Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Great Wall's great!

Tuesday 24th May 2011

6 days left traveling the world.

MP3 track of the day: Another brick in the wall – Pink Floyd

Weather: Smoggy and hot, but with a strong breeze once upon the wall.

My alarm went off at 6am, however I didn't get out of bed. I stretched, and I closed my eyes, giving myself an extra fifteen minutes. Everything within my dorm creeks; the door creeks, my locker door creeks and even my bed creeks. I tried to get ready as quietly as possible but I'm sure I woke at least one person (and, if it was the guy opposite me, I wouldn't have cared as he was on his laptop until 2am last night… the light, from the screen, was shone right into my face). Once ready I made my way to the underground station that I'd used yesterday; the bus, to the wall, departed from a bus station located three underground stops away. One thing I always forget, when asking for directions, is which underground exit - if relevant - is needed. Asian underground stations are huge and, therefore, have many exits labelled alphabetically; I stood looking at an information board noticing that 'bus station' was labelled under exit 'B'. I still wasn't sure if the bus station was where I needed to go, but I thought it would be the best bet. Once at surface level I showed my Chinese directions to the first man, in a uniform, that I could find; he pointed to where hundreds of buses were turning right but, before heading in that direction, I hunted for breakfast.

I arrived, at the bus station, at 7:45am and found the stop for the '936' (the service that I required). Waiting were a group of Chinese and a 'father-daughter' couple from New Zealand; I chatted to the Kiwi's and we shared 'Great Wall' information to make sure that we had both been told the same thing. Apparently the Kiwi's had been told that you could only board the '936' if you had a valid 'Beijing travel card'. I hadn't. Fortunately their cards were low on funds and so we all headed off to the nearest kiosk. Due to construction work the nearest kiosk was a fair distance way and, once there, I handed over forty Yuan (the trip to the wall costs sixteen Yuan each way) to cover my forth coming trip and give me additional money for Beijing's underground. What I didn't know – until I got back to the bus stop – was that when purchasing a 'travel card', for the first time, the first twenty Yuan was a deposit, therefore I hadn't put enough money, on my card, to cover my journey. The time was 8:15am and, with the bus scheduled to arrive at 8:30am, I didn't have enough time to go back. I, along with four other tourists, decided to risk it and try to pay with cash.

8:30am came and went. I was starting to get impatient as it would take two hours to get to the wall, therefore it wouldn't leave long, to look around, before catching the penultimate bus back to Beijing (scheduled to leave at 2pm). At 9am the '936' finally swung into the bay; the driver, who didn't look to be in a particular hurry, casually opened the door and lit a cigarette. I boarded the bus and was glad to find that cash was allowed. I paid with cash leaving my travel card for the return journey.

Just like the food the scenery was bland; trees, mixed with buildings and smog, filled the view for hours. I was sat – rather cramped as leg room was non-existent – next to a lady from Bangladesh; she was a painter and her husband, sitting in the row in front, was an architect. She seemed to have travelled quite extensively and so we swapped stories for most of the journey. Eventually the early start caught up with me and I could feel my eye-lids becoming heavy; with the Bangladeshi lady already asleep, and the bland terrain outside, I too closed my eyes. Time rolled on and the bus made many stops. After two hours we made it to our first attraction – some tombs – where a lot of people alighted allowing all continuing passengers to sit. The time was 11am and we should have been at the wall by now, and yet, no wall could be seen on the mountains outside. It took a further thirty minutes to reach the 'Great Wall' car park. The last fifteen had been spent climbing up mountain roads turning, sharply, left and then right; I was glad to alight and, as I took in my surroundings, I could see a dirt path with small metal kiosks erected on each side. Each cabin held a store selling as many tacky souvenirs as possible. I made my way, past the cries from the vendors asking me if I wanted a 'glass dandelion', before finding the ticket office; time was ticking on and, annoyingly, the only woman in front of me was requesting inches of tickets. I looked at my watch ... 11:30am. If I was to catch the penultimate bus (as I don't like waiting for the last bus because, if I was to miss it, I would be stuck 60km's away from Beijing with people unable to speak English) I would have two hours on the walls and here, in front of me, was a lady asking for three hundred tickets where there was a 'group counter' a short walk further up the hill. What made it worse was that the group were Americans.

Eventually she slowly walked away, counting her tickets; I gave her a little push as I made my way to the counter. In a flash I received my ticket, by-passed the American group, and went through the barriers. Instead of taking the cable car I decided to walk; unlike Dali the path was well defined but it was just as steep. Stone step, after stone step, kept coming into view and after fifteen minutes I looked at the cable car with envy. As of now I still hadn't seen the wall; whilst in the car park the smog had been so bad that I couldn't see the mountain top. Even now the trees prevented the wall from coming into view though they did provide shade. Just before reaching the wall I saw, to my right, a metal toboggan run. On closer inspection tourists, for a fee, could toboggan down from the wall … which must be the most tackiest tourist trap I've ever seen. At this point I was a little sceptical; what would I find once I reached the top?

After thirty minutes, of continual climbing, I could see the wall; it wasn't that far away and looked free of tourist jargon. My pace quickened and, once past a lady selling drinks, I started to climb the ancient stone steps onto the wall. I cannot describe the feeling of those few moments; behind me stood a Chinese tower and, in front, I could see the wall dip before climbing up another mountain range to a higher position. It was breathe taking; history could be seen in every stone and it wasn't hard to imagine Chinese soldiers patrolling the section. A huge smile had broken upon my face and a feeling of relief consumed me; the Great Wall was the last big 'not to miss' of my tour and I'd made it.

I walked in the direction I faced. It wasn't long before I could see the full extent of the dip; the wall almost went vertical. Looking behind me the wall seemed a lot flatter and so I turned around and walked in that direction. I went through the nearest guard tower – stopping to look out of the windows – before venturing forth; it's quite difficult to walk the wall as it never seems to remain level. Due to visiting a part of the wall, miles out of Beijing, the crowds of tourists were at an all time low; I couldn't believe my luck as I started taking photos without the usual hordes of Chinese people in every shot. Even the smog, which hid some of the mountains from view, couldn't dampen my mood as I was consumed by history with every step. It had only taken thirty minutes to reach the part of the wall where I planned to walk back down to the car park. With so much time I decided to back-track focusing more on the view. As I looked over the battlements the valleys below were a long way down; looking up mountain ranges, covered in vegetation, criss-crossed each other until the smog hid the furthest from view. It was a beautiful sight however, with so much vegetation, I did wonder how easy it would have been to spot enemy movements, especially at night. I made my way back to where I'd climbed up to the wall with a crucial question rolling around my head; do I stay and catch the last bus? Certainly I hadn't enjoyed myself as much, at an historic site, since the Temples of Angkor and yet I knew, deep down, that if I stayed I would worry the whole time about missing the final bus. As I walked down from the wall, giving it one last glimpse, I wondered if I'd rushed my visit and would later regret it. I'd arrived around 11:30am, got to the wall at midday and found myself leaving at 1:15pm … would this be a regret of my trip? I continued to walk down, hearing the shouts of laughter come from the American tour group who were tobogganing back to their coach, wondering if I should return. I couldn't see what else I would gain from staying longer and yet the wall seemed to have a pull on me; I made it back to the ticket barrier and walked through defiant. I looked back still not sure if I'd made the right decision. Still I was out and so I had no other option than to wait at the bus stop.

I arrived, at the bus stop, with fifteen minutes to spare; there was a couple – the man was British and the woman was American – in front of me who I didn't speak to until a group of Chinese tried to push into the queue. I explained, to the Chinese, that the end of the queue was to the left and could they please 'jog on'. I was amazed that they listened and this made the couple laugh; we started to chat about our 'pet China hates' before boarding the 2pm bus back to Beijing, and carrying on the conversation inside. The two met each other whilst travelling in Europe and had lived in Prague for the last four years; now they were touring Asia for five months before returning to either America, or the UK … they both weren't sure which. We talked so much that time flew and before I knew it I was back in Beijing. One part of me was happy to be back, I had survived my last day-trip, via public transport, and yet the wall still called.

We walked together to the same underground station where we parted, taking different trains. I arrived at my hostel, around 5pm, to a smiling receptionist asking how my day was. I explained that I loved it though with only two buses in the morning, and two buses in the afternoon, the transport to the wall was terrible, time consuming and needed to be improved. I also mentioned the smog but both aspects hadn't spoilt the day; she just smiled and giggled as I went up to my room to put my camera away. I went out for an early tea before returning to my hostel to surf the web. I had a shower and went to bed early; hopefully the guy, opposite me, won't be on his laptop tonight so I can get a good night’s sleep. I want to be up early to visit the Forbidden City but no alarm will be set.

Toodle Pip!

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