What a Wild Wall – Beijing, China (posted from Japan)

I came across some travel stories I wrote back in 2004 for travel website. Here is a blast from the past. A tale from my travels in China:

What a Wild Wall – Beijing, China

Beijing, China

by Kevin O’Shea

The first thing that struck me as I deplaned in Beijing was the cold. It was not the mild form of cold I had been dealing with all winter in South Korea, but a bitter, bone-chilling frigidness. I arrived in the central Beijing area and planned to spend my Christmas morning looking for accommodations and something to eat.

I would be in Beijing for four days before my friends from South Korea were to meet me. I would travel with them for another four days. During my time alone, I saw many of the “must see” major tourist destinations. I toured the “disappointing” National Museum of History, Tianamen Square, The Great Hall of the People, The Forbidden City; equipped with its very own Starbucks, and the breathtaking White Cloud Temple. The White Cloud Temple was once the center for Taoism in Northern China. Founded in AD739, it is an elaborate series of passages and corridors. The light dusting of snow on everything gave it a surreal fantasy-like feeling.

My three friends arrived on the morning of the 29th. I met them at the International Hotel and brought them back to our guesthouse off Wangfujing Dajie. As a group we toured several more sites of the next few days including; the Temple of Heaven, the Silk Market, Panjiayuan Market, the Summer Palace and the circus-like Lama Temple with its hordes of tourists. We were all most excited about seeing the Great Wall.

One of the most famous landmarks in the world, the Great Wall was originally constructed during the Quin Dynasty. It’s purpose was to keep out bands of plundering nomads and bandits. The Wall stretches from Jaiyuguan in Eastern China to the Gobi Desert. Today many parts of the wall frequented by tourists have a Disney-like feel, with restaurants, souvenir shops and more kitsch than you can shake a stick at. This was everything we wanted to avoid when seeing the Wall.

Aaron and I began planning the “ideal” area to see. After pouring over guidebooks and a little debating, we came to an agreement on the area we would visit. Simatai is more than 100km outside of Beijing. It is a rural area and truly off the beaten path. The decision to see this area was only a small portion of the battle. Getting there would be a strange adventure in itself.

After a quick breakfast, Aaron, Laz, Hoa and I piled into a small taxi. We made our way to the central bus terminal in northern Beijing. Dongzhimen Bus Station is a sprawling and confusing area, spread over several blocks. We slowly made our way through the maze of narrow streets, buildings, buses and a sea of people. We were attempting to find a minibus to Miyun. What followed was confusion, panic and a lot of running. Eventually we found our bus. It was more than an hour to Miyun, but the bus was warm and that was more than enough to make us happy.

Once we arrived in the town of Miyun we had to hire either a taxi or a minibus to Simitai. A group of taxi drivers was milling about on a sidewalk, waiting for travelers to employ their services. We bargained and argued and eventually a driver agreed to the 100 Yuan that we were willing to pay. We also collected two more travelers, a couple teaching English in Japan. The six of us wedged ourselves into the microscopic white van and prepared for the 75-minute drive to the wall. The taxi had no heater so being crammed together was actually beneficial. We all suffered from icy cold feet though.

The countryside we drove through was beautiful. Small farming villages popped up along the way. These villages were a stark contrast to the flashy streets of Central Beijing or the Hutongs that surround them. It looked as if life in these villages had not changed in hundreds of years.

We arrived at the Simitai and crawled out of the taxi. Our driver wanted his fare, but we agreed that if we paid him then, when we finished our climb and returned, we would probably find ourselves stranded. Much to his disappointment, we told him that he would get his money once we had returned and he had driven us back to Miyun. He grudgingly agreed and we were off to begin our climb.

Climbing the Wall

The Wall snaked along the ridgelines as far as the eye could see. It was a truly dramatic sight. We made our way down an embankment and then across a small suspension bridge. Waiting for us on the other end of the bridge was a woman collecting the one Yuan fee for crossing what was apparently “her” bridge. Then we climbed a steep path that would take us to the beginning of this section of the Wall.

This portion of the Wall sees very few people. With no one to maintain this area, it has fallen into great disrepair and is crumbling. Some areas are very treacherous and will leave you wondering, “What the hell am I doing?” I suppose there is a reason why many people refer to areas like this as the “Wild Wall.”

We arrived at the stairway and made our way onto the wall. As we started making our way up the first icy slope we noticed an old woman scrambling down the wall towards us. She seemed very agile and moved toward us quickly, flailing her arms and yelling frantically. She seemed to home in on Hoa first yelling madly. We realized that she was demanding us to give her money in order to continue our journey. The Great wall is not owned by anyone and there is no reason to pay anyone a fee for walking it, but many people who live close to the wall make their living by demanding fees from travelers. We just continued up the slope laughing as the woman continued to shriek at Hoa. Too many people had tried to hustle us too many times in recent days, so we were firm on not paying. She gave chase, but soon realized that her efforts would be fruitless.

Hiking along the Wall was amazing. As far as the eye could see, barren and lifeless mountains stretched on either side of the wall. The hillsides were a desolate brown color with a dusting of snow. With the wind chill, it was probably about -25°C, but we were all sweating as we trudged up the steep inclines.

Posing on a rugged part of the Great Wall. I’m wearing the blue jacket. 

At about the halfway point we reached a turret and decided to rest. There was an old man waiting there. As we tried to exit and continue our journey he desperately blocked the doorway and we were about to witness a repeat of earlier events. He wanted some money and we simply did not want to give him any. Being bullied and hassled was not something we enjoyed.

Once we were back on our way we stared ahead at an incline we would have to climb. We were all a little shocked at how steep it was. I had read that some of the inclines were more than 70 degrees and we had met the first one on this hike. My fear of heights slowed me down, but it did not stop me. I was the first one to make my way up the slope, crawling on all fours the entire way. After a quick break to take a few more pictures, I finally made it to the top of the incline and breathed a sigh of relief.

The four of us continued for several more hours. Some sections were very precarious. Some areas were so deteriorated that it was almost like tightrope walking. Moving slowly and carefully was the only way to make our way down some more steep inclines.

As we reached the end of our hike, we saw a lone shack standing by a small stream. Apparently, in the summer, a thirsty traveler can buy a soda and a snack once they have finished their trip. We took some more pictures and then we saw a man, carefully smoking a cigarette, slowly walking along a path toward us. We soon realized that he was our driver and he wanted to make sure that we did not disappear on him. The walk back to the minibus was about forty minutes and our group was joined by a few farmers who walked along with us, chatting to the driver.

Posing with a donkey along the road. The 4 of us always referred to our lives in Korea as a “donkey show” because we all had worked for crazy schools that hadn’t paid us our salaries as well as other crazy and unexpected things! When we spotted a real donkey we needed a picture!

The four of us made our way back to Miyun, the driver relentlessly trying to sell us postcards the entire way. We easily found the bus to Beijing. We were thankful to sit on a comfortable seat and have our feet thaw. It was already dusk and we were all very tired and worn out. It was roughly six o’clock when we arrived at Dongzhimen Bus Station. With a complete lack of line-ups in Asia, we had to push our way off the bus. A large crowd was trying to force their way on the bus and not letting anyone get off. No one seemed to realize that if the passengers were not allowed off the bus, they could not get on. After a short taxi ride, we were back at our guesthouse. It was time to clean up and enjoy some Beijing Duck and cold beer.

I would find myself back in Korea in three days, my vacation finished. My eight days in China were fabulous, for the most part. I could have done without the sub zero temperatures and constant wind, but those were never a true problem. I had a great time and was thankful to have seen the Great Wall. The sheer enormity of the Wall was a lot for me to process. It was also incredible to stand on something I had always wanted to see and experience. I hope to return to Beijing soon, but next time, in the summer.

Hope you guys enjoyed that piece I wrote many years ago!

The writer:

Kevin O’Shea is the host of the Just Japan Podcast and the Just Japan News Podcast. He is also the guy behind JustJapanStuff. Kevin is a Canadian educator who lives in Kobe, Japan with his family.

Follow him on Twitter: @jlandkev

Email: justjapanpodcast@gmail.com


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