Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

29 Sep 2013

Two weeks in Beijing and the Great Wall of China

Posted by Will

I spent most of my two weeks relaxing in Beijing’s beautiful parks where for a tiny entrance fee I could lie by lakes, wander among ancient pagodas and peek into palaces. Peddle boats drift gently across the water while children, like everywhere, run howling across fenced-off grass. Joggers run in groups, chatting away in single syllables. Vendors sell fresh orange, pomegranate and watermelon juice for a mouthwatering price. The funny sight of an immaculately dressed middle-aged woman carrying an immaculately groomed poodle – you wouldn’t see that in Mongolia. Willow trees wave in the wind and all the while elderly Chinese sip tea, play centuries-old boardgames or gaze wisely into space. There’s too much to look at in a Chinese park to ever get bored.

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Beihai Park, Jianshan Park and the Summer Palace are probably the most famous. The first was an imperial garden with a history reaching back over a thousand years; the second is a small hill, the highest point in Beijing, from the top of which one can gaze over the curved, tea-rose orange rooftops of the Forbidden City. My favourites were Zhongshan Park and Taoranting Park because they are bypassed by the tourist hordes. The South Forest Olympic Park is worth mentioning too. It is so enormous that one could quite easily avoid the rest of humanity for a good half hour. And of course there are several parks which I regrettably didn’t have time to visit.

Beijing is like that – there’s always more to see, a new temple to discover, more food to try, another hutong network to get lost in. A hutong is a small street or alleyway, sometimes barely wide enough to ride a bike through. They twist and turn secretly between the neatly planned avenues of visible Beijing. Most are lined with living quarters squashed together where it is impossible to tell where one house ends and the next begins. Washing hangs only a few centimetres overhead, front doors are left wide open and the delicious smell of oily cooking hangs in the air. Women natter through open windows or shout at their kids to come inside. The hutongs are a real community, something I felt acutely as I wandered through from the outside.

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Other hutongs are bustling with bars, restaurants and street-food and I quickly realized they constitute the hub of Beijing night-life. My good university friend and up-and-coming-big-time journalist Tom Hale gave me a tip based on his two year stay in Beijing: ‘head to Gulou – your priority must be to go there’ (pronounced GOO-LOW, he added). So one Friday afternoon I set off to Gulou, found a bar, met some people and to cut a long and inappropriate story short became significantly hutonged. The metro station disappeared (I swear it did) and I was forced to take an unplanned, and in hindsight embarrassing, sojourn in one of the aforementioned parks. It’s all Hale’s fault.

Aside from that minor episode, it was extremely nice to unwind in Beijing. I spent time building up my energy after such a race across Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. I revelled in city-life again: over 15 million people creating an unlimited realm of choice that’s been so unfamiliar in the past year-or-so. I could buy anything I wanted, I could eat anything I wanted. Different ideas, lifestyles and haircuts were always on display. For 2 weeks, I plugged myself into the city and it recharged my battery. The will to travel and explore came back and today still pumps in my veins.

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Essential to my recovery and all-round Beijing experience were Fan and Ang Da, my unrelentingly gentle, generous and welcoming hosts. I can’t thank them enough. They almost justify an entire blog post to themselves. After their three puppies, I was their fourth child. Ang Da’s encyclopaedic mind could tell me everything I wanted to know about Beijing, Chinese life and possible onward routes. Fan never stopped laughing and smiling (perhaps my plans and stories were too ridiculous for words). We ate Peking Duck together, Fan organized free tickets for me to watch a traditional Chinese concert at the ultra-modern National Centre for Performing Arts and together we hatched grand adventures for the future. I never felt in the way despite trespassing for such a long time. I hope to see them again sometime.

I left their apartment for a day and a night to visit possibly the most famous attraction Beijing has to offer; in fact it may be the most famous attraction in the world. You must have guessed it…

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There are many sites to visit along the length of the Great Wall of China, some thousands of kilometres away from Beijing. They range from entirely restored, easily accessible and jam-packed full of tourists, to run-down, half-forgotten sections of crumbling stone. Unsurprising to most, I chose one the least accessible, least visited, steepest and uncoincidentally most picturesque sites in the Beijing area. I planned to walk up the mountain through the jungle to the wall at Jiankou and then hike along east 10km to the busy Mutanyu site. I took my sleeping bag, 4 litres of water, 20 small freshly-baked breads and 10 boiled eggs.

I had to hitch a ride to the nearest village because there weren’t any minibuses going. From there, up, up, up through an unbearably humid tangle of foliage that had my water supplies down a litre within a few minutes. Towards the top it started getting very steep, the make-shift path taking me higher one monkey-leap at a time. I joined up with a group of 5 other young travellers who had read the internet and thought the same as me. Cable-car up the mountain? ‘I love the Great Wall’ t-shirt sellers at the top? No, we’re going to erode our very own, untouched piece of wall, thank you very much.

We had all misjudged the extent of the climb but at last the trees thinned, a barrier appeared and one perilous 4m climb later we stood atop the Great Wall of China. It really does defy belief. I had always imagined the wall was impressive for its length and age but as I stood on such a steep mountain ridge it was the precarious positioning that struck me. It seemed that any invading Mongol army would be thwarted by the almost vertical nature of the mountains. How on earth did they manage to get the stone up here so long ago? Not just to build the wall but the multi-level towers too. Jiankou hails from the Ming Dynasty, about 700 years ago, and other parts of the wall stretch back well before Christ.

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For tens of kilometers I could see the wall zig-zag along the ridge to the east. To the west, the wall crumbled to ruins. It looked adventurous, authentic and downright dangerous. I’m glad I had the view but we made the sensible decision to head east as per the original plan. We chatted, joked, discovered each other’s ignorances and I convinced them to stay the night. Between us we had inadequate food equipment so that most were cold and hungry during the windy night. No one cared though, we were sleeping on the Great Wall of China!

There’s so much more I could write about Beijing. The food, the people, heavy security, smartphones on the metro or my minor celebrity status for looking European in the less-visited areas of the city. It will all have to wait though as this entry is long enough. China will need a lot of explaining.

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4 Comments already on “Two weeks in Beijing and the Great Wall of China”
  1. 11:00 ampermalink
    29 Sep 2013

    Rosie J

    Another great post Will!! Was lovely speaking to you briefly the other day on skype – still having an amazing time in Swansea. Freshers ball tonight and lectures start tomorrow… Speak soon! :) xxx

  2. 9:43 ampermalink
    30 Sep 2013

    Fran

    An absorbing and educative post, as ever, Will. Beijing sounds fascinating: an extraordinary mix of old and new. Looking forward to the next chapter ……
    Lots of love,
    Fran xx

  3. 4:29 pmpermalink
    01 Oct 2013

    Liv

    I love this blog! Makes me so happy to read it every time. Beijing sounds incredible- what’s the plan now? Down through the rest of China? Glad you have the ‘will to travel and explore’ back – although I’m sad if you lost it briefly! lots of love xx

  4. 2:12 pmpermalink
    19 Oct 2013

    Andy

    Thanks for this brilliant post and all the lovely pics–Your pictures are amazing. Just looking at those pictures make me want to climb the Great Wall of China now. I also found a great blog of Jiankou travel tips, I’d love to share it here with you and for future travelers.
    http://www.wildgreatwall.com/how-difficult-is-it-to-hike-from-jiankou-to-mutianyu/