This is day three of my trip to Beijing. You may want to start at day one
Friday, January 12th, was my last full day in China (and in Asia). I decided to spend it at the Great Wall
. Near the southeastern corner of Tiananmen Square is a tourist services place, and outside it are a lot of guys who run tours to Badaling, which is a segment of the Great Wall near to Beijing and very tourist-friendly. I stopped by to get information about it--it's an hour and a half by bus, you spend two hours at the Wall, bus leaves at 8am and returns at 5pm. Simple math and a knowledge of how tours work indicated that most of the trip would be spent at jade factories, crappy tourist restaurants, and Traditional Chinese Medicine clinics (Lonely Planet says each person will be diagnosed with some condition only curable by TCM ("There's a dragon eating your liver. Buy this root.")), and in fact the guides reluctantly confirmed that there were several stops on the way to and from the Wall. Lonely Planet also warned me that Badaling was very crowded, both tourists and vendors. Not exactly what I wanted. (For more information on Badaling, see their web site
, which promises that "The Great Wall which be created by the human being will be your nice mind forever!")
That's when I made what was probably the best decision of my trip. I skipped out on the tour and asked a taxi driver to take me to Simatai, a segment of the Great Wall that's farther away and not as touristy. I ended up agreeing to pay about twice what the Badaling tour cost. My driver spoke almost no English, but my Mandarin was sufficient for "I want to go to X" and "No, that is an absurd amount of money." Well, more or less. I told him I had to go to the bank first, and he took me to their corporate office instead of a branch, but we got it all straightened out and away we went.
Or at least, away we went for five minutes until we got on the major road, at which point we sat in traffic for an hour. Beijing has horrible traffic. Eventually we made it on to the Beijing to Chengdu highway (official name: Jingcheng Expressway (get it?)). The highway was empty, we made good time.
The driver and I talked for a while, but my vocabulary isn't good for much. We told each other where we lived, what we thought of various places, and established that we both found the Great Wall impressive and interesting. He turned on the radio and some sort of Chinese language news program came on--I didn't understand any of it. Then he said something in Mandarin, but I didn't get most of it, so he said it in English: "You Americans, very much like kill, bang! bang! bang!" and mimed shooting a machine gun. I explained that I myself did not enjoy shooting machine guns at all, as far as I know, having never shot a machine gun. He responded that I am American, and Americans like to kill Iraqis and Saddam Hussein, and said something I didn't understand about George Bush. I tried to say that most Americans were not happy about Bush or the Iraq War, and indeed a surprising percentage of Americans have never killed anyone at all, but I don't think he understood me. Or maybe he let is pass--I guess in China, you probably don't get to express too much disapproval of your government, and he might have assumed I was in a similar position. I don't know.
Anyway, we got off the highway, drove for another half hour or so, and suddenly there was a giant wall on the mountaintops. There were also goatherds on the roads (I'm told that goats are responsible for a lot of the decay of the wall, they eat roots that are preventing erosion). Finally we reached the bottom of a mountain, and he let me out in a parking lot.
The Great Wall is really big and stretches off in lots of places, but only some of them are open as tourist attractions. Simatai is one of the nicer areas. At the bottom is a mini-town with a guest house, a few restaurants, a ticket booth (there's an admission fee for the Great Wall), and a cable car (in case you don't want to climb all the way up). I paid for admission but, heeding Mao's admonishment that he who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a real man, I eschewed the cable car. (Mao said that to motivate his fellow Communists as part of the Long March northward, but now it's a slogan used to advertise tours to Badaling. If that's not irony, I don't know what is.)
The Great Wall is actually a series of walls linked together. The first wall that was more than just a city wall dates to the 2nd century B.C.E. The Ming Dynasty, which overthrew the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty established by Genghis Khan, faced the problem of Mongolian nobles who were trying to reclaim the empire. The solution was to vastly expand the Great Wall, and it was this expansion which created the modern Great Wall (which, as Badaling's website says, "is not only the magnum opus of human being but also the soul of China!").
In its glory days, the Wall was six thousand two hundred miles long. Its average height was twenty-five feet, and there are forty-foot watchtowers every six hundred feet. It's about ten to fifteen feet thick, with a flat top so that soldiers can run across the wall from one watchtower to the next. The wall is made of packed earth and stone blocks, and parts of the eastern walls have brick facing. Allegedly the foundation contains the ground bones of the more than one million workers who died during its construction. For the most part, the Wall follows the ridge line of mountain ranges. Because the Wall is at the top of a mountain, it's easy to see invaders coming, it's easy to shoot arrows down at them, and by the time they get there they're exhausted from having to run uphill. (Badaling's website: "The Great Wall whose length is more than a hundred thousand kilomitres is the huge Chinese dragon, is the best greatness and grandest work in the history of the whole human being.")
However, the Wall was never a very effective means of defense. Invaders quickly discovered that they could bribe sentries not to trigger the alarm (smoke signals). But the Wall did turn out to be useful--because the top of the Wall was flat, messengers and merchants could move from one end of the empire to the other very quickly. The Wall proved most useful for communications and transportation, not defense.
Once China created a modern road system, the Wall became obsolete. Like many stone structures in the West, it was viewed by local farmers and townspeople as a convenient source of stone, and so was dismantled in many regions. The military used parts of it to build fortifications. Where it blocked roads, it was dynamited. It is only in recent decades that the Chinese have come to value the Wall, and have taken steps to protect it.
Anyway, I found myself at the bottom of a rather large mountain range with a big wall at the top of it. It was about a mile from the base to the access stairwell onto the wall, which was in a small valley where the wall was almost at sea level. From there, I could see that I would have to climb the mountain. Did I mention it was bitter cold? I searched the vendors' stalls at the bottom for some sort of scarf to augment my double-sweater-hat-coat combination, but no luck.
Oh well. I started walking. There's a nice access path complete with badly translated warning signs ("Appreciate the Great Wall lovely view, do not forget the fire is heartless!"--it took me a while to realize they were concerned about forest fires, not just being inscrutable). About half a mile up, there were a number of Chinese women sitting and playing cards. When I passed, one of them dropped her cards and started walking next me. I asked her where she was going, and she said she was going to climb the Wall. Fair enough, I figured--she's going to try to sell me something, but at least it will be entertaining and I can practice my Mandarin.
Another five minutes or so and I was on the Great Wall. Simatai is split by a river, and I was on the eastern part. One thing I didn't expect was all the climbing--Mao's remark was starting to burn in my memory as I walked up the approximately six hundred trillion steps. The woman who was walking with me and I were pretty quickly out of breath. Fortunately, there are watchtowers every couple hundred feet which provide a shelter from the wind and a convenient place to rest. The good thing about the climb was that very shortly I wasn't too cold--hat and gloves off, jacket open, still panting. There were also vendors along the way, some with grills, who sold hot food and soda.
At the second watchtower, I asked the woman what she wanted to sell me. At first she said she just wanted to walk with me, but then she pulled out some sort of book of photos of the Wall. I explained that I didn't want any book, and I also turned down the postcards and t-shirts. I gave her a couple of dollars to thank her for teaching me some Mandarin, and she went back down to rejoin the card game. And that left me alone.
And I do mean alone. Simatai in the winter is the place to go if you want to see the Great Wall as it used to be--not covered in tourists. I probably passed no more than ten people in the three hours that I was on the Wall. Maybe 98% of the time, I didn't see anyone else in any direction, out to the horizons (yes, I did at one point pretend that I was watching for Mongol hordes). It was breathtaking ("The Great Wall which be created by the human being will be your nice mind forever!").
Simatai is also the place to go if you want to see the original Wall. Unlike Badaling and other tourist sites, much of the Simatai wall has not been restored ("many places of The Great Wall have be repaired, which make it more boundless"). There are some metal stairs added in a few places to make climbing easier, and some safety rails in dangerous places, but for the most part, it's as the Ming Dynasty left it. Some parts are too decayed to traverse, and then there are paths marked to the next walkable part. Overall, it's beautiful, especially on a day like this one--cold, but clear blue skies, no one around, and the Wall snaking across mountaintops in both directions as far as the horizon. It's not surprising that locals say UNESCO granted the Great Wall World Heritage Site status after visiting Simatai ("It has become the irradiant treasure of our Chinese archaic civilization.").
I didn't anticipate so much climbing, but I made it to the top (or at least as far as I could--the very peak is fenced off for safety reasons). The Simatai wall is about three and a half miles long. It took about two hours to get up there, maybe another hour and a half to get down. Most of this part of the Wall is very steep. The views are beautiful--one thing about climbing a mountain is that then you get to look down on valleys.
On the way down, I passed some guys who operated a zipline to the bottom. I guess this would have been a faster way to get down, but a zipline in sub-zero weather sounded pretty horrible.
And then I was at the bottom, back in the nice, warm taxi, and headed back to Beijing. The drive back took longer than the drive out because of traffic, and we sat around listening to the radio for quite a while. I was very confused by his music choices--we went from Beijing Opera to some very strange English language song about a soccer player named Andy who was being urged to score a goal for England, I think. The bridge of the song was definitely Turkey in the Straw. I have tried unsuccessfully to find any reference to this song on Google. Dinner in a food court, then home to bed--climbing the Great Wall is exhausting.
Incidentally, the Great Wall is in fact visible from space. If you're very close to the Earth. And the weather is perfect. And you know where to look. And the sun is in the right place (casting long shadows). And you use your imagination. But in those conditions, a lot of things are visible from space. Most astronauts say they can't see it at all.
A post about my trip home is coming soon.