Beijing and the Great Wall

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May 20th 2007
Published: August 7th 2007
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The Great Wall of ChinaThe Great Wall of ChinaThe Great Wall of China

Badaling provided our first dramatic views of the Great Wall. © L. Birch 2007
I couldn't go any further, a boy with a scimitar stood blocking my way. We were just below the eighth Tower of Heaven on China's Great Wall. Beyond, I could see the Wall snaking its way over razor-edged hilltops and disappearing into deep valleys, only to reappear again on some distant peak. Scowling, the boy said something in Chinese: it was obviously a challenge. Viv was some way behind me. Should I accept the challenge, I wondered, or try to slip past? A few tense heartbeats later however, the decision was taken out of my hands as the boy's mother appeared and led him away with an apologetic smile. Still scowling, he made a threatening stab at the air with his plastic sword. "This time foreigner, you are lucky. Next time we meet, it will not go so well for you." He said - or something to that effect - as he disappeared among the throng of domestic visitors crowding the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

Escaping the crowds at Badaling meant a long hike, out towards the north where the renovations ended and the old wall - ruined and covered in plant growth - marched off over the
The 21.47 to BeijingThe 21.47 to BeijingThe 21.47 to Beijing

Carried us on a journey spanning more than 1400 miles, from Xiamen in the south to Beijing in the north. © L. Birch 2007
mountains. This was history, almost 2000 years of it. Work had begun on the Great Wall around 220 BC and continued right through the Qin, Han and Ming dynasties up until 1645 AD. However, no amount of prior research could have prepared us for the feeling we would have, standing there on the Great Wall among the wild mountains of Peking. Yes, it had been worth the long journey to get there.

Letting the Train Take the Strain

Our 1,450 mile journey to visit the Great Wall, had begun in Xiamen when we boarded the 21.47 train to Beijing one tropically hot night in early May. We had arrived at the train station early, grabbing a meal before joining an impossible crush of people waiting at the departure gate. Among the throng of young, wealthy Chinese - talking into mobile phones or plugged into their ipod's - poorer people from the provinces sat among piles of suitcases and boxes tied up with string. Once again, we were the only foreigners but wiser and less intimidated now, we pushed our way to the front just minutes before the gates opened and everyone surged through at once.

Hard Sleeper ClassHard Sleeper ClassHard Sleeper Class

The carriages are divided into comfortable sleeping compartments, each fitted out with 6 bunks. © V. Birch 2007
carriages were divided into hard seating, hard sleeper and soft sleeper classes. We had opted for hard sleeper where each compartment was fitted with six couchettes - three on each side of the compartment ranged bunk style, one above the other. Far from what we had expected, hard sleeper seemed quite luxurious; carpeted throughout and air conditioned, each couchette was fitted out with a quilt and pillow covered with freshly laundered linen. There was a fussy looking table cloth draped over the small table and lace curtains hung at the windows. We had time to take in our surroundings and crack a celebratory bottle of Tsingtao Beer before the train lurched and began slowly, to pull out of the enormous covered station. Shortly after 10 o'clock, girls dressed in smart uniforms and white gloves, came through the carriages drawing the curtains against the glow of Xiamen's bright lights. At 10.30, the lights went out and - unable to read any longer - we turned in. Falling asleep almost instantly, we woke only periodically through the night to be gently lulled back to sleep again by the motion of the train.

When we woke next day, the train was still
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Taking time out to research our next stop during the train journey to Beijing. © L. Birch 2007
clattering its way through Fujian Province. That was the thing about China, its overwhelming size. Some of its provinces were so big that you could fit England within them and still have room to spare. Outside the window, a green landscape of mountains, waterfalls and jade-coloured rivers passed by. Every so often we would pass a village of orange, mud daubed houses roofed with wooden shingle tiles. There would be rice paddies, water buffaloes pulling ploughs, bamboo forests and fields of crops empty save for a man leaning on a hoe as he watched the train go by.

Life on board the train revolved around meals and endless cups of tea but as soon as news of our presence had spread, other distractions were soon forgotten. Throughout the day that followed, we seemed to have a never ending procession of people passing through our compartment - from the simply curious, keen to catch a glimpse of the exotic foreigners sharing their train to students, eager to engage us and practice their English. At times it could become tiring and the only way to escape all the attention was to crawl into our bunks and pretend to be asleep. But
You What?You What?You What?

Chinese English or 'Chinglish' can be a bit confusing to the first time visitor. Translated, this sign actually means "Do Not Use Toilet While Train is Stationary" © V. Birch 2007
truth be known, we rather enjoyed the attention, feeling like visiting celebrities as we entertained our new found fans.

Next day, after another good night's sleep, we awoke to a cold, grey dawn. Beyond the window, a flat agricultural landscape slid past. Brick factories, coal heaps and fields: a symphony of greys and browns. The horizon was studded with smoke stacks and a thick pall of smog reduced the light of the rising sun to a dull orange glow. This was China's industrial heartland, the powerhouse for the consumer rich cities of its eastern seaboard. The urban sprawl began about 45 minutes out from Beijing - low rise, red-roofed houses at first, giving way to utilitarian blocks of apartments that looked very 'communist bloc' in their no-nonsense functionality and design. We watched Beijing grow in size with a mixture of feelings; a slight sense of sorrow that our 35 hour train journey had come to an end but excitement at the prospect of getting to know our new destination. Arriving anywhere new for the first time - particularly a big city - was always a little intimidating. Not knowing where we were going or where we would stay was
In the Dinning CarIn the Dinning CarIn the Dinning Car

Now Serving: curried pork, crispy fried pork or pork stir fry... and rice, of course. © V. Birch 2007
apt to get the butterflies fluttering in the pit of our stomachs, but this time it was different, for we knew that - at the end of this journey - friends waited to greet us.

Beijing and the Great Wall

Two days later, we were to be found grappling with Beijing's underground system as we headed for Tiananmen Square. Actually, getting around the capital was trouble-free and inexpensive. The sun was shining, we were well rested and realised - with some surprise - that we were enjoying our time in China. Why surprise? Perhaps because we had heard so many horror stories about travel here that we had approached the experience with a degree of trepidation. Certainly, if you didn't speak any Chinese, getting around and making yourself understood could be hard but generally, the people were friendly and a smile - even on the underground - was often returned. It was likely to raise an eyebrow when you first saw how they shoved and pushed to get in a carriage while disembarking passengers struggled to get out of a door at the same time. But if you then accepted that, for the Chinese, this was normality
Beijing Apartment BlocksBeijing Apartment BlocksBeijing Apartment Blocks

Looking very 'communist bloc' in their no-nonsense functionality and design. © L. Birch 2007
and not malicious - you could get on much better with the way in which life was conducted. Surprisingly, once you had gotten onto the train, there was no evidence of the seeming 'hostility' that ensues during boarding. Catch the eye of that man who had just elbowed his way past you to get into the carriage and likely as not he would smile warmly, not out of triumph, but out of simple friendliness.

Tiananmen Square was bustling with people when we arrived. It had gained a kind of notoriety throughout the world for being the site of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when government tanks had rolled into the square to quell a peaceful demonstration being staged by students. The demonstration was a protest aimed at some of the policies imposed by the ruling communist government. Calls for democracy were foremost among the complaints that were aired before the government decided to put a stop to such nonsense and send in the tanks. The resulting carnage left between 200 and 2000 people dead - depending on who you believe - and brought world-wide criticism and condemnation down upon the heads of the government. One of the
Tiananmen SquareTiananmen SquareTiananmen Square

Taking the air with Beijingers near the Monument to the People's Heroes. © V. Birch 2007
most enduring images from this time was taken by a journalist and depicts a student standing defiantly before a tank - like some latter-day David taking on Goliath. World-wide, the image has come to symbolize the fight against freedom from repression and still appears on journal covers and posters to this day.

However, the day we visited Tiananmen Square, there was no evidence of government repression and the only hassles were from postcard and guidebook sellers. They 'dogged your footsteps' in the hope that their persistence would eventually pay off and that you would buy something simply to get rid of them. A vast flag-stoned area, the square was bordered by the imposing architecture of communism - the Great Hall of the People's Heroes, the monolithic Monument to the People's Heroes and the Mao Tse Tung Memorial Hall - while the northern end of the square was fenced in by the boundary walls of the Forbidden City.

Across the road, a portrait of Chairman Mao looked down upon visitors passing through the entrance gate into the Forbidden City. Mao obviously had no intention of being out done by the memory of China's greatest rulers and I wondered what
The All Seeing EyesThe All Seeing EyesThe All Seeing Eyes

..Of Chairman Mao, look down upon visitors to the Forbidden City. © L. Birch 2007
he would have made of this new, capitalist China had he been alive today. The Forbidden City was one of those sights we felt we had to see, a huge complex of Imperial palaces covering an area of more than 1,000,000 sq metres in size. A succession of 24 emperors lived and ruled from this "city within a city" for a period of 491 years. Filled with opulent palaces, temples, libraries and peony filled gardens, the Forbidden City took us the best part of a day to explore as we immersed ourselves in China's dynastic past.

Our "home away from home" while in Beijing, was the flat of a friend - Carmen, a journalist working for a Spanish media agency based in the capital. We had met Carmen and her boyfriend in Myanmar but sadly. In the interim since we had seen them last, the pair had split up. Carmen's flat was situated in the heart of the old hutong district, an area of traditional courtyard houses to the north of the Forbidden City that made an excellent operational base from which to explore Beijing and its environs. In return we cooked and cleaned, making sure the fridge was
Inside The Forbidden CityInside The Forbidden CityInside The Forbidden City

For hundreds of years the Forbidden City was out of bounds... nowadays, even plebs like us can get in. © L. Birch 2007
always kept full of Tsingtao beer. In the evenings, when Carmen returned home from work, we would sit and discuss the events of the day and put the world to rights over a glass or two of cold beer. After months of living out of a backpack and staying in a succession of cheap hotels, Carmen's place provided a welcome dose of normality. Even quite ordinary things, like straightening the living room or preparing and cooking food gave us, what? A sense of satisfaction perhaps? There was somehow, a sense of pleasure to be gained in doing something ordinary for a while.

During the days that followed however, we continued to see and do extraordinary things. We visited a Tibetan lamasery, its colourful temples wreathed in incense smoke, and the gardens of the Imperial Summer Palace where the courts of the Ming and Qing dynasties retreated from the heat of summer in the Forbidden City. It was wonderful too, to walk through ornamental gardens filled with the more familiar trees and plants of the northern hemisphere; oaks, maples, willows, roses - and flowerbeds stuffed full of pansies and petunias. But, while these things were familiar, few others were. Beijing's
Temple GuardianTemple GuardianTemple Guardian

A ferocious lion statue guards the entrance to a temple at Beijing's Summer Palace. © L. Birch 2007
temperatures swung from one extreme to the other. While winter could see snow with city lakes frozen solid enough to walk on, summer could bring temperatures close to 40 degrees centigrade. The dry air parched the skin and sand storms - blown in from the steppes of Inner Mongolia, less than 10Okm west of Beijing - often enveloped the city and made life miserable during the spring.

We had arrived in Beijing with the last of the sandstorms but fortunately, had time to coincide our forays outside the capital with the rare days when it was clear. It was on just such a day, that we woke early to find that the mountains to the west were visible from the windows of Carmen's flat. Galvanised into action, we set off to make our second visit to the Great Wall, this time at Mutianyu approximately 10Okms north of Beijing. The journey by bus and a local taxi from the town of Hairou, took a little over 2 hrs but by 9 o'clock that morning we had climbed up onto an almost deserted stretch of wall and stood surveying the landscape with something like awe. President Clinton had visited Mutianyu in
View from a WindowView from a WindowView from a Window

A soldier's-eye view of the Great Wall from a watchtower at Mutianyu. © L. Birch 2007
June 1998 when he declared that the view from its ramparts was "Amazing, simply amazing". We could only concur - it really was amazing. Peach, maple and pine trees covered the slopes but on top of the wall, more than 100Oft above sea level, we had uninterrupted views of mountain peaks as they danced away into the distance. And where they went, so too did the wall, alternately climbing and plunging as it followed the ridgelines regardless of how precipitous or jagged their summits were. It is uncertain how effective the wall was in protecting the eastern kingdoms from attack. Genghis Khan once said that "A wall is only as good as its defences" and the Great Wall at over 3500 miles (560Okms) in length, would have been too long to adequately patrol and defend. More likely, it was intended as a deterrent, a show of strength and power that may well have deterred the less determined invaders.

With few people around, we were able to walk the extent of renovated wall... and go beyond onto the original wall, pushing our way through spirea bushes sprouting from the crumbling masonry. Climbing over sections that had collapsed altogether, we could
The Great Wall at MutianyuThe Great Wall at MutianyuThe Great Wall at Mutianyu

To see the wall snaking off over mountains at Mutianyu was, as President Clinton once observed, simply amazing. © L. Birch 2007
stand finally, on the ruins of an old watchtower - a 360 degree view of mountains all around us - and gain a sense of what it must have been like for a soldier stationed on a lonely section of the Great Wall. Enemies of the kingdom could never have been far away. Earlier, a postcard seller bored and customer-less - had stopped for a brief chat. When we asked where she came from, she pointed to the western mountains. "Mongolia," she said, "behind mountain". Looking in the direction she had pointed, I felt an urge to go and see what Inner Mongolia looked like. But at that particular moment in time, we just wanted to sit and soak it all up. Can you ever have enough time in such a place, I wondered? This would be the furthest point north that we would travel in our Asian odyssey. Down below, our taxi driver waited to take us on the first leg of a journey south. From Beijing, we would begin the long journey back towards the equator and the islands of Indonesia. For just a moment though, we were content to sit and pretend that time, visas and schedules didn't really matter. After all, tomorrow would come soon enough.


We would just like to say a huge "Thank You" to Carmen, Moncho and all the expats from the Beijing Freedom Hotel. Were it not for their hospitality and overwhelming generosity, our time in Beijing would not have been nearly as happy or as memorable.


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