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Sleeping on the Great Wall of China

21 Aug

I think everyone desires to do something wildly adventurous in their lives. Sleeping on the Great Wall of China was my great adventure.

Our intention was to arrange a camp out with our backpackers but, since their guide was not available on our chosen dates, we decided to do it alone. Baden spent a full morning over coffee, fruit, waffles and pasta reading up on the nearby locations and we finally settled on Mutianyu.

After a brief visit to a local Chinese supermarket, we were armed with a pink children’s puzzle mat, a sheet, a few clothes, cucumbers, nuts, raisins and oats. The next morning we set off very early to catch the first 916 Express bus from Dongzhimen to Hauiro. Research told us the drive would be almost 2 hours so when we were woken from our doze 40 minutes later by an English speaking taxi driver, we were surprised that we’d arrived so soon.

He offered to take us to the foot of the Wall for 80yuan (maybe R90), and although we could have negotiated, we’d budgeted enough and were happy to pay.

At 7.40am, before the crowds of tourists arrived or the hungry hawkers set up, we began the climb up the stairs to reach the Wall. It is possible to take the cable car but strong and determined we decided to walk. When we reached Watchtower 8, we turned left and climbed along the restored sections of the wall, passing a few other early birds. We passed the second cable car and went onto Watchtower 23. The wall is a magnificent man-made structure which peeks the undulating hills for miles and miles. It is possible to see shapes of watch towers so far in the distance that they appear to be small huts. After the summer rains, the surrounding areas were brilliant green and with relatively few others siteseers, it was easy to position ourselves with an exclusive view to the wall snaking over the mountains.

In an attempt to reserve energy, we stopped every hour for a snack and water. My bag was packed with the sleeping gear while Baden carried most of the water and food. Most of the day visitors aimed to reach watchtower 23, which rested at the top of a very steep stairway. Counting the stairs as we went, we stopped at every 100 and I eventually lost count after 400 steps. The top certainly provided a panaromic view of the wall as it continued to our right and our left. Despite a “no entry” sign, we continued past watchtower 23 and entered the unrestored section of the Wall. Here was an immediate contrast from the clean, rebuilt restored sections: the sides of the walls are collapsing, the floor is uneven, tall weeds and small trees grow from the cracks in bricks. Some watchtowers have fallen completely while others only boast remnants of arches half standing. At times it is even impossible to recognise that beneath you is a wall and it feels like walking through a flat grassy field.

From this point on we saw very few other people. There was a ridiculously steep incline to reach the next watch tower and with my bag heavy on my back I resorted to clambering up on my hands and feet. This was the highest point we could see for miles and with a view so spectacular we had a fruit snack and lay down for a rest under a roof that could collapse on us at any moment. This was supposed to be our final watchtower but with plenty of daylight, it was too tempting to explore the next tower, and then the next and the next.  We hid our backpacks in the watchtower at the highest point, certain that few people would brave the rocky incline or they certainly wouldn’t want to carry our bags down; we took our passports and headed down towards North Tower. On our way down, we learned that there was a short cut which avoided the steep incline which we felt was sure to protect our abandoned bags.

When we reached North Tower, we realised that this was close to the entrance at Jiankou and we saw one exhausted group pass us ready for the end of their hike. Since the entrance to the tower was in ruins, an enterprising Chinese man had made a ladder which he charged out at a rate of 5 yuan per person.

As the afternoon wore on, it was soon time to return to our bags and find the best location to watch the sunset. We fetched our bags and then slid down, me on my bum, the most nerve racking part of the trip: a 45degree angle going straight down like a slope with little footholds. Slinging to the wall of the wall, we slowly made our way down. At the next watchtower we had to make our own steps out of loose rocks and we pulled ourselves onto the roof of the ruined watchtower where we snacked and watched the dazzling sunset.

As the sun disappeared, the race against the night began and we pushed on quickly to find a ‘room’ for the night. We found an alcove in a semi-restored watchtower, swept the room using branches from a tree, sat down on our pink children’s puzzle mat and prepared our dinner: cold oats and raisins. I must admit we could have prepared more appetising meals. And then we settled in for the night.

We clung to each other in the night both for security and warmth. As the wind whistled through the watchtower corridors, I imagined the sound of wolves sniffing at our feet. I nudged Baden every time he snored, sure that the sounds would attract unwanted attention and eventually I slipped in a restless sleep.

We woke early the next morning just in time for the sunrise and through puffy eyes we watched the sky light up the clouds with reds and oranges before dissolving into a hazy grey-blue.

We were back at the entrance before anyone was awake: the ticket booths weren’t even open and not one hawker was in sight. We were lucky to bump into 3 other sleepy eyed travellers who had arranged a lift back to the bus stop so squished into a small car, we rode back to the bus stop and back to Beijing.

Although risking a fine or confrontation with Chinese authorities, this was a life highlight for me. The unique and private experience cost us a third of the price companies are charging on the internet and the sight of the wall growing longer and longer with each step will remain with me forever.

Beijing City (part 1)

20 Aug

This is the city where traditional wooden homes are shaded by modern sky scraping architecture, old men and women ride bicycles through disobedient traffic, aging houses and wooden window sills stand open to narrow streets, neglected red lanterns hang from roofs rafters or trees, from ceremonies long gone. It is the city of contrast and age-old beauty. It is Beijing.

Our journey, however, began where most journeys begin: in a big, unfamiliar concrete airport. And the airport always seems to be a long way from the city. With our bags on our back, and our ‘Lonely Planet’ in hand, we set off to find our way. The thing with public transport is that it’s always easy to use, except the first time. And the problem with being a traveller is that you’re always using it for the first time. We couldn’t find the local bus so instead we stood in the queue for the Express Airport bus and got our first taste of Chinese queues: they don’t exist. For the next 6 days, we were to discover that, given half the chance, the Chinese will push you, nudge you, distract you, bump you and slide right in front of you. 

We finally managed to edge our way onto the bus and, after an hour’s drive, we disembarked at Dongzhimen station, which would later become a place we knew very well. We then had to catch a local bus and get off at the ‘6th stop’. With Baden checking the names of the stops and me counting them, we managed to get off at least one stop too early and walked the rest of the way following a map I’d downloaded off the internet. But thankfully Baden’s map-reading skills are outstanding and we made our way to a very backpackery hostel: writing on the walls, basic rooms, full and popular, lots of activities on offer and the usual homey facilities like internet, washing machines, a common room and a small tuckshop. With our bags down, we set out to explore.

Our backpackers was located  in a very busy Hutong street. Ancient homes sit on either side of the narrow roads, tourist shops sell curios, restaurants have converted their roof tops into tea gardens, merchants sell street food for a fraction of the restaurant prices and everywhere you look narrow roads lead to old Chinese homes where old men sit on wooden stools playing Chinese checkers or other traditional games.

Our first task was to find a hotel for the next night. I’d only booked one night because, we have learnt that often the best accommodation is not found on the internet. In Beijing, this was a mistake. Not one of the places had any rooms available for the next night. With a quick search on the internet, we found rooms at Tailong hotel and Baden used their online google map to locate the hotel. We set off to explore the Hutongs and hopefully check out the hotel – which we have since discovered was actually at a completely different address. The only time Baden has ever failed to find something on a map was when it didn’t exist. 

At night, the street came alive with soft lantern-lit light and live music and, exhausted from searching for the ghost hotel, we retired to bed early.

The next day, with no other choice, we booked into a dorm room at a nearby hostel, left our bags, took our valuables and made our way to the Forbidden City and Tianamen Square. In search of bus 5, we passed a hair salon where the workers stood outside like soldiers chanting together a vow of allegiance to the company. We saw this loyalty a number of times during our stay in Beijing. Like so much we found in Beijing, bus 5 didn’t exist. Or, it didn’t leave from the place we’d been sent to. So instead, we delved into the underground and rode the subways – subways that are so busy that just when you think you can’t fit in anymore people, a new batch squish themselves together to escape the closing doors. This pushes people further and further away from the doors so by the time you’ve reached your stop, you’re so far away from the door that it takes a few good shoves to get through the brick wall of human bodies.

Gasping for air, we arrived at Tianamen Square which is exactly that: a big square (with lots and lots of people and soldiers stationed under shady umbrellas.) I’d given Baden a brief overview of the rise of communism in China (what I could remember) and we did enjoy the monuments and posters which tell of the worker’s struggle. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to see Chairman Mao’s body and so we pushed onto the Forbidden City. Having seen much of Asia already, the building, although larger than anything we’ve seen, is very similar in design to many Korean temples: brightly coloured roof rafters with eaves which twist to the sky. The magnitude of the palace astounded both us and our tired feet. We maneuvered our way towards the Imperial garden which captured all the traditional elements of an oriental garden: old trees, rocks, water features, bonsai’d trees and lotus flowers. Its function would have been to create a sense of peace for the soul rather than an attraction for the eye. But the garden was so full of tourists that it was impossible to even begin to appreciate its beauty.

Exiting the palace, we continued up the hill to a quieter area which gave us an aerial view of the palace and its enormous size. It is easy to see why the workers were distressed with their living conditions when the King lived in a place like this. On the dissent, Baden heard the growls of dinosaurs and, following the sounds, we arrived at a rather corny but delightful dinosaur park where blood splattered from the mouths of carnivores while the theme song of Jurassic Park played in the background.

By this time we’d actually found the correct address for Tailong Hotel and we headed in that direction to cancel my internet reservation. We’re glad we made the walk because we discovered ourselves in the heart of a traditional Chinese market which sold every disgusting imaginable thing to eat: braai’d baby pigeons, eels, bugs, squid, crabs, prawns. One lady tried to sell fruit on a stick for 15 yuan while its going rate should have been 5.As we continued on, we stumbled across a busy street with merchants selling touristy curios and men selling seahorses, starfish and live scrawling scorpions on sticks for food. 1000s of people pushed their way through this market and hawkers tried their best to convince people to buy their Made-in-China curios. Wide eyed, I hung tightly to Baden’s hand and was relieved when we pushed our way out into the street.

Our last destination was the Birds Nest Olympic Park. We arrived at night and got to see the impressively designed stadium lit up. It is easy to imagine the bustling hype that must have been here at the last Olympic Games. Yet now, the brand new roads are empty, the traffic lights change but there are no cars to stop. The pedestrian man flashes green for 99 seconds for the crowd of tourists – which don’t exist. It’s an eery experience and perhaps a reality for most Olympic Park stadiums.

Finding our way out through a hole in the fence, we made our way to the bus stop and joined the crowds of bustling, bullying, pushing, shoving, desperate Chinese trying to get onto bus 82. We had to let 2 full buses pass by before deciding that we would also push and shove to get onto the bus. Baden used his arms to keep the little Chinese ladies at bay and I snuck under his arms and tumbled onto the bus, squished into the corner. With no idea where to get off, we set off watching as the Chinese names got longer and longer and looked more and more the same.

We eventually made our way home, although we had to walk a fair bit longer than necessary and retired to our bed in the dorm room. While it was pleasant, a communal shower and sharing a bedroom with complete strangers is not my first choice. It was, however, a bed for our tired and satisfied bodies.

The next day, we woke early, determined not to miss Mao’s body. We arrived at Tianamen square early and stood in queue to hand in our bags. Then the adventure began. Joining thousands of other people, we mashed into the crowds and waddled for about 2 hours through a pattern of zigzags which led us around the building and into the mausoleum. We comfortably found ourselves waddling behind a Chinese granny and gramps who held onto each other for dear life and kept moving forward. No one seemed to want to push pass gran and gramps and so as foreigners we found some refuge behind them. We only got to see Mao’s plasticky body for about 30 seconds which is a bit of a disappointment after standing in the queue for 2 hours.

Afterwards we headed off to the summer palace. It is easy to feel like a princess wandering passed the gentle boats floating on the lake, pavilions, rocky paths, dense forests, amazing rock structures, streams running through hills, arched bridges and water areas full of lotus flowers. Its beauty is magnificent but due to the large crowds of people, it’s just not possible to appreciate it. We spent hours in the gardens and only managed to see the northern section. I can imagine that it would have taken a full holiday to explore the whole of the beautiful grounds. We got scammed once where we bought a ferry ticket which dropped us in a whole different part of the palace and then wanted to charge us 4 times the amount to take us home.

The next day, we had a quiet day meandering through the Hutongs, stopping to listen to a choir of singers, passing streams, boats and old trees with pretty pot plants underneath. Baden bought candy floss for breakfast which was 2 times the size of his head. We had a long and lazy breakfast, explored some museums, passed the Drum and Bell Towers and returned home early to prepare for our evening at the theatre.

That night we watched Chinese acrobatics: talented tight rope walkers, jugglers, acrobatics, umbrella and fan dances, contortionists and an incredible show where 10 girls were riding one bicycle at a time. The low light of the performance was that we got stuck at the end with no lift. We thought our ticket included transport to the theatre and home. So a little grumpy, we made our way back to the hotel and prepared for the greatest adventure of it all: sleeping on the Great Wall.

Next blog: Sleeping on the Great Wall of China.

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2 travellers and a baby