Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Great Wall

When I get together with a bunch of people around a table, often I feel like one of the least traveled people at the table.  There are always people who have traveled extensively in the country I am in, and know every nook and cranny, as well as the surrounding countries, and can regale you with tales of just about every continent that you name. I sometimes feel like I have just hit a few highlights, or whatever I have happened to stumble across.

Yesterday morning, a very drunk woman stumbled into the hostel at about 6 in the morning while I was sitting in the common room. She said she had been out partying all night, and had just got in. She was very talkative. I never caught her name, but she was from a small village in Japan that only had about 200 people. She was telling me that in Japan, if you leave your cell phone in a public place, and go back to find it the next day, it will still be there; nobody will touch it. She moved to Chicago to go to medical school, and ended up dropping out of medical school, but stayed in Chicago for ten years. She said that Chicago was astounding to her after coming from a small town in Japan. When she was 22, she married a man who was 55, and she said he was a kind and gentle man, and good to her,  but he was poor and became sick.  After they were married three years, he died of cancer. He didn't have much, but she didn't want to take what he had,  and gave all his possessions and money to his son. After a few years, she started traveling the world.

She said she was 30 years old and completely broke, but had just been traveling around the world for two years. She would stop in places occasionally for a while to make some money giving piano lessons. I told her I was a piano player too, and she said I should give lessons, it was an easy way to make money on the road. I talked to her for a while until it was time to leave on the bus, when I went up to my room to get my day pack.  As I was heading out the door, I heard her pleading with the front desk to let her stay, she would have the money tomorrow. I think they did.

One of the people at the front desk walked me over to where the bus to the Mutianyu Gate of the Great Wall of China stopped. Our bus driver and guide said his name was Tony. He was very animated. He drove us to the location, and told us what to do and where to go, but left us all to explore on our own and did not lead us up the mountain.

Tony strongly suggested that we take the cable car up to the top. He said that was the best way to get to the steepest parts of the mountain, and it was the only way to see the older parts of the wall in the time we had. He said we would be walking the whole time anyway.

Tony told us that this would be a very strenuous climb even if we were in good shape. And he was right. The mountain was steep, he said we would be going up at least 5000 steps. He gave us three and a half hours to meet back at the restaurant for lunch, and sent us on our way.

The cable car I took up the mountain had emblazoned on the window that it was the same car Michelle Obama took up to the Great Wall. The views were spectacular.
The hike was very strenuous. In some places, the steps were almost knee-high, and only half as long as my big feet, so I had to go up the steps with my feet turned sideways.

I walked quite a ways on the wall, and passed through many of the gates along the way. The first part of the wall had been restored in the 1980s, and was well-constructed and solid.

Then I got to a gate where the through corridor had been bricked over. The only way to get past this gate was to scale the wall. I sat there for about ten minutes, thinking, "do I really want to do this?" I watched people go over the wall on the right side, which was lower, but had a direct drop off a cliff and only about a two-inch ledge (with a one-inch pipe on it) to walk on the other side for a few meters, and the left side, which was higher, but didn't have a huge drop on the other side, and had a safer-looking landing. Most people didn't scale this wall and turned back here. I made a couple of attempts on the right side, but there were no good footholds and the drop REALLY freaked me out. Also a fucking stone came loose that I was using as a handhold, and I scraped myself up falling when that happened.  I psyched myself up a little more and climbed the left side successfully. But coming back, I took the other side.

After the wall I had to climb over, I arrived at an older section of the Great Wall. This part had not been restored and was crumbling and falling apart.

But then I got to the "oh fucking holy shit" section of the Great Wall. There is a warning sign telling people not to go there because there is serious danger.  And, yup, there is. It is about seven hundred years old, steep, unmaintained, crumbling, and overgrown with vegetation. There was only a narrow place to walk, crowded out by aggressive bushes, with loose stones to walk on, and sheer drops on either side. 

Sometimes I had to walk only on the edge of the wall, because the overgrowth crowded out the rest of the space. But I kept on anyway until I had to turn back barely in time to get lunch and scurry back down to the tour bus.

I had turned around exactly at the right time; I took up all three and a half hours and walked into the restaurant the minute we were supposed to meet there after hauling ass back. I had walked up about two hours and ten minutes, and took about an hour twenty to get back down. Then I took the cable car back down again, and walked the rest of the path to the restaurant.

We had a delicious lunch, consisting of different dishes on a carousel along with a big bowl of rice, and you could turn the carousel to load up your plate with whatever you wanted.  There were a lot of vegetable dishes, including this really delicious eggplant that was my favorite. I am terrible with chopsticks, but I muddled my way along clumsily. There were a bunch of women from Uruguay at our table who decided to ask for Western implements, but I decided to soldier on with the chopsticks.

Heading back on the bus, I met a guy named Joey who was also from Austin, and teaching in China. It turns out he is staying at the hostel I am moving to today. I had booked two hostels here in Beijing so I could have some comparison, and because I figured one or the other would have some different amenities that I could take advantage of.

So, soon, I'll get my pack, and take the subway and walk to the other hostel.


1 comment:

  1. I've had the same experience of speaking to other travelers in hostels and realizing I ain't been around that much.

    I also enjoyed the next entry about doing laundry. I like reading about how you deal with the little things. I really enjoy reading about the texture of daily exploration. When I was traveling, I found that much of my time was taken up with things like that, and I enjoyed the simplicity it brought to life. I was endlessly preoccupied with how to pack my gear onto my motorcycle. It's amazing how little one needs.