The Great Wall of China – yet another site that I never really expected to see in my life – but when you do – it makes it all that more special and amazing. Thousands of years ago, the various Chinese emperors, mainly the Ming Dynasty, built the Great Wall to keep the Monguls (Mongolians) out. It was actually rather effective. As I would marvel at the wall construction on steep mountainsides I wondered not only how they got materials up there to build it – but what Mongolians could make it up there to attack?! It looked like an impossible place for any human to go. Yet my father and I took off for 3 days of hiking on the Great Wall.
Photo: Yes – it is steep!
I was a little wary of taking my 71 year old father on a 3 day trek on a steep and crumbling Great Wall – but he seemed up for it – and I promised him we would go slow. Little did he know how out of shape I was – so going slow was for my benefit too! It is the longest (4,000 miles) and largest human-made structure – and after hiking on it for 3 days, it pretty much felt like it! We had planned to visit 3 separate sections of the Great Wall so that we could get a feel for the various types of construction as well as the different terrain that it was built upon. Plus – I really wanted to try to get to the less visited sections of the wall as I didn’t want to be elbow to elbow with busloads of tourists groups – therefore I had to choose sections that would be a little more challenging to weed out the ‘normal’ people! My dad was up for it – so we were off!
However – the first adventure was the drive out of Beijing and to the Wall. This was my first chance to really get a feel for Northern China besides the wide concrete roads and tall buildings of Beijing. It shouldn’t have surprised me that in a city of 14 Million people where 600 new cars are added to the roads every day – there would be gridlock. We sat in traffic for quite some time, our first test of patience. I have to admit – I was impressed that my father was patient about it. I still remember him being disgusted by the lines at Disneyworld and refusing to stand in line for the ‘good’ rides if they were too long – which pretty much subjected me to the “It’s a Small World” ride multiple times. However – we were trapped in the car, couldn’t speak the language, and had no idea where we were – he could hardly get out of the car and walk away – yet I’m positive the thought crossed his mind!
The other thing I noticed as we were trying to leave Beijing at a snail’s pace was that there were tons of police officers at every corner. This didn’t seem to help with the grid-lock – but it did intrigue me for a while – watching them each do their boring, mundane job – it made me feel a little better about sitting in the car not moving. In China it seems like everyone has some type of job…no matter if it’s needed or not. It’s as if they have to make up jobs for people. There were people out sweeping the roadways with a small household broom…at that rate they would make it about 500 feet a day! As for the policemen – I learned from Roseanne, our guide, that the different uniforms they wore meant that they were from different backgrounds and had different responsibilities. The men in the blue were policemen – and they tended to be in the middle of an intersection on a little box direction the vehicle traffic. Sometimes you would also see people in green uniforms – which were the military…I honestly have no idea what or who they directed. Finally the people dressed in Gray uniforms were ‘security officers’ and they seems to carry red flags, stand at each corner and direct the bike traffic and pedestrians. There were normally 6 to 9 various officers at each corner…just standing there…not really effecting the grid-lock from what I could tell – but who knows what it would have been like if they hadn’t been there! I can safely say that I wouldn’t describe China as being efficient. Whether you were talking about traffic, mundane jobs, or pollution control – efficient is not a work that comes to mind.
As we continued to drive out of the city and to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, I found myself surprised by Northern China – it didn’t seem to be like it’s Asian neighbors. This last year I have traveled through much of Asia – in fact there are few Asian countries that I haven’t been to – so I thought I had a feel for the continent. Yet China was proving me wrong – my expectations were being shattered. I found myself wondering how in the world China turned out so different from it’s neighboring countries. My only explanation is that after years of being closed….they developed their own way. Most other Asian countries had busy/crazy traffic – but it was mostly made up of either cars (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia) or bikes/motorcycles (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia) – but China was a mix of both…huge 5 lane highways with tons of vehicles – and bikes intermixed. It was a strange and dangerous mix of vehicles – trucks spewing black fumes, bikers, cars, mopeds, motor scooters, and little 3 wheel trucks sputtering down the highway with as much power as a lawn mower engine! The vehicle traffic wasn’t the only thing that set China apart from it’s Asian neighbors – there were many other things such as good roads, cleanliness, not many stray dogs, not many visible poor and destitute, no rice fields (up north), no major religion, and a myriad of basketball courts. All of these things were oddities to me and based on what I had come to know about Asia. It was kind of like bizzaro Asia…everything opposite.
We finally broke through the traffic and arrived at Mutianyu Great Wall. This was about 2 hours drive outside of Beijing and not too heavily touristed. When we stepped out of the car, I looked around and much to my disappointment; I didn’t see any sign of a wall around. I scanned the hilltops – but I saw nothing but trees. That’s when I learned that you have to take a cable car to the Great Wall…and buy yet another ticket for the cable car! Sure – you could skip the cable car – but you would expend all of your energy and a few hours getting to the wall by foot. I didn’t think that would be a wise decision for my father (let alone me!) so we took the cable car ride. Finally – I was able to get my first glimpse of the wall…and it stretched out as far as my eye could see like a long serpent among the green treetops. It was a sunny, yet brisk autumn day – perfect for hiking. This section of the wall was rather well preserved and renovated. Dad and I took it slow and stopped often for water or to simply enjoy the view and take a myriad of photos!
There was one very steep section of this wall…most people skipped it…at least most people over the age of 50 skipped it – but not my dad…he climbed it and at times we had to use our hand and feet it was so steep. That brought us to the final restored tower at Mutianyu. The wall went on from there, but it was not safe to hike apparently. We turned around and went back towards the cable car stop remarking how green and lush it was. We probably hiked for 3 hours total – a good introduction to the Wall.
We traveled on to stay in Jinshanling that night. As we drove deeper into the mountains, it changed seasons – it became autumn and I was ecstatic. For the last 14 months I’ve only traveled in hot weather – sometimes to the extreme. The cool air, the red and orange leaves…it actually made me miss the US for a bit. All I could think about was how much it looked like home outside the car window. I kept on expecting to see some pumpkin patch and corn maze along the side of the road – or a little café that served pumpkin pie…or maybe I was hallucinating from the altitude we were climbing into. What I wouldn’t give for a slice of pumpkin pie with cool whip!
Jinshanling was a less touristed part of the wall, a little more remote, but the most spectacular section of the Great Wall – the perfect combination if you ask me. There was only one hotel in the area and it was at the base of the cable car station. Once again – you couldn’t not see the wall anywhere around you from the ground and it was reachable by cable car.
Our little hotel was rustic to say the least. It actually was a room straight out of a horror movie. The room was dark, eerie, and dank. Only half of the lights worked leaving it encased ina yellow glow. The bathroom was a disaster with only one flickering light that was very dim, and the floor was constantly wet from the shower that was simply a shower head hanging on the wall. I expected Norman Bates to come at me with a large knife whenever I entered it – which was as few of times as possible. The heater plodded along noisily and never seemed to get the room warm enough, there were only Chinese channels on the TV, but the worst part were the bugs.
It was the time of year for the Stink Bug to come out in full force. Like me – they apparently liked fall and cool weather. I think they are the Chinese national bird. They weren’t necessarily a creepy, slimy, fast bug – in fact they were relatively easy to catch and dispose of – but they were the true definition of a pest. They were out in mass on the Great Wall. They fly around like they are a giant bomber…slow, loud, lumbering along until they fly into something with a thud and then simply stay there. As you were hiking on the wall, you’d hear this loud buzzing noise, then it would come into view as it wove back and forth trying to key in on it’s target as if it were drunk. Then it would fly directly into you – or a wall…kind of bounce off, stunned that it hit something, and then land there. This meant that you were constantly flicking them off your clothes while hiking. You’d flick them off into the air and they just keep on flying. This didn’t bother me while hiking – we were out in the open – but in my hotel room was another story. They were everywhere – in the bathroom (but you could barely see them in the dark!), on the curtains, on the bedspread, on the headboard, under my sheets, on the tv, climbing on my suitcase and even a few that ended up on me. My Dad would kill them (it is great to have a male around at times!) but they don’t call them a stink bug because they smell good. When you squish them, they emit an odor and stink…joy. Needless to say – that night I slept in my little sleep sheet tied up over my head like a cocoon around me with my fleece, scarf, and wool socks on to stay warm – and my dad laughing at me of course! At least I know that I’ve become older and wiser – because if I had been in this situation as a child with my father – I would have been in tears…I was now just mildly annoyed. I think my dad was amused either way.
Needless to say – I didn’t sleep to well – even after I tried to inebriate myself with Chinese Whiskey at dinner. We had a big day ahead of us the next morning – a 5 hour hike on the wall and no doubt – many stink bugs to join us.