Close your eyes and pray!: 27 July 2006 (Thursday)


Our Great Wall adventure was quite the experience. If you like walls, this one is quite amazing, otherwise it’s a mighty long and probably not so interesting fence. I like walls. We had booked a car through Robin’s contacts to take us to a remote part of the Wall at Jin Shan Ling. The Wall there isn’t as touristy and it isn’t restored and it was definitely the crumbly parts which made our adventure more interesting.

I woke up to yet another glorious Beijing day of misty fog, humid and generally dismal weather. When I went to the Hyatt to meet Scott, I was greeted by the recently arrived Sarah. With hugs and cheers we made our driver wait till we had partaken in a fancy and fairly expensive breakfast (which turned out to be essential for the success of our journey as we did not eat again for at least twelve hours). Leaving Sarah to enjoy such creature comforts as Starbucks and the Hyatt’s famous pools and saunas, we headed into the wilds outside Beijing. For some reason, both Scott and I had assumed that the ride would only be about 2 hours. Three or more hours later, Scott turned and said “I don’t think we’re going in the right direction!”

Sure enough, the driver soon pulled over and started asking directions. We headed back the way we came. Our driver didn’t seem to be an intellectual giant. We, the foreigners, started helping by pointing out rather obvious road signs. Nevertheless, we finally made it to the Wall (it’s kind of hard to miss). From Jin Shan Ling we could walk on the wall for 10km to Si Ma Tei where the driver was to pick us up. Armed with some water and having passed such great signs as “accusing telephone” (complaints line) we bypassed the cable car and started up a humid forest pass to the Wall. Robin had warned us about the heat, but wow, the humidity left me feeling like a wet towel yearning to be wrung dry.

I suspect no matter where you go on the Great Wall you will find tourists. Where you find tourists you also find persistent and clingy hawkers. These particular hawkers seemed to love waiting at tops of rises, hidden behind piles of rock so they could suddenly pop out in front of you.

“Hello, buy postcards?”

“Hello, buy beer, water?”

It’s like verses for a song where the chorus is punctuated by our feet running on ancient flagstones yelling “Bu Yao, Bu Yao!” (translation: don’t want).

The wall itself was fabulous. It is a wondrous achievement and the haze just made it that much more atmospheric. Planted along a mountain ridge, we could see the Wall and its periodic towers stretching for miles mysteriously disappearing into the grey haze. Scott and I avoided fat western tourists huffing and puffing themselves into an early grave and ran along sections of the wall to do the 10.5km journey in two hours. To those that want to try this, some of the parts are extremely steep, but completely doable in dry weather.

In order to descend from the Wall at Si Ma Tei, we were presented with a couple of options. We could walk down a long windy path or we could use a zip line and careen across a dam. Guess which one we chose. The couple in front of us were harnessed in and the guy says to the woman strapping him in “The harness isn’t on right”, “No no, you go now!”, “No! I know what I’m doing, it’s not on….” The woman just pushed him off the platform. This didn’t lend itself to being seen as a safe operation at that point. Despite this, it was quite the ride down swaying on the harness above open water, with the Great Wall of China behind me. By the way, this is not where the tagline “Close your eyes and pray” comes from. The zipline felt positively grounded compared to our drive back to Beijing.

To put it mildly driving around Beijing is insane. We had already seen one accident on our way to the Wall and we saw another horrible accident on the way back. This wasn’t a case like Ulaanbaatar. There the drivers operated as if they were riding horses, the Beijing drivers on the other hand stared down other cars and dared them to pull out of their way. Scott fell asleep but I stayed awake and watched our driver almost cause two accidents, almost hit a number of pedestrians, pass cars at blind hills and inside lanes, and generally drive like a maniac. I closed my eyes and prayed.

Our supper plan called for Sarah (who was going to camp out with Scott at the Hyatt), Scott and I to meet at the Drum and Bell pub and find the “Hakka” restaurant on Houhai Lake, for some yummy “Beef on a leaf” and, for me, “Fish on a foil”. Having eaten for the first time after twelve hours of physical and mental exertion, it was no wonder we stumbled back to our respective hotels to pass out.

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