I'm staring up at a wall of rock. And a solider with a gun is watching me.
I've just walked the length of the Tiger Mountain Great Wall, the easternmost section of this historic fortification, outside the city of Dandong. Although "walked" is probably the wrong word. This part of the Wall is like a stretched-out Stairmaster, one steep set of stairs after another.
Just behind the Wall, the Yalu River divides China from North Korea. The river here is narrow enough that you could hop across in about three steps.
You'd think that the North Korean border would be heavily fortified - that something like the Great Wall, or at least a small fence, would keep people from going back and forth. But you'd be wrong, at least on this stretch of the river. You can stand on the Chinese side and watch the North Koreans working in the fields. You're close enough, almost, to see their sweat.
But in those same fields, there's is a guardhouse. And the soldier lounging in front of it has a gun.
When I hiked up and over the Wall, I expected to find boats waiting to ferry tourists back along the river to the entrance gate. There were boats tied up on the riverbank, but there were no other tourists, and the boats were just bobbing in the shallow water, empty. Was the only way back to climb up and over the Wall again?
I notice a narrow path along the river behind the Wall - a nice, flat path. An old man is sitting in the shade, smoking a cigarette. I point to the path and ask him, "Can I walk back this way?" He nods.
So, I start walking along the river, feeling so clever that I can stroll along this smooth dirt track instead of up and down all those stairs.
Then, all of a sudden, the path ends. And in front of me is a wall of rock.
There are handrails along each side, so I assume it's meant to be climbed. But I'm no rock-climber. And I'm not feeling quite as clever as I felt just a moment ago.
I try to see beyond the rock face. If I could climb up this stretch, what would be waiting on the other side? More rocks? An equally steep climb down? The alternative, though, is a long hot hike up and down those stairs along the Great Wall itself.
I decide to try the climb. As I grab the handrail and hoist myself up, I can see that the solider on the North Korean side is watching me. Is he thinking, "Crazy foreigner?" Is he wondering if I'm going to take a flying leap off the cliff over to his side of the river? Or am I just his bit of entertainment for the day?
There are footholds cut into the rock, so it turns out to be not so bad. I'm at the top in less than a minute. From there, a steel walkway cut into the cliff leads back toward the entrance. A relatively flat, easy-to-walk walkway.
I look over at the soldier. I wish I could wink at him and say, "I guess I'm not so crazy." Plenty of people must come this way every day.
But I just keep on walking. And he keeps on standing on his side of the river, holding his gun.