Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Great Wall

Today was essentially a day at the Great Wall. After a quick hotel breakfast, I hopped in a hired car and drove what was supposed to be 1 1/2 hrs out to Mutianyu- an outlying town west of Beijing that has a place where you can get onto the Great Wall and not have to worry about throngs of tourists. Another location- Badaling- is super close to Beijing and gives you about as close a Great Wall experience as the Great Wall Mall in Kent, WA.

As fortune would have it, I ran late in the morning and was therefore super-excited to yet again experience Beijing rush hour. Anyone wondering why gas prices continue to skyrocket in the US only need spend one day here. 15,000 new cars hit the road every 3 months, satisfying just one city of 17 million people in a country that still enforces it's One Child Policy. As a result of Beijing traffic and my piss poor planning, the cab ride turned into a three hour odyssey- two of those just to free up from Beijing.

It wasn't all bad though, was able to scare up some funny pics along the way and keep entertained. Like this one: Help! Help! I'm trapped in a glass cage of emotion!

Or: Help Wanted: More Window Washers

The entrance to the Great Wall at Mutianyu is typical tourist trappy- only with a Chinese spin to it. Like any tourist destination worldwide, the entrace is laced with tons of tourist busses and taxis. Threading through locals looking to google at the funny tourists and those selling trinkets and T-shirts (sidebar: I ran into this in Vietnam too. When a T-shirt salesman tries to sell you a shirt and starting price is a dollar, how do you kick off that bargaining? Start at free and settle at 50 cents?), you wind up at a rickety ski lift getup that ships tourists the thousand-plus feet up to the Wall itself, now plainly visible along the ridgeline. This ski lift costs a convenient ten bucks per-person and while it seems odd initially, there is also an option to pick up "Insurance" for another Yuan. I laughed at this at first but after surviving that death trap ski lift ride and taking one step onto the wall itself I understood why it is not such a bad investment for those that snap it up.

The tourist parts of the Great Wall are restored and are maginficent. Ramparts are intact, the bricks re-mortared and battlements reassembled for tourists to take pictures of left and right. The wall itself snakes off into the distant haze as far as the eye can see in several directions. The story I caught was that the Wall was constructed to keep out and isolate Mongolian invaders and true to that history lesson, you can see places where the Wall doesn't just form a straight line- it branches off, appears to double back on itself and generally follows the most inhospitable parts of the ridges. Steps are steep, the evenly spaced guard houses are completely Spartan, and the entire structure drips of military precision.

But the most amazing, remote, and striking parts of the Great Wall come only after you pass the "Visitors Stop walking" signs. While 99% of the visitors do actually stop walking, I had read articles about through hikers taking on the entire length of the Wall. It is possible to make out a thin trail- so on to the territory ahead., and what a memory it forms.

The smooth stones immediately turn to dirt covered rubble. Trees, scrub bushes and prairie grass grow directly from the center of the wall itself. Whole sections of the wall are missing entirely, eroded away and left in an avalanche strewn rubble heap 40 feet down from the top of the Wall and continuing on down the steep ridge face. In places, the Wall is literally three bricks wide. No stopping the Mongolians now. Picking through this mess is strange, but as you weave your way along the wilds atop the Wall and continue further, it just doesn't get any better for a "true" experience. No one is out there. You feel completely remote. Just the sound of a light wind echoing through the bare tree branches, birds chirping and the whispers of thousand year old ghosts.

It's really quite staggering to consider that this structure was built with human hands so many centuries ago. And, that each and every brick along each and every foot of these barely scalable ridges and mountain tops was placed by a faceless worker who had no idea that this far into the future, some guy speaking in an alien tongue and from across the ocean would fly 14 hours through the air to come and see the fruits of his labor, while using strange electronic gadgets to capture images. My take on this after humping along a few miles of it is that it's the world's first (and best) stairmaster- and that dude was in shape. Every gym in the world should install a 2 mile section of Great Wall for their customers. By the time I was done, my legs were rubber and I was super-glad I had picked up the 1 Yuan insurance add-on. Check out these pics of some sections:

Then it was time to head back to Beijing. Picking my way out of the wilds and heading back to the tourist trappy areas, I opted for the taboggan run (Who wouldn't? SWEET!) to drop the thousand feet down to base. Every mountain needs to install these:

Back in Beijing, the Forbidden City and Mao's Mausoleum were closed, so I walked around Tianamen Square for a bit before heading back to the hotel. Tianamen was the site of the famous student- stands-up-tanks picture and I have to be honest in that I did spend several minutes trying to figure out where that stand-off occurred. Maybe tonight if I can search those pics (and if China hasn't blocked that search string) I can figure it out for tomorrow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a "great" day!! No news on the interview yet but I will keep you updated.