Friday, 18 January 2013

The Great Wall

Five-thirty a.m. came early. I imagine it always does, but I can’t speak from recent experience. My tiny new 30 renminbi (4 dollar) alarm clock did its job and I awakened on time.

I waited outside the door of the inn for the pickup, beginning at about 6, even though it wasn’t until 6:15. I saw a couple of old women walking by and earned smiles in return for mine. I also saw a women in the equivalent of a housecoat coming out with a ceramic pot and lid. I wondered if it was a chamber pot, because she disappeared around the corner and returned with it a few minutes later.

Not all hutong houses have indoor plumbing, apparently, and even our inn suggests we don’t flush the toilet paper, but put it in a wastebasket instead, to prevent the pipes from clogging.

I got chilly, so I went back inside, reasoning that I’d hear the van approach. I went out again at 6:30 – a good thing, too, because our guide came into the hutong on foot!

I  climbed into an almost-full van and was given the folding jump seat – not the best spot for an early morning three-hour ride, but it worked. I happened to be seated next to a lovely young Australian woman who had just graduated from medical school and had done a few weeks of volunteer work in Kunming, living in quarters without heat or hot water. Now, there’s a good deed!

It was a three-hour ride to the Jinshanling portion of the Great Wall, near Gubeikou at the Hebei Province border. After we left the city behind, we could see bare mountains in the distance. We passed orchards, small farming plots and small towns, all still asleep. There was almost no traffic – a good thing, since the van had no seatbelts.

Our guide, Diana, was quite martial and gave us our orders and instructions in a brisk, businesslike way. No nonsense, and stick to the schedule, folks!

There were nine of us altogether and it was an odd group. Three German guys, two women who also seemed to be German, two Japanese guys, Sarah from Melbourne and me. Everyone was at least 20 years younger, probably 30. Matsumoto, of the Japanese men, spoke good English and was quite friendly, but no one else made the effort to connect with anyone outside his or her group.

Diana led us to the beginning of the trail up to the wall, told us we had three hours, pointed out the restaurant where we were to meet for lunch (half an hour for lunch, be back on time or see you tomorrow! – a bit of humour, at least) and let us loose.

As we walked, local “guides” attached themselves to our group. They seem to make a living walking the wall with people, helping them along and selling them souvenirs. Lots of work for the money they must make, and I am never thrilled by these deals, but I was sooo grateful for the older man who joined me. The wall was snowy and the climb was steep, and it was a real benefit to have someone take my hand when my footing was unsure. (Thank goodness I had hiking boots in this weather!)

It turns out that he is a farmer from Hebei who grows corn – a small plot – in the warmer weather. He had a lovely smile and a nice sense of humour, given our lack of much common language. So, of course, I ended up buying a T-shirt, a book of photos, two bags and some postcards.

The book turned out well. It had lovely photos of the wall, but it wasn’t something I’d generally buy, since I was taking my own photos. So, I gave it to Jerry, one of my hosts at the inn. They have lots of travel guides around, so I assumed he’d leave it out for guests to use. However, it turns out that Jinshanling is his favourite part of the wall and he’s climbed it more than a dozen times, so he was thrilled with the book. A win-win situation.

It was a brilliant day – clear, sunny and yes, cold – and I was bundled up in layers. We arrived at the wall and it appeared to be one climb after another. There were 14 towers on our route, with four more possible. The first four had been restored in the past 30 years—good to get a sense of what was, but not authentic. I was thrilled to reach the first original ruin of a tower. It had weeds growing out of the brick and the roof was gone, but it dated back to the Ming dynasty, about 500 years ago.

If it hadn’t been so cold, I think I would have enjoyed the views at a more leisurely pace, but it seemed wise to keep moving. And with a “guide,” it didn’t seem right to linger too long. I did take photos of many vistas, but since I couldn’t wear my glasses – they got fogged every time I breathed – not sure how well I did.

That said, it’s an amazing structure!!! The poor laborers who were pressed into service did a fabulous job building a fortification across unforgiving terrain. Looking at the wall, gleaming in the sunlight as it stretches its reddish-gold spine, undulating across the hills and passes, it’s hard not to be awed.

I made it to the 13th tower, looked at the time and at the steep dip and climb ahead and decided it was time to turn back. Returning was much easier than the outgoing trip, thank heavens! Much more downhill, which I often don’t like, due to the pitch, but it was generally fine. Maybe I was just getting my sea legs, although I do really need to do climbing more often. A hike like this serves as a reminder of just how out-of-shape one is! However, I am proud that I lasted the full three hours on the wall and the approach.

On the return, I even encountered a man whose daughter lives in Edmonton. He was so happy to meet a Canadian.

We had a buffet lunch at the local restaurant, and it was yummy. Noodles, rice, lots of veggies, and a meat dish with big hunks of meat that I could avoid. Perfecto!

Once I got home, I went straight into the shower and refused to leave for quite a while. After sweating and cooling off, I felt damp all over, and the hot water was an amazing treat. Afterward, I fell asleep for a couple of hours. Upon awakening, I decided there was still time to go out for some food, so I went to a restaurant nearby that Sarah had tried. It was a Yunnan place, with photos of the food, so she found it easy to order.

I walked in and they seemed quite amazed to see a lone Western woman. It was a bare bones place, with wooden tables and backless seats. Wonder of wonders, there was an eggplant dish topped with chopped meat (pork, I’m guessing) mixed with spring onion and spices, plus a spicy sauce that I avoided. I also couldn’t resist trying the Yunnan eggrolls – tiny, with a sweet mango sauce with an edge.

Amusingly, the resto had reggae music playing throughout my dinner. Everyone was quite kind, as usual here in China, and there were smiles and Bu Keqis all around. A nice end to the day.

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