit of caution to the wind, and China suddenly turns into a near-endless slate for adventure, a land that offers no shortage of places to scare and surprise yourself. It's a country where you can drink mare's milk tea in a Mongolian-style ger (often misnamed a yurt); moonwalk with the locals at a mountainside party fuelled by vicious baijiu alcohol; go sweaty-palmed on a glass skywalk high on a sheer cliff; get sweaty-browed from the painful exquisiteness of searingly spicy food; and even secure a police escort through a place forbidden to foreigners.

Like any departure from better-trodden paths, this kind of travel in China has its complications. It's a hard country to navigate without language skills; and the administrative barriers are imposing. Proper enjoyment requires something of a loose stance toward the dictates that govern every tiny detail of life. As a friend likes to say, "If you follow all the rules, you miss all the fun."

But if you can do it, China offers a brag-worthy selection of thrills in places utterly devoid of foreign tourists at destinations a relative stone's throw from major cities such as Beijing.

For me and three friends, a 10-day romp started with procuring 150-cc gas-powered scooters that would serve as our pint-sized steeds for a 1,000-kilometre circle through the regions north and west of the capital. Why drive, we figured, when we could ride?

Encounters with the long reach of Chinese law begin almost immediately: It's impossible to fuel a two-wheeled vehicle in Beijing without a valid driver's licence. (The rules are so restrictive, it's equally impossible to pump gas into a jerry can. Doing so requires a special police permit that can only be secured following formal interviews.)

This being China, money can buy creative solutions – one of which can put a decent-quality document in your pocket and, with it, gas in your tank.

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China is at a magical moment where its countryside is filled with smooth new highways and few occupants. There are more than a few comparisons here to the United States in the 1960s.

China is at a magical moment where its countryside is filled with smooth new highways and few occupants. There are more than a few comparisons here to the United States in the 1960s.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Full on fuel, we drove north from Beijing, roaring up city streets that gave way to mountain road. China is at a magical moment where its countryside is filled with smooth new highways and few occupants. You can drive 30 kilometres and not see another vehicle. There are more than a few comparisons here to the United States in the 1960s.

We wound our way up a river lined with farmhouse resorts, down straightaways that tunnelled through corridors of arching birch and up winding mountain sections that were as close as asphalt gets to art.

Our destination was a section of the Great Wall of China at Jiankou that remains unrenovated, unlike the shiny reproductions elsewhere that bring in tourists by the busload. We parked our scooters for the night and walked up a narrow road past farmers in fields, and past duelling signs: some proclaiming the area closed to the public; others urging the public to practice no-trace camping.

We chose the latter.

On an unrenovated section of the Great Wall at Jiankou, the consequences of a wayward step were too serious to contemplate.

On an unrenovated section of the Great Wall at Jiankou, the consequences of a wayward step were too serious to contemplate.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The wild Wall lives up to its name. The three-hour hike had us scrambling up near-vertical sections, picking across parts crumbled by four centuries of weathering, and teetering over a few exposed ridges that required panicky balancing acts. The consequences of a wayward step were too serious to contemplate.

But we had reason to push through – we were looking for a campsite tucked next to the Wall. A local innkeeper had promised to deliver provisions to the camp by dusk.

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Sweaty and tired, we arrived moments before Old Zhao did, with 20 kilograms of water and chilled beer strapped to a hand-hewn, wood-framed backpack that he hauled hundreds of metres up a steep hill. His wife came with him, carrying pots of steaming food. The beer delivery cost $22.

We ate and drank atop the pulpit of a signal tower looking out on a landscape of layered hills crowned with the Wall as it marched off into the distance. As darkness gathered, we crowded around a campfire – using wood gathered, chopped and lit by our innkeeper – and sipped whisky.

This was day one.

From here, we wound our way north, climbing at turtle speed to the grasslands, our underpowered scooters huffing their way up long hills. On the great waving plains of northern China, we chanced upon the massive white castle walls of a sprawling Potemkin Mongolian cultural centre.

On offer? A menu of activities that included a golf driving range, air-powered tennis ball cannons and a theatre where the 4-D sign was scratched out to make way for a 5-D experience, complete with puffs of air and an incomprehensible ride down a virtual mine tunnel with shrieking eagles.

That much of it had nothing to do with Mongolian culture was only more reason to sign up for a park pass, which included amusement park-style spinning rides with kid-sized seats. In a nod to tradition, we sat in a circular ger to sip hot tea swirled with mare's milk. It went down warm and sweet.

That night we gorged on a leg of lamb and slept in a concrete-walled ger. The next morning, we rode horses across the grasslands – galloping only after negotiating an in-saddle upgrade from local herders – and then rented ATVs for an hour so we could plunge through rivers and rip through communal farms. We were left soaked, and smiling.

At the grasslands in Hebei province, a $35 rental provides an hour of no-limits ripping through rivers and farmland.

At the grasslands in Hebei province, a $35 rental provides an hour of no-limits ripping through rivers and farmland.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

From the grasslands, the road slipped south through a long verdant valley. A quick hike took us high on a hill, where construction had yet to finish on a new pagoda. Alone, we marched to the top for a Scotland-worthy view of misty mountains framing a long lake.

From here, the highway passed through a chain of long tunnels, one of which was unlit – more cave than throughway. Sunglasses on, we hit a wall of darkness and in the blindness one of us careened into the tunnel wall, emerging dusty, scratched, shaken – and in serious need of something to calm the nerves.

This was among the many times we confronted one of rural China's more serious problems. Beijing's sixth ring road marks the rough outer reaches of whisky, gin, rum or any other familiar liquor. Grocery stores and roadside convenience shops are stuffed instead with rows of fiery white baijiu, the high-percentage sorghum alcohol that is the ink for many a local business deal, but it lands on the unaccustomed tongue like something Dow Chemical might produce.

We embarked on a quasi-scientific search for a mix to mask the sickly sweet flavour, trying Coke, plum juice, orange juice, tonic and Sprite before finally settling on a local sea salt grapefruit drink that only partly succeeded in the task.

A night at a hot-springs hotel gave us a lengthy traditional massage that left our backs reddened by sharp scraping rocks and welted from hot cupping. I hated it. My friends, however, felt like they had shed five years. And so we were ready to hit the road again, heading toward a spot whose sandstone cliffs would not be out of place in Utah.

Then disaster. A group of police officers stepped onto the highway and brought us to a halt. The way ahead, they said, passed by a nature reserve. It had snakes, and they might not be able to rescue us. As foreigners, we simply could not proceed. The logic made no sense, but there wasn't much we could do.

Our mouths went dry at the sight of the law. The documents in our pockets were good enough to get gas, but not to pass an official inspection.

Remembering a friend who years ago bribed his way in to the Forbidden City at night with a cigarette, we had prepared by buying a carton. We brought out the tobacco war chest, only to discover how much China has changed: None of the officers so much as smoked, and one spoke English well. We couldn't even hide behind linguistic ignorance.

They photographed our passports, licence plates and faces. But that didn't solve our need to continue on this road, which we underscored by showing a cellphone map. The only available detour would add 400 kilometres. Faced with an impasse, one of the officers thought up a solution. He would call his captain.

This introduced new danger. So far, we had not been told to show driver's licences. What if the captain asked?

But we were hardly in a position to argue the point, and the captain soon arrived in a shiny white Honda Accord. He did not ask for documents. He offered, instead, to lead us down the forbidden road, hopping into a beaten-up VW Santana 2000 police cruiser and firing up the lights.

Panic gave way to elation. We were getting a police escort through China.

At Baishishan, southwest of Beijing, endless concrete walkways suspended on vertical cliffs promise a crowded thrill.

At Baishishan, southwest of Beijing, endless concrete walkways suspended on vertical cliffs promise a crowded thrill.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The high lasted through the days that followed. It carried us to a local villager that fixed a burst tire for $3; across a terrifying glass skywalk over a yawning drop – this was the centrepiece of a mountain hike at Baishishan where long stretches of concrete sidewalk hang on vertical cliffs – and, finally, into the mountains near Beijing. Here, at a high-elevation hotel, we offered some baijiu to a group of travelling teachers and persuaded the innkeeper to open up the dance floor.

As darkness fell, we fired up a karaoke speaker and, with music pumping and lights flashing, drank to our new friends, one of them a dance teacher who brought us all to our feet with a perfect moonwalk.

My friends are adventurers who travel backcountry around avalanches, winter camp in the mountains, ocean kayak off west Vancouver Island and scramble peaks in the Rockies.

But standing there on our last night, they had only one question: Where in China are we going next year?

More from correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe in China:

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