Monday, December 3, 2012

Tragedy at The Great Wall - Part 1


In mid-October, 2012, my American friend from Ohio emailed me that he had arrived in Jinan, Shandong, China, to teach English at the Shandong University of Science and Technology. He wrote that he took a trip to Beijing, taking his days off in early October and extended his visit to the Jinshanling. It was a typical Beijing clear sky of autumn to visit a relatively uncrowded section of the Great Wall. He sent a couple of excellent photos from Jinshanling, including German visitors he met on the bus. The Jinshanling Great Wall where my Ohio American visited is located northeast of Beijing, beyond the Miyun Reservoir, and further away than the Badaling section of the Great Wall which is always crowded with tourists.


My personal trip to the Great Wall was in the summer of 1996. It was on my way back from Yunnan Province, where I joined the Vermont University Summer Program of China Studies for Teachers. The State of Vermont has sister state relations with Yunnan Province as both have mountainous geography. The summer program was specifically set up for Vermont High School teachers but accepted a few applicants from other states. I applied from California when I was still a resident. There were 18 participants including myself - 14 women and four men. I was paired with a male teacher from Connecticut. The program ran for one month, hosted by Yunnan Normal College (now Yunnan Normal University) in Kunming. We spent mornings in class taking lessons ranging from Beginning Chinese and History to Calligraphy and more. In the afternoon we visited local schools of children, temples, scenic parks, etc. Three weekends were for long distance travels to Shilin, Dali, etc. We all flew back to Beijing after Yunnan and the Chinese International Exchange Bureau gave us a trip to the Great Wall while we were there.

We went to Badaling, due north of Beijing, the most popular and most visited site of the Great Wall. Xiao Song, an interpreter/guide from the Bureau accompanied us. She was a wonderful woman with whom I corresponded for a number of years afterwards. We took a cable to the North Eighth Tower (just about 1000 meters tall) and walked down. Xiao Song emphasized that Badaling was the most heavily guarded military outpost, reflecting the location's (Juyongguan Pass) strategic importance. Back then, Badalin was less crowded, even in summer.


The morning of November 6 brought devastating news: four elderly Japanese tourists became trapped in a snowstorm on the Great Wall of China. Then around noontime, sad news followed. Two women had died of hypothermia. One woman survived and was rescued followed by another. A missing man had been found, but was pronounced dead. The president of the travel agency was on his way to Beijing. Amuse Travel was the same agent that lost 7 elderly trekkers and a guide in a central Hokkaido mountain called Tomrausi (2.141m) in 2009. News media wondered if the "punitive 50 day business closure" didn't give enough of a message for the agency to improve safety precautions.

We learned that the tour was for nine days -- 100 kilometer trek of the Great Wall in a particular area reinforced by the Ming Dynasty, and the first trial project for Amuse Travel Agency. The Japanese trekkers were accompanied by a Chinese guide named Ming Pingming, 25 years old.

On Nov. 11, the remains of three seniors were flown back. One was flown to Fukuoka and transported to Kitakyushu, where I live. I learned he was 76 years old and an ex-city official, who served as Chief Librarian, financial manager as well as auditor. Upon his retirement in 2008, he took up mountain trekking as his hobby, often accompanied by his wife. I might have been on that excursion if I had known about it.

I had to dig deep to find out what happened in Huailai County, in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province. My Google search led to the Huiali County website where the Chinese Guide Pingming spoke in Chinese, which was translated into Japanese.

"On Nov. 3, we started climbing at 8 AM and at noon we were at the Great Wall near Mt. Hengling. Snow started falling fast and heavily at about 1 p.m. and soon we were snowed in, white everywhere. We knew about the snow forecast, but thought we could finish our trek before the snow came. Falling snow deepened and we had no shelter around as the temperature quickly went down. Everyone had worn special winter clothes but not enough to protect ourselves from mountain chills. Especially, Mr. Y, 76 years old, was unable to bear it and his condition gradually deteriorated. In view of the crisis, I asked a young Chinese named Gong, who voluntarily joined the trek group through the Internet, to go down and get immediate help. While waiting for help, we shouldered together to warm up. While so doing, we saw that Mr. Y's breath became stifled. Women encouraged him by rubbing his face and hands. I gave him semi-AED treatment without a machine but to no avail. As night approached, he closed his eyes. I couldn't tell the exact time he passed away. Snow continued without mercy. Three women were also getting weaker. We shared the last piece of chocolate we carried. Since there was no sign of rescue, I myself decided to seek help. Mountain roads which usually took one hour, took more than 4 hours. It was around noon when l finally climbed down, falling and tumbling as I approached a village and saw a group of rescuers. I was near exhaustion and taken to a hospital. Rescuers, however, searched for a long time for the three women left behind. I'm sorry that I was unable to assist in locating those left behind."

1 comment:

Rob said...

This is something which had never occurred to me when reading about the Great Wall of China. Thanks for this sad and important story.