It must be admitted that Huanghuacheng is not in Europe. Not by a long shot. As such, theoretically, it has no place in a column about places you should go in Europe. However, elsewhere on these pages (or screens, if you must be technical about it) one can find the work of Roy Kesey, describing China, and as I took a brief foray out of Europe and visited Roy in Beijing, he very kindly lent me a small part of his remit so that the editors would agree to let me write about the third tower up from the road at Huanghuacheng on China’s Great Wall.

If you are reading this, you can safely assume that the editors swallowed this reasoning.

However, since China really is very firmly in Roy’s domain, I shall not even mention the various interesting places in Beijing: not a word about the ladybugs at the Temple of Heaven, nor about the sorry-looking fish in the narrow hutongs, nor about the electric lines festooned with fried kites. No, I shall restrict my comments to the third tower up from the road at Huanghuacheng on China’s Great Wall.

Most tourists visit the wall at Badaling, and it’s likely that the pictures you’ve seen come from there. This is where Nixon visited the wall during his historic visit to China, during which he was heard to muse several times, “It is indeed a great wall,” leading G.B. Trudeau to later wonder whether he was entirely sober before climbing up it. However, Badaling is full of nosy tourists, and the wall there is fully restored, leaving little of its rustic splendor. Roy decided to take me to see the wall in its splendidly rustic form at Huanghuacheng, a spot that had only recently been opened to the public.

Opened to the public is perhaps something of an exaggeration. The wall is there, but then it’s in many places—at 5,000 kilometers long, it covers a lot of ground. There was a parking lot of sorts (i.e., a small patch of dirt by the side of the road) at which we retained the services of two ladies to watch over the car, and one or two shacks advertising rooms to rent, although that must have involved a definition of “room” with which I am unfamiliar. One of them, though, was on the far side of a really nifty bridge over a small river. The bridge was confected out of wires and some unconvincing wooden slats. Roy and I discovered that we had to walk out of step, otherwise the bridge took to swaying in a menacing manner.

Anyway, since this part of the wall is somewhat outside of officialdom, it is guarded by a small contingent of local villagers, each of whom tries to charge a toll for walking on his or her stretch of it. This, however, is illegal (as is clearly stated on a number of signs by the road), so following Roy’s lead, I pushed past most of them … but we were stymied by the gatekeeper of the third tower up.

Studded along the wall are guard towers. These are generally square or rectangular structures with little openings on the sides; low archways to allow those walking along the top of the wall to traverse them, and small apertures on the sides to shoot at passing barbarians. (An aside: One wonders what occurred when the barbarians first came upon China’s medieval version of the SDI. When you’re in one of those towers looking over a formerly barbarian landscape you can just imagine tittering as the Huns below ride past saying, in Hunnish, “We’ll just go around it—this thing must end somewhere.”)

Just before the third tower up, we ran across its self-proclaimed gatekeeper, a small, stocky woman of indeterminate age who held up two fingers and shouted at us in Chinese, demanding payment of two yuan apiece to enter “her part of the wall.” “It’s not your wall,” Roy replied; “it’s China’s wall.” (Another aside: I’m trusting Roy for the translations here—for all I know they could have been having a violent argument about pingpong.) After this exchange, we continued forcefully, ignoring her blockade tactics and pushing into the tower. She somehow produced a 3-foot-long plank and began waving it at Roy’s calves. Roy, who is a paragon of physical courage, ignored her and began admiring the inside of the tower. The gatekeeper of the third tower up is, however, nothing if not tenacious, and she continued shouting at Roy, who escaped her pleas by climbing up a homemade ladder to the top of the tower. The ladder consisted of two large vertical branches with notches carved into them, into which were fitted a variety of planks, branches, sticks, bits of wire … whatever, to serve as rungs. It is further testimony to his courage that he climbed up this thing at all. The gatekeeper didn’t hesitate, but climbed up right after him and sat herself down on top of the ladder, blocking his way. “Now you owe me two more yuan for climbing the ladder,” she said.

I thought it prudent to stay on the ground, both to secure Roy’s retreat if he ever made it back down the ladder, and because I didn’t trust the sticks quite as much as he did. I therefore took a look at the inside of the tower.

The tower, like the rest of the wall, is made of large grayish stones that seem to fit each other perfectly. It’s a reassuring structure, one I would appreciate having around me if I were under attack by barbarians. Its walls were covered in neat black official-looking graffiti, none of which I understood, of course, and near the ladder was written, in the same black paint but in English, “Climb ladder cost 2 Yuan.”

Roy sat down next to the gatekeeper and began arguing with her again. He had the kindness to shout down translations to me.

“Everyone must pay two yuan,” said the gatekeeper. “Even I must pay two yuan. Look …,” at which point she removed two crumpled bills from one of the torn pockets in her gray jacket, and ceremoniously transferred them to another pocket. “You see, I must pay myself!”

I confess that despite the gravity of the situation, I found this highly amusing.

“But it’s not your wall, really,” said Roy. “It belongs to China. You’re not allowed to extort money from people who want to walk on it.”

“But it is my ladder!” said the gatekeeper. “I built it myself.”

She had him there.

“She has me on that one,” Roy shouted down. He considered the ladder for a moment. “I doubt she actually hauled this up here herself, but maybe she paid someone to do it. It doesn’t look like it was put here by the government.”

I agreed, it certainly didn’t look like a ladder designed by the Chinese government.

“OK,” he said to the gatekeeper. “We’ll pay you for using the ladder,” at which point he gave her four yuan and motioned that I could come up. Unwilling to seem the coward and curious about the view, I climbed up the ladder, too, figuring that at worst I’d fall only two meters.

The view from the top of the tower was breathtaking. The thing about the Great Wall is that it’s … well … it really is a great wall. (Maybe Nixon wasn’t high after all.) It just goes on and on, always on the crest of a ridge, and snakes like a dragon across the landscape. God knows I’m not the first one to make that remark, but sometimes clichés are so well-worn because they wear well. I won’t describe it too much, though, because maybe Roy will decide to do that one day and I’ve used up enough of his remit already.

We stayed up there for a while, admiring China and talking about life and stuff. I find that when you’re in the presence of ancient greatness, day-to-day concerns melt away and you’re left talking about bigger things, like meaning, and art, and firecrackers.

Actually, firecrackers rarely come into it, but by now the stocky lady gatekeeper had climbed down her ladder and was shouting up at us that she had firecrackers to sell and wouldn’t we like some? “No,” Roy shouted down, “we don’t want firecrackers.” She then looked at me, pointed, and went, “Boom! Boom!” I assumed that she was trying to sell me firecrackers as opposed to threatening my life; since she was armed with nothing more than her plank, I figured a real threat would have been more along the lines of “Whump! Whump!” I therefore didn’t panic but just shook my head.

Roy and I eventually climbed down the ladder and then back down the wall, having made our peace with life, China, and the stocky lady guarding the third tower up from the road. As we walked away, she stood there yet, her chin set and her plank at the ready, awaiting the next invasion of barbarians, as the last invasion had just retreated back to their car. I assume she’s sitting there still, guarding the wall as her people have done for thousands of years. I strongly suggest you go and invade it for yourself.