A trip to Beijing: the Great Wall of China
Continuing the account by Dr Madhumita Sen.
The road is crowded with cars, all foreign, mostly European. We see a lot of Volkswagens, BMWs, Audis, Mercedes, Buicks, Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundai’s and others I don’t recognise. I ask Alice if China produces any cars of its own. I learn something very interesting from her reply. While the whole world markets are being flooded by ‘made in China’ goods, the Chinese prefer goods from Europe or the US!!! Petrol is really expensive in China, but you wouldn’t think so looking at the number of cars on the road! Chinese food (tinned or preserved), cosmetics, toys and clothes are also looked down upon (Chinese cosmetics are really bad, says Alice. “We try to save up and buy only French!!!” L’Oreal is her favourite).
The journey to the Great Wall takes us an hour, but all through, the roads are wide, clean and with beautiful green verges. As we drive out of Beijing, the scenery changes. We are surrounded by misty hills and the road becomes winding. The sides are thickly wooded, mainly with temperate vegetation. In Autumn, the hills turn gold and orange, and winter brings snow and ice, with temperatures going down to minus 10 to 12 degrees C. Now, however, it’s a really hot 32!
We are heading for the Juyonguang part of the nearly 4000km long wall, built over centuries by various Chinese Emperors. The Badaling is supposed to be the most accessible portion of the Great Wall, but has been heavily renovated, and is supposedly the most crowded. It has cable cars to get up and is surrounded by shops. Alice tells us that the Juyonguang wall is the best preserved part of the original wall and has the original Fortress guarding the Juyonguang pass. However, getting up the wall here involves a rigorous trek, which Alice feels we are totally capable of! Hope she’s right!
Our van winds up the scenic landscape, which begins to look more and more like old Chinese paintings, rounds a bend, and up ahead we see the Gateway to the Juyonguang fortress, with the typical red walls and pagoda like roof.
We drive through the gates and find that many, many people had the same idea as us! The car park is FULL of about 20 tourist coaches and more than 30 cars and vans. Joe manages to find some parking space and Alice goes off to buy the tickets. We gaze at the wall snaking around the mountains around us. The part we have to climb seems really high and far away, with hundreds of coloured dots moving up the staircase in the distance .... we have to get up there! We trudge up the slope towards the base of the wall and find some professional photographers who do a family snap and put it in a book about the Great Wall. We decide to have one taken, deposit the 100 yuan price, have a family photograph taken which confirms we have climbed the wall on 13.6.06 (the Chinese write their dates backwards), even before we have started. However, they tell us we will only get the photograph after we return from the climb!
(A word about Chinese public toilets: there are many at strategic places, are all of the squatting type and are only reasonably clean, but not too bad. Although, those with bad knees, beware!)
Alice has no intention of climbing with us (“Oh! I’ve been here many times!), so we set off. Getting to the first tower is easy enough, and at this point, one side leads to the fortress gates and is a flat part of the wall. To the right are steps going up to the second tower, and this is REALLY STEEP! Hubby is already tired and decides to stay put at tower 1, while my son and I brave up for the next part of the climb. The stone stairs are steep and worn in many places. Iron railings have been attached to the side of the ramparts to hold on to as we haul ourselves up the treacherous stairs.
In many parts of the rails, people have hung locks and thrown away the keys. These are meant to be locked secret wishes, which the spirit of the mountains will grant once you have climbed up!
The stairs are full of people of all nationalities, and as we slowly make our way up, we hear snatches of Malay, Chinese, English (in various accents – American, UK, Australian), French, German and some we don’t recognise. Most folks climb 10 – 15 minutes and pause for a rest by sitting on the stairs. We do the same, but this does create problems for those who are still climbing. We finally make it up to the second tower – it has taken us 50 minutes, we are puffing and panting and drenched with sweat ... but so is everyone else! It is an exhilarating feeling.
We look at the panorama spread out before us, and that takes our breath away as well! It was definitely worth the effort!
Once we feel more rested, we make our way down. The descent is even more treacherous than the ascent; I cling on to the railing with both hands as I make my way down. My son is more daring, but he is holding his camera so I’m really worried. We see a couple of people slip, but the crowds are so thick, someone is always there to help!
We finally make it down to the first tower, and husband is waiting patiently. There are costumes available here, so father and son dress up like a couple of marauding Mongolians and many pictures are taken! We shuffle down to the base of the wall, where Alice is waiting in a restaurant, in cool comfort. My thighs feel like jelly, so I sit, while hubby and son go and buy a couple of T-shirts with “I have climbed the Great Wall of China” emblazoned across. Alice has been good enough to pick up the picture book about the Great Wall, with our photographs on the first page.
We head back to the van and drive away from the most iconic part of China. We are now headed for the handicraft factory and shop where the typical Chinese vases are made with the ‘Cloisonné’ method. This is essentially Chinese lacquer – work done on copper.
We roam around the exhibition hall cum shops for an hour, utterly enthralled! We wish we could buy everything, but finally accept that our funds don’t permit more than one small vase, a plate and a fish!