Week 38 and me and Lee have arrived at our 3rd large City in a row: The Capital, Beijing!
We are both a bit groggy from the 21 hour train ride, with little sleep, from Xian. Apart from the hard seats with no adjustable backrest (which seemed to make you lean forwards opposed to back!)….we were also getting some hard looks from some locals in the rest of the cabin. I don’t think it was anything malicious, just maybe a bit of curiosity of a couple of westerners who were not taking the sleeper beds for the journey.
“Do you think we may have done all of this in the wrong order?”, Lee asks me.
“How do you mean?”, I ask and peak over my book to see 4 unflinching faces still staring in our direction.
“I mean, we did all the towns and Countryside first and then packed in back-to back cities for the end part of the trip……..we may have seen all the best bits at the very start?”
Lee may have a point…….As nice and interesting as the cities have been for the past couple of weeks, they haven’t been as nearly as stunning as some of the countryside in Yunnan. And apart from some of the big tourist attractions they have been largely similar.
I nip to the nearby cabin, which has a hot-water dispenser for my pot of dried noodles, turn on the tap (it’s a bit of a risk dealing with boiling water on a train as jolty as this!) and return. Lee is looking with an expression of half laughter, half perplexity at the old Chinese guy who is now standing right next to him, above my empty chair. He’s took the book that I’d left on my seat in his hands and is studying it intently about 10cm from his face…thumbing through the pages…rotating it around – back to front and upside down.
I walk back over and smile at the guy, “Hi!”
No smile is returned…he slowly puts the book back on my seat, walks down to his own seat in the cabin, sits, and returns to the staring.
Lee laughs….“I have no idea what’s going on”
Me neither. I sit down and try (unsuccessfully) to get some sleep for the final few hours before we arrive in Beijing.
We check into out hostel and take a wander for bearings, beer, and food. In the evening we find ourselves in Tiananmen Square, the location of the famous ‘Tank Man’ protest picture.
The next day, we take a walk around Jingshan Park which has pretty nice city views for sunset. The park is right alongside another popular attraction – The Forbidden City, a former imperial palace.
“What do you think?”, I ask, nodding towards the city gate. “Fancy going in tomorrow?”
“You know, I’m not sure I do”, Lee says, “just look at the amount of people down there”
I was feeling the same, even sitting here watching the pretty stunning sunset, it was hard to ignore the background of snapping cameras all around you.
And so, with all that in mind, we decided to get on with the main reason we came here – to visit the Great Wall of China!
A couple of things that I did not know about the great wall before arriving in Beijing:
- The wall is not a single continuous stretch. It’s in pieces over different areas and built over different Chinese dynasties.
- “The Great Wall cannot be viewed from space”…..It’s a lie! A fact that I’d held onto for over 20 years…and it’s just not true! #ohthedeceptoin #howdareyou. Apparently, viewing the wall from the moon is the equivalent of trying to see a strand of human hair from over 3km away!
There are tour companies and hostels willing to get you to different parts of the wall at almost every corner in Beijing, but we had our own evil plan in mind – make our own way to one of the less populated stretches of wall, sneak in, and try to camp overnight!
It may not be the most warm of comfortable night’s sleep, but when else am I going to get the opportunity to wake up and take in a sunrise on one of the worlds most famous and historical sites?
Our target for the day was the town of Gubeikou which contains one of the less frequented (and less maintained) sections of the wall. A couple of long, and confusing local bus rides out of Beijing; Missing a few stops and not having much luck in asking for directions, or timings…and I start to think that the only view I’m going to see for the day is the smudgy sunset out of the bus window.
We finally make it into the town after the sun has gone down. A quick stop at the local store for some food and beer supplies and onto phase 2….get onto the wall. A google map search and a few wrong turns down some back streets and we end up here…not the great wall…
Not wanted to be arrested in China for trespassing in their military zones, we take a swift backtrack and find another side path which starts to take us up the side of the mountain. Fortunately for us, the sky is clear and the path can be made out largely by the moonlight alone. As the wall is not particularly well maintained here it was pretty important to see where we were placing our feet…potholes and stones jutted out everywhere, and the path was so overgrown we thought we had taken a wrong turn at various points…brushing aside long grass and branches.
And finally, we make it!…the light at the end of the tunnel….the first sight of the wall!
It’s hard to make much out using the moonlight alone, so I try to get some long exposure shots to see what we were missing with our eyes :-)
We start walking along, looking for a tower which still had its roof, in order to camp down for the night. At this point we need to get our phones out for extra light. It’s pretty high up here and the drops to our left and right just look like black holes….no idea how far that drop is….probably a good thing!
As we walk by a few towers, we spot one 100m ahead which looks ideal,….however we’ve also picked up on the faint sounds of whispers which has been growing louder as we have been walking.
“I think someone else as had the same idea”, Lee says as we approach.
We get within 10 feet and the whispers stop. “Hey Guys!” I say into the dark. A few moments of silence and then a head pops out of the nearby window.
“Hello! Sorry, we were hiding…we thought your were the officials coming to kick us out!”
After a bit of a chat we keep moving along, we need to find our own place for the night. And we were in luck , the next tower not only has a roof…but also stairs up to the rooftop view.
“It doesn’t have a pool, but it’ll do!” :-)
And after a fairly frosty night’s sleep we both get woken by the sun coming through the tower windows….sunrise…Bam!
We get about 30 minutes of sunrise before we’re joined by an old photography couple who have come to take a few snaps. By this time we can already hear our neighbours in the nearby tower from the night before and we exchange some good morning waves.
Once the sun was up (and we had warmed up), we start our walk. (My) Words won’t do it much justice, so I’m just going to drop the pics here……which still won’t do it justice :-)
Truly great and unforgettable experience…..I felt lucky at the time and still feel it now just writing about it.
Thanks to Andrew who I met in Chengdu, who kindly donated me a top-notch sleeping back for the experience (I passed it on afterwards also).
And special thanks to Lee. Beijing marks the point that we parted ways….for me, it was time to move onto Shanghai, and for Lee, he was making his way back to the UK but with a cheeky detour though Mongolia to get there.
It was a pleasure to share this stretch of the journey in China with you bud. I can’t remember a day I wasn’t laughing during those few weeks :-)