1. Original Entry + Comments2. Write a Comment3. Preview Comment
New comments for this entry are disabled.

April 18, 2006  |  China -- Saturday  |  5243 hit(s)

You don't go to Beijing and skip the Great Wall. I had some small apprehension about this, as in, just how Disney-fied would this turn out to be? The guidebook warned about hordes of tourists and uber-aggressive vendors and Starbucks and KFC. Sounded like something that would be endured rather than enjoyed.

But Bob came through for us. He has a friend who is doing development work in a village close to the wall, and who has a set of cabins there. Would we like to go up Saturday and stay overnight? We would.

Arrangements were made. A car appeared on Saturday morning and we headed north. It's an excursion and we spent better than two hours on the road. The drive itself was worthwhile for being able to move out of the city center, through the growing suburbs and into the countryside. The outskirts are sprouting tall tower blocks of apartments and Bob noted that the government is planning several more ring roads that circle Beijing in ever-larger concentric circles. Some of this is in anticipation of the world's attention for the 2008 Olympics, but most of it is just growth.

As I've said, this is dry country. There had been a dust storm the night before, and we noticed that cars were covered in a thick layer of reddish dust. Man, that must get old. As we moved out into the countryside, we began to see agricultural fields -- human-sized, not machine-sized -- and they, too, looked brown and dry.

The roads were good, even when we got to the end of the highway (soon to be lengthened) and got onto ordinary roads. Before we left, I had heard someone say that an impediment to economic development as yet in China was the comparatively undeveloped infrastructure, as in roads, but this close to Beijing, things are in good shape.

After turning off the highway, we wended our way through increasingly vertical countryside. It's been noted before that the peculiar-looking perspective of Chinese mountain paintings is not a visual convention; the mountains do indeed seem to spring vertically out of the ground. The trek to the our base-camp village therefore involved many switchbacks and some dramatic drop-offs at the side of the road. It also involved more and more rural traffic in the form of pedestrians, horses, and the occasional donkey cart. This provided yet another clue to why the crazy traffic is not more lethal than it is, namely, that this is a society in which cars are a very recent addition to the existing human and animal traffic, and as such, car drivers are much more acclimated to having to accommodate non-car traffic. Hence they're more careful. Although we did witness one or two heart-stopping moments in which I thought for sure a pedestrian was going to end up squashed on the front of the car.

Not surprisingly, the habitations we saw were very rustic, but I was struck my how orderly everything was. I've seen poor countries were everything just looked exhausted or clapped-out, but here, things were in good repair. I noticed that the fields were terraced neatly, which is a combination, I guess, of millenia of working the land and more recent efforts by the government at soil conservation and improved agricultural practices. Later in the day I had a chance to stop and sift some of the soil through my hands and it was like lifting handfuls of dust. It's remarkable what they can do with such poor land, I must say.

We arrived at the village and had a gander at our accommodations, which consisted of some beach-type cabins -- nothing fancy, but quite nice. This was not a tourist place; it belonged to our host, Bob's friend Li Xian Dong, who was lending it to us.

We went next door for lunch, which was cooked up and served in what looked like a family home. As usual, it was impressively excessive and (needless to say) quite fabulous. (And as we discovered the next day, far too inexpensive for what we got.)

From the village we could see the Wall, snaking high above us along the ridge of the spiky mountains. After lunch we began our climb. We walked past the village and then followed a well-worn path that had us stopping every once in a while to catch our breath. (We were told later that we'd climbed the "barbarian" side of the Wall. The roughness of the country made me slightly surprised that the Wall was even needed, but those steppes ponies could make it up some high mountains, Bob said, perhaps half-jokingly.)

We finally arrived at the Wall, panting. I was gratified to see that unlike so many other famous attractions, the Wall looked very much like I'd pictured it. And I was very, very happy that we'd come to this place rather than the neon-covered parts of the Wall that cater more to foreign tourists.[1]

I was also interested in how unimproved the Wall was at the point we saw it. It's been falling apart pretty much from the time it was built, I guess, and at times was actively deconstructed -- Li Xian Dong told us that when he was a kid, they hauled stones down from the Wall to build their schoolhouse. (Part of PE class, he said, if I understood right.) In parts the Wall is quite overgrown, and climbing into and out of the guardhouses involves clambering up some rickety piles of bricks that would have had any insurance company in fits, although it did not slow down the multi-generational Chinese families from scrambling around on the Wall.

We hiked around a bit, and then Bob, Li Xian Dong, and I tackled a part of the wall made a little loop up a hillside, and that's known as the "Bull Horn" for the shape it makes. This part was particularly steep. Li Xian Dong, who's been climbing the wall since he was a boy, was as surefooted as a mountain goat, but I was hanging on with all four limbs to clamber up and then again down. You can get an idea from this photo; the slope is not a trick of perspective, that's what it actually looks like.

While we were up there, Li Xian Dong found a stone thing that he explained to us was a kind of proto-grenade. It was a stone with a cylinder carved in it for the powder and a little hole on the side for a fuse. (That made it seem more to me like a miniature cannon, but I'm sure he knows more about it than me.) I've read before that the Chinese invented gunpowder, but supposedly didn't use it for anything more martial than firecrackers. Ha.

Hey look, it's me:

We climbed back down through some beautiful forest land. Bob observed that there are no animals, and I'd noticed that I had seen no insects. (For example, no ants, which is hard to believe.) We saw just a few birds, including magpies and crows, the latter in the plowed fields, suggesting why farmers have hated crows for so long. The weight of so much human intrusion for so long has made animals scarce, was Bob's explanation.

Back in the village, we went next door again for dinner. We had the same endless choices, but this meal also involved some of that toasting that is supposed to mark celebratory meals. Li Xian Dong brought out a bottle of the local hootch, which Bob said was distilled out of sorghum. I was advised that I had to drink at least two toasts before begging off, and that the correct procedure was down the hatch in one. I did this. All firewater tastes pretty much the same to me (blucky), but Bob and Sarah pronounced it "not as bad as expected." Soon enough the bottle (half liter?) was gone. Plus there was beer.

We slept well.

[1] Some after-the-fact research reveals that we were visitng the section known as the Jiankou Great Wall.

Colt   18 Apr 06 - 11:37 PM

Wow, wonderful. I'd been the Great Wall once and what I felt is similar to you: *panting*. I was able to walk 100-200 meters and then I have to sit down for a rest... and then go back to the car. :P

Have you hear the Chinese proverb about the Great Wall and Hero? You're a hero once you step on the Great Wall, and you just did it. :)