… to use the immortal words of Richard Nixon.
The Great Wall was one of the tourist sights in China that I really wanted to see. It’s a marvel of ancient engineering, stretching for thousands of miles across China’s highly variable terrain from plains to mountains, built to stop Mongol invasions. It’s also a memorial to bureaucratic incompetence, as, legend has it, the Mongols soon discovered that bribing the poorly-paid guards to let them through was much easier than trying to fight their way over the wall. Britain has Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to stop the Scots (even the Romans weren’t brave enough to take them on), but it was much smaller when built and very little survives today.
We knew that the China Travel Service offered tours to the Wall at about $45 a head, but being poor we decided to make our own way. Rumor had it that buses went from Tianamen Square, so we made a preparatory reconnaisance down there. On the way I spotted something by the side of the road which looked a lot like a crashed UFO – what it was I don’t like to think. We found a bus station that looked promising, so we decided to wander round one of the parks and return early the next day. I also stopped off at the airline office to change my return date so I could go to the seaside at the weekend. I was quite glad at this point that the police examination of the plane when we landed had prevented me from confirming the original dates.
Joyce also wanted to check out trains to Hong Kong as she was planning to travel down there to fly to Australia. We made a brief stop at the new Beijing West train station, which is more like an airport. One unusual feature of all Chinese train stations that I’ve been to is the X-raying of baggage on the way in. I don’t know if that’s to stop smuggling or to prevent people taking weapons on board. The grilles and perspex screens in the Beijing taxis which seperate the driver from passengers are definitely due to violence. Apparently many taxi drivers were injured or killed in knife attacks until they were made compulsory.
The park was difficult to find, and we almost wandered into some major government buildings instead before the cops waved us off. We found a different park instead and made do. That was full of kids’ amusement rides, including dodgems. They seemed very out of place inside a traditional old Chinese pavilion. The day wasn’t much good for photography though. The Beijing smog was so thick it was even blurring out buildings a couple of hundred yards away. That probably explained why my nose was so unhappy.
We’d planned to be back in time for a ballroom dancing lesson at the college. I’d studied some last year so I was itching to try it out, but we just ran out of time. While Tansy and her flatmate were tangoing away we went to the Post Office to post Joyce’s cards. Affixing paper stamps with glue from a pot (rather than preglued) was a new experience, as was the care that the Chinese Postal Service took with their charges. As Joyce handed the cards over, the woman behind the desk threw them on the floor. At least they didn’t make as much noise as the parcels… Still, might as well learn if it’s breakable in the Post Office rather than out on the open sea.
The trip to the Wall called for another early morning. I was pretty much a zombie when we arrived at the bus station, and it was indeed the right place. Two old ladies asked us if we wanted to go to the Wall, then proceeded to try to fleece us for ¥300 for a return taxi fare – we declined. The bus we found was a much better deal at ¥12 (about $1.50) each way.
There was only one minor problem. The bus wouldn’t leave until it was full, so we had a wait of half an hour, which put us right in the Beijing rush-hour traffic. The bus crawled along out of town. A few hours later the guide began talking in Chinese over the PA and we spotted a few chunks of Wall on the hillside. Knowing that the ride would one day end was something of a relief. The bus parked.
The steps up to the Wall were packed with stalls and touts, and we fought our way past them, then struggled up the short stretch of road that followed, trying not to get run over. We paid up and climbed the steps, finally qualifying for our ‘I Climbed The Great Wall’ T-shirts. We were there… yet another place which had previously only been a photograph was now real.
We turned left and headed off along the Wall. It was full of photo stalls and people trying to sell us books and T-shirts. It was remarkably empty of tourists, who all seemed to have gone in the other direction. We couldn’t yet work out why.
This stretch of Wall is very well restored, and would be very scenic were it not for the crowds, shopping mall at the entrance and coach park below. The further we got from the entrance the more partially-collapsed sections of Wall we could see in the distance. The day was very hot and we had to stop regularly to drink water.
We walked a little further before spotting a strange ‘A Camel For Rent’ sign by some steps. Looking over the battlements we saw it tied up down below in front of a clothes line. It was yet another tourist photo-opportunity, allowing you to dress up as Marco Polo and be photographed on the camel in front of the Wall. Crash helmets were also available for the more nervous customers.
They would have to be Westerners though, for the Chinese were totally fearless. They thought nothing of climbing up on top of battlements over a hundred foot drop or walking to the very tip of a promontory with nothing below if it would make a good picture. They also liked to leave their mark behind on the Wall. One of the first things I’d noticed on climbing the steps was that practically every stone was inscribed with Chinese graffiti, and we saw a couple of kids adding to it as we walked along.
We soon discovered why the tourists had kept to the other end of the Wall. This end was damn steep. Going up to the watchtower (which was also full of yet more stalls) was slow, but getting back down was rather harder. We hadn’t quite realised how steep the steps were until we looked back down. Joyce slowly climbed down backwards and I hung on to the handrail and tried not to fall over. We were passed by a couple of Westerners with rucksacks; many people today walk along the Wall and camp in the watch-towers at night.
We stopped for a brief meal of dumplings and the worst iced tea I’ve ever tasted (more like water with a little bit of tea flavoring added) then as we had some spare time we proceeded along the other stretch of Wall. We were less of a tourist attraction at this end and few people wanted their photos taken with us, but Joyce eventually began to refuse to pose. I began to wonder if I should be taking photos of some of the cute Chinese girls who wanted to pose with me. Or perhaps addresses would have been better.
Joyce gave up part-way to the watchtower in that direction but as we still had a few minutes left I carried on. Then time came to return to the bus. Which wasn’t there… luckily we found another which was going back to Tianemen, but again they wanted to wait until filled before they left. After nearly an hour they gave up, and I dozed through the Beijing evening rush hour.
When I woke the city was dark outside and I wondered just how long we’d been sitting in the traffic queue. In fact the time was still only 5:30, but the sky was full of very dark clouds. Shortly afterwards they began to release their load of rain on the city. Pedestrians rushed for cover, as did those cyclists who’d left their ubiquitous plastic cycling capes at home. The bus trudged slowly on.
When we finally arrived at the bus station few passengers wanted to leave and face the heavy rain. Eventually the guide began encouraging them off and we followed. Most of us raced across to the bike shelter and hid under there, hoping that it would stop. Eventually it slowed enough for us to grab a taxi and then trudge back to the flat through the mud. As I walked into the flat I discovered that leaving my laptop on the table had been a bad idea as the strong winds had sand-blasted the exterior, but luckily it still worked. I was exhausted but hungry, and the others soon returned. We hunted out rainclothes (hey, I even got to use my trenchcoat for the first time this trip!) and walked off to the nearby restaurant under the arch of a double rainbow.