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SEPTEMBER, 2008

The Great Wall of China

Built (and subsequently rebuilt and maintained) between the 5th century BC and the 16th century AD, there are few man-made structures on Earth which can inspire more than the Great Wall. It is so large it is now part of our common parlance (“seen from space”, anyone?), and now even sports a Starbucks coffee shop at one of its visitor centres.

The Wall was built primarily to protect China’s Northern border with Mongolia. Little remains of the most Northerly piece of the wall, built between 220 – 206 BC, most of the remaining pieces being built during the later Ming dynasty of the 14th  – 17th century AD.  It stretches over approximately 4,000 miles, winding from Shanhaiguan in the east all the way to Lop Nur (“Lop Lake” in Mongolian) in the west of China, traversing in a kind of arc shape along the frontier border of Inner Mongolia. Legend has it that stretches of the Wall contain the bones of most of the 2 -3 million people who died making it – their grisly final contribution to the state’s grandest project.

Travelling with Craig – long time friend and fellow wanderer – through China through the summer of 2008, we started on the wrong foot in getting to the Great Wall. In order to view the Jinshanling area of the Great Wall, the part of the wall we wanted to see due to it being the steepest and most impressive section, we had to get the bus to a certain place, and change there for an onward bus to the Jinshanling region we were headed to. However, this was China, and it was easier said than done.
The bus ride wouldn’t be pleasant, but we would see parts of Beijing we wouldn’t otherwise have seen. All part of the experience, we thought.
Once at the bus station where we were supposedly changing, a circling crowd of taxi drivers descended like vultures onto our position. Pidgin English and aggressive body language were the bartering tools of the day. The Beijing Olympics were on, and foreigners were fair game.

“Taxi, Taxi!” the scavengers howled.

“No, thank you – where does the onward bus depart from?”

“Oh… well… no bus, no bus today…”

“None at all? Not to Jinshangling? Maybe later?”

Uhh… no… but my taxi is here, just 400 yuan” …

And so on. This continued for quite a while.

Our protests – that we were truly humble travelers – fell on deaf ears. The people sparked into life, and the dollar signs that flashed in their eyes showed why. All we wanted was to take the bus; we genuinely couldn’t afford the hundreds of Yuan the taxi drivers were shamelessly demanding. A few of the other Chinese passengers rallied to us, educated perhaps, or just helpful. In vain, they tried to explain to the taxi drivers that we were indeed passing through; not the rich tourist types who had been pouring money into Beijing for the whole month of August. Again and again, our protests fell to the wayside. Eventually, beaten and parched, we gave up. It was mid afternoon, and the slow realization that we would not reach Jinshanling set in. The taxi drivers had even rallied around and bullied the government sponsored English-speaking tourist guides into feigning the argument that the buses inexplicably weren’t coming that day. Sat in a tent on the corner of the bus station, they couldn’t help, and retreated back into their tourism literature. We were outnumbered, and linguistically at a disadvantage. We had one plan; and that was to make a bid for the easier to access, and closer to Beijing, Badaling section of the Wall before sundown.

We made it, and Badaling didn’t disappoint. How did we manage to make it here after all? Well, a mad scramble on the next bus back to Beijing, then across town via subway and on foot, and then another tourist bus out to Badaling made it all possible.

By now it was 6 pm, and the sun was beginning to get low in the sky, closer to the foothills. As it was the nearest section of the wall to Beijing city (and subsequently the most touristy) but it was still visually stunning, and historically fascinating. The Great Wall’s rough stone rises majestically from the earth, almost luring the Northern Hordes from bygone dynasties to have a go at conquering it. Winding its way up and around the surrounding hills, you couldn’t imagine it not being there. Almost organically, the Wall matches the colours and hues of the surrounding landscape. It is impressive; mighty high and imposing, yet at the same time nestled amongst the shrubs and semi-arid landscape of the Badaling area. Stenciled on the side was a Hollywood-esque board sign commemorating the 2008 Olympics.

Craig and I walked for a couple of miles along the wall, taking in the watchtowers and the breathtaking views. The long shadows of the wall and its sharp towers stretched across its rural background. However, inevitably the shadows of the wall grew ever longer into the dusk, and as the sun set it was time to leave.

Our return taxi weaved in and out of the freeway traffic lanes to the sound of beeping car horns. The dusk of the evening had settled to darkness and what started as a low flicker of light miles away gradually grew into the city of Beijing right before my eyes. The city had significantly scaled back its famous pollution emissions for the 2008 Games, and I guess that’s why the atmosphere wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.

However the light pollution was reasonably noticeable when dark. I think, in a romantic way it kind of made the City twinkle at night.

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This blog post is an edited section of my book, “The Slow Boat to China”, documenting my travels through Asia, coming soon.