While there may not be snow here, today I tobogganed down The Great Wall. Never thought I’d say THAT. Yes, of course I have the pictures to prove it.
This morning I woke up early, before my phone alarm went off. Sidebar: Before I came here I didn’t know how to use my phone for anything except calling and texting, but I can set alarms, check e-mail, send weChats (texting in China), set alerts for apps like the pollution index (which by the way was 453 in Beijing today – aka “hazardous”!), find my location on a map, get directions to places, translate between English and Mandarin, get weather forecasts, play games, take notes, you get the picture which I also now know how to do including taking “selfies.” Uh-huh, I’m that good. I didn’t wake up with my alarm because, like my dorm, the room in my hotel has no sound barrier and someone leaving the hotel before 6am was talking at full volume and slammed the door behind them. Good morning!
I came down to breakfast – actually not down, but outside and across because my room, the building it is in, isn’t attached to the main lobby and restaurant – early and there was hardly anyone in the restaurant so I had my fill of the over 16 hot dishes and various fruit and pastries offered at the buffet. I worked on my laptop for a bit and suddenly it was time to leave.
I met my guide for the first time and I was thrilled because he was my age. Turns out he also has a 21-year-old son, two things we now had in common. He explained the days’ agenda, asked if I had any questions, told me how long before we got there and off we went with our driver Mr. Z. I love that there are lots of names that start with X, Y and Z here. That almost never happens at home.
I knew the drive to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was a couple hours’ drive, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it wouldn’t be highway driving. The drive to Mutianyu reminded me of driving to my hometown of Georgetown from the city of Toronto. There were lots of fields and farmlands interspersed with factories and danweis. A danwei is a factory that is like a compound where the people who work there also live, eat, do sports, recreational activities, everything really. Foxconn, the component and assembly supplier for Apple, has danweis at its factories. Okay, so there are no danweis in Canada but you drive past a lot of industrial units on the 401 at home. The roads outside of the city were mostly single lanes, but the roads in Beijing are very wide compared to Shanghai. Also, there are not as many skyscrapers in Beijing. In fact, there are a lot less skyscrapers. Beijing feels more spread out than Shanghai, more expansive, like it’s flatter, lower, less dense. To my knowledge the population is close to the same, but it doesn’t feel as “thick” as Shanghai. But I digress.
The road to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was lined with stores, farmers markets, orchards, large industrial spaces and small farming villages. Where there were stores and restaurants they looked closed, some because of the time of day and some because of the season. Like most farming areas once the leaves have fallen, it looked skeletal, only the bare bones remaining, everything else shut down.
As I mentioned, the pollution was bad here today. I didn’t know what the rating was at the time – yesterday it had been good here – but I could tell even early this morning that had changed. Everything had a haze that has become too familiar to me. My phone wanted more money so I couldn’t check the index, but I Knew it was bad.
The base of where we entered the Great Wall was reminiscent of starting on the trail outside of Pakhora in Nepal. There were tons of vendors calling for my attention to buy something. I always have the thought that Matt would hate so many of the things that I’ve come to expect and tolerate, if not love. One woman went so far as to block me from walking and grabbed my arm to buy a t-shirt for “one dollar,” a denomination that doesn’t even exist here. “Dui bu qi, wo bu yao, xiexie ni” – sorry, I don’t want it, thank you. Although I thought I had wanted to walk up, given the thick haze (which is always accompanied by a warning not to engage in outdoor activity) we chose to take the gondola up. Good choice.
The Great Wall lives up to its name. Although the pollution was bad and the view was limited, the wall was Great. The thing that has been missing for me in a lot of the places I’ve been here is the history, the thousands of years of Chinese civilization that I’ve read about. In Shanghai there is little of that if any because it has either been destroyed by invaders or taken down to accommodate new development. The Great Wall was built somewhere around the 7th century BC but little of that remains. Around 220BC the Qin Emperor built more walls and repaired what was there but little if anything remains of those either. The earliest that any of the part of the wall I was on today could have been built was during the Ming Dynasty dating around 1460, maybe, possibly, might have been. I can tell you I walked on stone stairs that were old. They were worn out by hundreds of years of being walked on, treaded down so that they were smooth and indented, something I was hoping to see and feel. Although the wall has been rebuilt many times, a lot of the bricks were reused and only the mortar was changed to provide strength.
The Great Wall is ancient and wise, like Everest. I can tell because I am an expert on such things now. After all, I have seen Everest from a plane and walked at least a kilometre of The Great Wall. I Know.
That I got to toboggan down the hill it is built on is a modern bonus.