Yesterday I booked a place on a day trip to the Great Wall of China with my hostel. I got up at 6:50 ready to have a breakfast that was included in the price (rather pointlessly, as it was nothing different to the regular hostel breakfast) at 7:15. At 7:45, a woman came into the hostel as I waited in the reception area – she was the tour guide. I was the only person leaving from the Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel. The Chinese woman led me to a minibus, where there were two or three guys – westerners – already in the back. The bus filled up over the course of another couple of of pick-ups, and then it made it way through the early traffic out of the city.
About an hour and a half later, we arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Specifically, we arrived at an area of souvenir stalls, restaurants and car parks at one of the entrances to the Great Wall area near the base of the mountains. The tour guide, Monica, gave a little talk – which I couldn’t hear very well – and basically told us all (there were eighteen of us) to arrive back there at 1:30. She strongly recommended buying a ticket (65 yuan – £6.50) for the the chair lift and toboggan run – which I think everyone did.
The chair lift took me up into the cold, bright air to a point about three quarters of the way along the two kilometre or so length of wall that was open to the public (going from west to east). The weather – as it has been for most of my trip – was pretty much cloudless and the visibility was very good, although it was pretty nippy. I was wearing four layers and quickly pulled on my gloves, so the cold didn’t affect me much.
With the good visibility came fantastic views. On the north side of the wall, jagged, rocky mountains stood crisp in the sunshine. On the south side, a plain sat in the midst of the hills, on the far side of which more hills rippled blue in the far distance. To east and west, the Great Wall of China lay strung along the bare tree-cloaked mountains, like a zip on a great, grey-green fleece jacket. At one point, I could even see Beijing, tiny on the horizon.
It felt special to be on the wall. I’m not often impressed by mere experiences, but for a while I couldn’t help smiling as a walked along and explored the watchtowers.
The landscape was very similar to parts of Korea: mountainous and forested. With the wintry, crystalline air, it particularly reminded me of visiting the Cheorwon Peace Observatory in the Demilitarized Zone (the weekend, long-time readers will remember, that I met my love, Habiba).
When I reached the wall, I decided to turn right and head towards the closer end of the section. There were a fair few foreign tourists there – fewer Chinese people, and, every now and then, vendors calling out ‘Hello!’ to the passersby and selling drinks and snacks. (On my way down and out, I passed some middle-aged American guys, one of whom was impressed by the vendor awaiting people coming off the chair lift at a doorway at the base of one of the watchtowers. When the seller called out ‘Snickers! Snickers!’ one of the American responded with ebullient bonhomie, ‘This guy loves Snickers!’ and proceeded to pretend to hawk the Chinese man’s wares to his friends.) Often, it was possible to take photographs of the wall without any people in the shot.
The watchtowers are interesting little buildings dotted very frequently along the Mutianyu Great Wall. Like the section of wall itself, they are very well preserved (or restored), except for the fact that many of them lack stairs up to the top level. Some, however, have stone staircases. The eastern end of the wall split and headed off in two directions, neither of which were as picturesque as the tourist section – they were broken-down and overgrown.
I decided to head back the other way and see if I could reach the other end of the wall section before I had to head back to the toboggan run. It was a bracing walk, lots of up and down, and many, many points at which I wanted to stop and take copious photos. As a result of this latter fact, I didn’t have time to go all the way to the other end.
The mountain at the western end appeared to be the highest part, and on the southern side of the wall there, on the slope, there were some huge Chinese characters that were visible from miles away. That part of the wall also appeared to be incredibly steep. Several sections of the wall were incredibly steep – such that, looking down, a portion of the steps were hidden by the higher steps. This western-most part looked even more incredibly steep. I would have liked to have gone up, but time was getting on, so I decided to head back as I neared it.
Which brings (and, indeed, brought) me to the toboggan. Habiba had raved about this part of her trip when she had come to visit Charlie a few months ago, and I always thought, ‘What’s so great about a toboggan?’ Well, what’s so great about this toboggan run is simply the length of it – it’s one and half kilometres long. The run itself is made of metal, and the toboggans are black plastic things that look vaguely like baby seats for cars. They run on wheels, and there’s a big joystick-like thing that sticks up between your knees, which you push or pull to control the brakes. The toboggans, once they reach the bottom, are ferried back up on the back of the chair lift chairs.
The prospect of taking a toboggan was a little scary. They were barely 18 inches wide and 30 in length and the track wasn’t much wider. I took a video of some guys setting off just before me and then put my camera away on the principle that it would be dangerous to video the run down. Probably a sound decision, but once I was under way, it wasn’t nearly so unnerving. Without judicious use of the brakes, you could probably reach dangerous speeds, but at one point I came to a stop entirely – as did the woman in front of me – and I had to punt myself along with my hand. After that hiccough, it went more smoothly and was a lot of fun.
At the base, after a short wait, we headed to a restaurant for an all-you-can eat lunch (also included in the price). I chatted with some of the people at my table, told them about the rewards of teaching English in Korea (ie, money). Then we headed back to Beijing. I got back to my hostel shortly after five of the post meridiem clock. All in all, a great day – the highlight of my trip so far.
Read Full Post »