Friday, March 20, 2015

Holiday on the Great Wall

We awoke even earlier my second day in Beijing, planning to venture out to see the Great Wall, and not knowing how difficult it would be to reach, or how crowded it would be once we were there.  It was a national holiday, and though this was one typically spent home with family, it was possible that many would take advantage of the day off to see some tourist sites.  We set off around 8:30, catching a local bus to a larger long-distance terminal, and followed strict orders from Jeff's wife Evelyn as to which bus we should take for the ride out to the wall.  Thankfully we listened, rather than following the "friendly advice" offered by the bus terminal staff, who tried very hard to get us to take a different, "faster" bus.  After about an hour we hopped off at the closest stop to the Wall, cramming into a taxi van with two Germans and three Chinese.  We quickly learned that the Germans had taken the "advice" of the terminal staff and had been taken much further than they needed to go, and they had needed to pay a car to get them back to our stop!  Not long after, we arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.  

The weather couldn't have been more perfect, with absolutely clear, smog-free skies - nearly unthinkable in Beijing - and we could see the line of the wall atop the mountain at a distance.  Jeff joked that it was proof the government controls the weather, having such a gorgeous day on a national holiday!  We bought tickets for what we thought was a gondola-style ride to the top and back, though what we wound up taking was more of a ski lift-style lift up.  We sort of ended up at the far right portion of the wall, so we turned left, working our way towards the gondolas, a bit set of stairs, and eventually the non-tourist section that hadn't been refurbished.  

The crowds on the Monday holiday weren't too bad, and the wall itself was an absolutely incredible sight - the massive stone structure stretching and snaking along the mountaintop.  We walked a bit down, mostly up, following the crest of the mountain from stone to gate, taking refuge from the sun inside each one, climbing up on the roofs to take in the view where we could.  And the view was amazing - from high above overlooking the little town, and as we climbed higher we saw beautifully textured brown mountains off to the other side.  From even higher we could start to see water and the shape of an enormous city, which we assumed to be Beijing.  We couldn't believe our luck with the weather, but the skies were indeed a deep blue, and completely lacking the trademark smog that had been so heavy just a day prior.

After we had passed the actual gondola and continued along, we eventually came to a long, steep incline.  after what felt like an endless amount of stairs, we reached a platform that most tourists would consider the end, which did have a magnificent view, a couple of Chinese flags, and a handful of hawkers selling trinkets.  After a brief pause, we pressed on, continuing our climb, the number of other tourists thinning out considerably at this point.  We reached another gate area, then climbed up a ladder to the roof to continue onto the next section of wall.  We reached the final gate on the restored path just as a number of people with small packs were emerging from the other side, having camped out somewhere on the wall the night before.  I made a mental note that if I ever had the chance to return to China, I would absolutely return to this section of the wall and do exactly that!

We then began our walk on the unrestored section, a sharp contrast to what we had just covered, in that trees and plants were sprouting out of the center of the structure, and the stone pavers were often broken or steep and slippery.  After passing through a flat, section with thick greenery, we began a steep ascent, more of a half-climbing scramble than simply a walk, as we grasped the sides of the wall and various trees to support ourselves as we moved upward.  

We finally reached a small, half-crumbled gate at the highest point, and we scrambled up to the top.  We stood there taking in the breeze and the panorama, still amazed at this mammoth structure under our feet, snaking off in either direction.  The fact that hundreds of years ago, people had actually moved the stone up to the top of these mountains, for hundreds of miles, to build this incredible work of architecture that still stands strong today, was absolutely mind-blowing.  

After soaking in our surroundings and taking a few photos, we began our descent, with that initial section feeling even more treacherous on the way down.  We switched over to a more rough side of the wall, picking our way down carefully.  Once we reached the flat, it was much easier, until the knee-pounding descent down that long, steep section of stairs.  

Having had only a Snickers bar since breakfast, I was hungry and exhausted and feeling quite sunburnt by the time we reached the gondolas, and I was incredibly thankful to finally be done with walking and catch a ride down.  Of course, as soon as we tried to board, they told us we had purchased a ticket to the other lift, and that they were different companies, and we would either have to buy a new ticket or walk to the other one.  Note that they had been sold from the same window at the base of the mountain, and they cost the same, so we had no way of knowing they were exclusive - even to Jeff who speaks fluent Mandarin!  They wouldn't trade the ticket or sell us "half of a ride" (since we were only going down, not up and down), and they wouldn't budge.  So I dragged my exhausted butt and achey knees back up to the top of the wall, up to the next gate and through and down, until we finally arrived at our original point of entry.  This one actually had a little downhill "chute" you could ride down on a sort of wheeled sled, identical to something I had seen in Queenstown, New Zealand, years ago.  So, we hopped on board individual sleds for the long, winding sled down - generally fun, though not the most comfortable contraptions!  

At the bottom, I was never happier to spot a Subway and Baskin Robbins, and I ran inside for a quick sandwich and scoop of ice cream, cheering me back up instantly.  Finally full, Jeff and I left the complex, joined another pair looking for a taxi to get back to the bus stop, and caught a ride.  When the bus did arrive, it was overly full, with a handful of people already standing in the aisles.  Despite the ride being over an hour long, we crammed on board, standing in the aisles until I finally sat down on the step down to the back door for the ride back to the city.

When we finally arrived back in Beijing, we switched to a local bus, and though we had to wait ages for it to arrive, we were treated to an incredible sunset lighting up the sky in bright reds and oranges.  We finally arrived homes and took turns getting cleaned up and relaxing a bit, then we set out with Evelyn to find Peking Duck.  First we caught a bus over to a typical Chinese spot on the second floor of a large building.  They looked like they would be closing soon, and we quickly discovered they were out of duck!  Evelyn got on the phone to a few places, successfully ordering a duck at another restaurant.  

After we left, we had a long wait for a bus, a relatively short bus ride, and a long walk to reach the restaurant, but I was delighted to see an outdoor patio with dozens of little strands of lights and red paper lanterns when we finally arrived.  Evelyn explained that this restaurant - called Jing Zun - was a bit nicer as it caters more to westerners.  Thankfully the food was still authentic and delicious!!  We found a spot on the patio and ordered drinks and a couple of dishes to share - spicy bok choy with peanuts and a plate of sweet tofu with the consistency of bread pudding - while we waited for the duck to arrive.  And finally, there it was.  Evelyn doled out the little light, crepe-like discs, into which we placed pieces of rich duck and crispy skin dipped into a thick, sweet sauce, along with bits of cucumber and onion, then rolled them up into little two-bite sized packets, and devoured them. 

I felt so lucky to have connected with these long-lost friends across the globe who could show me a side of China I never would have discovered on my own.  And as a result, the past few days in China had definitely been some of the best, and it was a sort of a shame to leave so soon.  But between the day spent wandering along the Great Wall and the evening spent devouring Peking Duck, it was a fantastic and appropriate ending to my time in Beijing, as well as China as a whole.  And I had a pretty incredible stretch to look forward to:  three weeks in paradise with my Portuguese pirate - a vacation within my travels.

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