The Great Wall of China; In which we fight off the Mongol Hordes

There were only two real reasons we’d inflicted a visit to Beijing on ourselves, and the Great Wall of China was the main one. There are many discontinuous sections of the Wall scattered around the area north of Beijing. The most popular and touristy section is at Badaling - it’s said to be a circus. We didn’t have any interest in a Great Wall of China theme park after our experience at the Forbidden City, and we wanted - desperately - to avoid the tour-bus crowds. The section of the Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai came recommended but was 130km from Beijing and sounded like a pain to get to. Public bus number 980 ran to Miyun about 50km away, and from there we could take a minibus taxi to Jinshanling for a not-inconsiderable amount of money. Tales of rampant hustles and scams on that route made me look into other ways of getting there. Some research turned up the fact that a taxi from a small town called Gubeiko close to Jinshanling would be only ¥20. Gubeiko is a stop on the bus route to the major city of Chengde, and buses left often from Sihui station in Beijing. That sounded like a nice end-run around the scams

In another instance of the inversion of expectations China’s been tossing my way, the bus terminal ran like clockwork - as opposed to the utter chaos of boarding any train here. Tickets in hand, we approached the turnstiles in the waiting room. Each turnstile was numbered and I saw quickly that the one mysterious number on our tickets must correspond to a turnstile, just like an airport departure gate. The woman at the turnstile checked our tickets and then called someone to escort us to the right bus. We were on the bus in a blur of efficient, polite service. It was such a contrast to the trains that it made my head spin - especially given all the horror stories we’d heard about Chinese buses from other travellers.

The bus was old but comfortable and nearly empty. It took ages to get out of the city. Traffic was very heavy and we crawled past one of Beijing’s massive ring roads after another. For some reason the bus got stopped by the police for half an hour. They were arguing over the presence, absence or content of various papers, as far as I could tell. At one point both the driver and the conductor were locked in the back of the police car. No one seemed especially concerned about any of it, though, and eventually they got back on board and we were moving again. We never did find out what it was all about - just one more little unfinished story among many on our travels.

What with all the police delays and a road-construction traffic jam the trip took closer to four and a half hours instead of the three we were expecting, but we had a very welcome surprise when the conductor, who knew we were going to Jinshanling, motioned us to stay in our seats until after Gubeiko. They dropped us off right at the highway exit for the road to Jinshanling! Sure, there was a friend of the conductor’s waiting with his van and suddenly that last-second phone call of his made more sense, but it was only four kilometres to the entrance and we didn’t have to take the ¥20 ride. We did though, since time was getting tight and we didn’t have an extra hour to spend walking.

That same logic made us decide to take the cable car from the entrance up to the wall itself rather than follow the winding path up the hills for another hour. We probably would have taken it anyway - we like cable cars. It was a dodgy, rickety contraption but the view as it lifted us above the crest of the hill was magnificent. The Wall stretched away into the hazy distance, draped sinuously over the old green broken-backed hills like the spine of a world-sized snake, with collapsing square watchtowers studding its length at each crest.

It was an exhilaratingly tough hike along the top of the wall for ten kilometres from Jinshanling to Simatai. The old yellow bricks underfoot were crumbling and ruined and overgrown with weeds, and the footing was precarious - even dangerous in places. Huge, steep climbs up and down had us clinging with fingers and toes to the broken stone and hoping it wouldn’t collapse entirely. Every time I reached the top of a stair or turned a corner I stopped, overcome again by the air of desolate and windswept antiquity.

As we hiked we pretended we were Mongol warriors invading China. In truth, though, the invasion was already a success. A veritable horde of eight or ten weatherbeaten Mongolian women were waiting at the top of the cable car to attach themselves like leeches to the tourists and follow them for hours along the Wall as unctuous and overfriendly “tour guides”. I’d read reports about them from unwary previous hikers and so I knew that somewhere around the two-hour mark, now best friends with their unwilling charges, they’d unleash the sob-story, reveal the laminated photos of their thirty starving children and refuse to go away until they were paid off for their “guide services”. Not wanting any part of that, Sheryl and I had decided beforehand that we spoke only Icelandic and replied to any overtures with “nó yngleske”, so they left us alone in favour of easier prey.

We’d somehow gotten stuck among a group of a dozen other tourists who’d come up at the same time. We tried everything to get away from them - slowing down or speeding up strategically - but the Wall was too narrow and we couldn’t lose them. It was a mixed blessing, though - they were occupying the Mongolian women, who were being real pests, by the sound of things. Their nasal, wheedling voices scratched away at our ears no matter how much distance we put between us and them. I speculated that since the Wall had been built precisely to keep out their distant ancestors, they were now answering some need from deep in their tribal memory by spending all their time on top of it.

It was difficult walking. The sun was very hot and my backpack full of food and water was heavy. I suppose we could have done without carrying all that water - every watchtower for the first few kilometres had someone with a Styrofoam cooler selling coldcokewaterbeer! The farther along we got, the lower the price fell and the more desperate were the sales pitches. Hell of a way to make a living. You can call me a bastard for not supporting the grassroots economy, but since I was carrying all that heavy water I was damned if I’d buy any - cold or not.

Halfway along the Wall to Simatai the hawkers disappeared and the Mongolian women made their extortion attempts and then peeled off on various side trails back to Jinshanling. We discovered the reason shortly afterward when we came on a work crew restoring the Wall. They were working from the direction of Simatai to Jinshanling and so all of the Wall for the rest of our trek had been completely rebuilt. Replaced, it would be more accurate to say. The whole top third of the Wall had been stripped and rebuilt with completely different bricks - sharp-edged pale grey with black mortar. All the crenellations had been sheared off and replaced with low ledges that did no more than hint at the Wall’s former shape. The visual contrast with the warm, yellow, crumbling old section was shocking. It looked like it had been built yesterday - another tragic restoration job of the sort that was becoming all too familiar to us. The Chinese just can’t stand for their ancient historical sites to look so disgracefully old and disreputable.

The rest of the walk to Simatai was much less interesting than the first half. I admit to some cynical amusement when we turned the first corner after passing the restoration crew and realized that they were laying the new courses of stone directly on top of the older layers without making any attempt to brace up the fragile, crumbling old bricks. The lower, unrestored two-thirds was already beginning to buckle and bulge out to the sides under the heavy weight of the new stonework. I give it ten years before these sections of the Wall collapse into rubble. By the time anyone reads this, the restoration will probably be completed all the way to Jinshanling and all that wonderful atmosphere will have been erased by a shoddy contemporary imitation. I feel very lucky to have seen it when I did.

We arrived on the stretch of the Wall above Simatai village around five o’clock, but weren’t quite ready to quit. We knew there was another cable-car station a few kilometres ahead that ran down to Simatai, so we headed there along the scrubby side trails beside the Wall. We saw the cars stop running for the day as we walked. On a hunch we continued to the top station, thinking that there might be a trail down to the village, but no such luck - the ancient, off-duty attendant we found (who we inadvertently rousted out of his cottage and whose dinner we interrupted, actually) told us in gestures that there was no walking trail and that we had to go back along the Wall. It was getting quite late at that point and we had to hurry - but that only meant that we got to see the sun go down from the Great Wall of China.

There was a hostel in Simatai and we’d made a reservation by phone from Beijing. We shouldn’t have bothered. The hostel was grotty, overpriced and nearly empty, and judging from the number of women hanging around asking “hotel? sleeping?” we could have found a homestay for half the cost. It was nice not to have to think about it after a long and tiring day, though.

We knew ahead of time that it was going to be a hassle getting back to Beijing. A trio of French girls had told us that there was a village-wide conspiracy to deny the existence of any buses, and so it proved. Everyone we spoke to - including the hostel staff - swore blind that there was no bus, or that there was a bus but it only left once a day and had already gone, or that it didn’t leave until late at night. Coincidentally, they all knew someone with a very good minibus taxi who could take us to a place where there would be lots of other minibus taxis that could take us to Miyun, from which we could catch a bus back to Beijing. Honestly.

The other two Westerners staying at the hostel fell for it and paid something like ¥70 each to be taken to this mystery location, where I’m sure they were gouged into a three-figure price tag by the only taxi there, all just to get to Miyun. We told them to wait, that they were being taken, but they wouldn’t listen. I wonder if they ever made it back to Beijing? If they did, the probably didn’t get there any sooner than we did, and they probably had to pay upwards of ¥200 each in the end - more than CAD$30. That probably doesn’t sound like much but it’s sixteen or seventeen times what it should have cost. There’s no helping some people.

There was only one road out of town and we walked along it, thinking we’d flag down a Beijing-bound bus when we reached the highway. It was a nice walk through friendly little hamlets and fields of lavender and marigolds under a rare, deep blue sky. After three kilometres we saw a sign telling us that it would be eight more to the highway, so we turned back and reached Simatai just in time to hop on a green bus directly to Miyun. That cost us the horrifying sum of ¥4 each, and when we caught the 980 back to Beijing that was another ¥8 each. Score one victory. There are these precious moments, sometimes, when I really do feel like a savvy world traveller.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

July 17th, 2010

I still sometimes think of the view from the Wall. Both sides had nothing in view but gorgeous green rolling hills, and a crazy line of wall that twisted and turned like a dragons back.

¬ Sheryl
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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