The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is truly one of the world’s great engineering wonders. I have read much about it recently and seen many photos. But they cannot prepare you for standing upon Chang Cheng with your own feet and seeing the wall snake across the tops of the mountains with your own eyes.

We had booked a private car to take us to Jinshanling and to pick us up from Simatai, expensive but convenient. Mr Zhao was waiting for us outisde his black “limousine” (not stretched, okay). The best word to describe him would be “oily”. His balding hair was permed at the rear, hairs falling on the his white woolen jumper, he had a silver earring. However, his English was good and he was quite talkative.

The drive was at times smooth, at others downright terrifying. We took the expressway out of Beijing city, passing by Beijing’s often decrepit satellite towns. According to Mr Zhao twenty years ago Beijing’s government had wisely moved industry out from the city proper and out to these towns in order to improve the air quality. It showed. Rather than Beijing’s mildly smoggy air, here the air was thick with smoke. I could smell it in the car.

As we passed into the hills around the Miyun Reservoir we could see big gutted fish hung from trellises beside the road, available for sale. Unlike the expressway the road was now nominally two lanes. Beijing drivers tend to go very slowly. Out here, the little blue tri-wheel trucks and overloaded vans chugged along even slower. Mr Zhao and other drivers would get impatient and we would overtake on the opposite side of the road, often into incoming traffic. We just had to trust his skills, but it wasn’t easy.

Approaching the destination, we could see the wall running along the tops of the mountains. We stopped at a shop for some snacks, not having had any breakfast or even brought any food; our fault for waking too late.

Jinshanling’s car park was quiet. The hotel and restaurant seemed closed, although we saw a German group walking in the opposite direction. The cable car was also shutdown.

We were alone as we took the bush path up to the Hairou Pass. The only indication that we were going the right way was the shoeprints in the mud. Soon snow drifts appeared to the sides, then on the path itself, interspersed with brown mud. The grass and small shrubs lining the path were all grey and yellow with winter.

As the path wound upwards we were joined by a young hawker. He pointed out where to walk in the snow for grip. I was glad for the grip on my new shoes but already B was doubting that she could handle the 10 kilometre walk ahead.

Our “friend” was soon joined by one of his own. Zhang Tie Jun could speak some English, the original, younger man, Zhang Guo Jun could not. Together the pointed us up the path and helped B when she started to slip in the ice.

At last we made it up to the top of the dirt path and arrived at the brick battlement marking the start of our walk along the Great Wall proper. The Jinshanling section of the wall is unrestored with very steep, broken steps and stones. I often had to climb up the steps on all fours.

After each set of steps we would wonder if we could make it all the way, but the brilliant scenery drove us onwards. The going was slow, walking and climbing punctuated by recovery breaks, but more by photo shoots. The land was brown and white, rock, dry grass and snow. Across the tall ridgetops snaked the wall, punctuated by watchtowers. After a few watchtowers the elder Zhang told us the way was now downhill.

Not quite, for we would go down, then up to the next watchtower atop the peak. And further own we could see the wall rising high into even taller mountains. But it gave us hope and made the walk easier. Certainly the walk became easier as we became more practiced.

Eventually we made it to the Simatai section. The two Zhangs said their goodbyes, asking us to purchase a book and t-shirt respectively at prices that were high. But they had helped when we needed help, took photos of the two of us (saving B from asking the rare other hiker) and had proved to be pleasant companions. What could we do but pay them? To do otherwise would have been wrong and I don’t care what the Lonely Planet would say.

The Simatai section was partially restored and much easier than the Jinshanling stretch. However, when we finally reached the exit we no longer had the energy to climb the steep stretch up the other side of Simatai and high into the mountains, higher than we had been before on the wall. I think that, after no breakfast or lunch, our bodies had finally run out of energy, so we left the wall and walk the 1.3 kilometres to the carpark and exit.

The Simatai restaurant was surprisingly reasonable for a tourist trap. We just needed to eat. A young Texan, alone in the restaurant, told us that he wished that his group had taken a private car rather than a minibus tour. I gather his journey wasn’t very pleasant.

We found Mr Zhao asleep in his car. Then it was back from the (smoggy) blue skies above the Wall into the smog around Beijing, the afternoon sun red above leafless lines of poplars. At one village we had to detour around an injured dog lying on the road. I wish that we could stop for him, I hope that the person walking towards him helped the friendly looking canine. It made me think of Kita, our puppy, and hope that he was safe with our in-law’s dogs, a sad element to the day.

On our way back to the hotel Mr Zhao took us past the Beijing Olympic site. The main stadium, the “birdsnest”, looks more interesting in design than any other stadium that I have seen, while the bubbled rectangular prism of the swimming centre is very impressive. I have a feeling that Beijing will have a very good Olympics.

We also passed by the artificial mosque towers, trees and other strange designs of the “ethnic minorities” museum. After forcing his way into oncoming traffic, Mr Zhao finally brought us back to the hotel.

We made it as far as the lobby before leaving again to the China International Travel Service headquarters across the road, to make some onward bookings. Ms Jo was extremely helpful, staying back past their 5pm closing time to assist us in looking at our options. It’s a pity we didn’t do this earlier, otherwise we could have caught the train to Lhasa in Tibet. Maybe we still can, if we leave enough time for someone in some other city to arrange the permit.

For now, I think that we may discard some of our plans and follow a more traditional route. So far it’s fly to Chengdu, then back to Xian and onwards to Shanghai. From Shanghai we will see where else we can go. B doesn’t want to catch trains, though I still do. Tomorrow morning we will go in to make our bookings. Some other westerner rudely pushed in after us and demanded assistance booking flights to other parts of Asia, despite being told that no bookings were possible. Giving foreigners a bad name.

We went looking for a supermarket to buy fruits, but I don’t think that supermarkets play the same role in China as they do in Australia. We did find a whole lot of interesting local snackfoods and bakeries. Then, after giving up, there on the corner was a couple of street vendors selling pineapples, apples, pears and strawberries. Yum!

Changing hotels tomorrow, so we can spend an extra day in Beijing.