China | The Greatness of the Wall

After yet another really terrible train ride, we rolled into Beijing before dawn and headed to the Russian district, where my friend Reed is nice enough to house the three of us. He took us to breakfast in his neighborhood and we gaped as he ordered in rapid Chinese that was comprehensible enough to get us soup and what can most easily be termed ‘oil sticks.’ Once he went off to work, we decided to explore our first really truly Chinese city. Now, a word on air conditions in Beijing: I’m not entirely sure where they come up with photographs of the city, but the smog is obscene and you cannot see down the block, let alone the skyline. It’s a permafog that covers everything; we couldn’t see the end of Tian’anmen Square! If it were not for advanced photo-editing technology, I fear all of our pictures would be identical gray rectangles…

Luckily, Beijing has a lot to offer in terms of sightseeing. In Tian’anmen Square, one can even view Mao’s body, which is an interesting experience, to say the least. There’s something about being ushered around to briefly see an orangey corpse, along with thousands of silent and eager Chinese, that makes for a memorable time. Nearby, the Forbidden City seems the obvious pick for travel enthusiasts, but we found ourselves extremely disappointed. It’s actually a somewhat boring shell of a place, with little to offer save for identical yellow-roofed buildings and hoards of tourists. There was little to capture our interest, and we felt rather caught up in what we “should” be enjoying and what we “should” be noting. We flew through it and even tried to trace backwards to find the museum, but ended up leaving rather discontent with the experience. Far better was the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), which offered hours of scenic rambles and a calming ambiance. The smog prevented a grand lake view, but you could just barely make out the other side, and Josh, Brent, and I meandered cheerily around the grounds, scrambling over some distractingly steep bridges, and winding through trees. Distant palaces were somewhat visible on closeby hilltops, though they would be hard to notice in a photographthrough the smog. In fact, we noticed that in Beijing, the reflections in water are often clearer than the scenes themselves, which is surely disconcerting. During our leisurely Beijing time, we also enjoyed touring Olympic Park, which contains the very recognizable Bird’s Nest, one of the most unique buildings that I have ever seen. The entire area is a tad on the eerie side, since it is so abandoned, but there is still plenty to see, and certain to be lively in more pleasant weather.

Being really cold in Beijing is the least of our worries, however, as we have all been greeted with a fabulous friend we like to call the Beijing Cough. The morning we were to go climb the Great Wall, I woke up with a throat more swollen than desirable for endurance hiking. We finally made it out there on our last day in Beijing, and it was well worth the trouble. Even before arriving in China, we knew that we wanted to do a section of wall that was less accessable and consequently less touristed. Thus, we settled on the Jinshanling to Simatai leg. This unfortunately meant a complicated voyage, though we got on the bus to Miyun easily enough. However, we were conned out of the vehicle before reaching the actual bus station by zealous taxi drivers, and therefore had to take a taxi to Jinshanling. Immediately upon getting there, it became clear that we were in for a rough day when we began ascending at a most unpleasant angle (aka vertical). I was out of breath before even reaching the wall’s edge.

Once we starting clambering along, we were astounded by what we saw: panoramic vistas worthy of a brochure cover, and hardly a tourist around. Experiencing this, my friends, is undoubtedly worth a trip to China. Once the weather lifted a bit, the vastness of this marvel became quickly clear, and we frequently stopped to admire its ribbon-like trail along the mountains. Mind you, it was not all daisies, as the Jinshanling-Simatai stretch runs 10 km long, with plenty of sharp ups and downs. It’s one of the best preserved sections, proudly encompassing many watchtowers and several unrecontructed areas. Unfortunately for us, it seemed that the hardest path up the mountain is consistantly the chosen one, resulting in occasional scrambling and continuous fatigue. One bit was certainly no more than glorified rubble – a frightening feat. Several times, I had good reason to fear taking a long tumble down my glorious serpent, for I have the coordination of a mole and am therefore unsuited to be performing Great Wall acrobatics. A more scenic hike could not be had, however, and this was easily one of our more amazing adventures.

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