“It not a Great Wall. It’s an alright wall. It’s the Alright Wall of China.”
-Karl Pilkton, An Idiot Abroad.
After reading information about The Great Wall in his Lonely Planet China Guide and realizing many of the tourist sections of the wall were rebuilt in the 1980s, to include such ancient devices of revelry such as massive, German engineered slides, hawkers selling you skull caps with a single braid of black hair coming out of the back of them and pits filled with suicidal brown bears, Karl was left unimpressed by what some would consider one of the greatest feats of human skill and endurance of all time. Like Mr. Pilkington, I was very wary to see “The Wall”, as I was not interesting in see Great Wall 2.0. Not even 2.0. Mavericks upgrade. Shitty, cheap and simply a money grab.
The GREAT thing about the GREAT Wall is it is humongous. One, I shouldn’t be so judgement, so….yes…one…fine…gentleman attempted to walk the entire length of the wall. For starters, there isn’t just ONE wall. Regardless, He failed. Like not, you were SOOO close. No. He failed miserably. It goes over ice mountain ranges. Like, your ability to walk isn’t how it is in Skyrim in real life, sir. Its Lord of the Ring’s helicopter shot BIG. Back to the Greatness of this, the Chinese government simply doesn’t have enough resources nor care to “tourify” every inch of it and tourists aren’t going to be bothered to trek into the middle of no where to stare at a wall. Or so they think. I wanted to see The Great Wall. Or more so, the Real Great Wall, not the Fake Wall. Luckily there are enough people on the internets that feel the same way.
For all your up-to-date Wall needs, check out: http://www.greatwallforum.com/
Huanghuachang, the Great Wall that goes into a river, due to damming was the planned destination. Buses were researched and on a rainy weekend morning I headed out on a somewhat empty bus from Dongzhimen Central Station. Our excitement was a sweet as sugar, but the rain would not melt it. So maybe it was as sweet as honey as I think precipitation has no effect of that sticky substance. Through the outskirt hills of Beijing, in Huirou city. A few stops. Nothing unusual. Faces come on and off. Sits empty and fill. A pair of eyes meet mine.
“You going to Great Wall”
“Oh. It’s closed.”
Pause. From my research I knew that this was an unregulated part of the Wall. This means no ticket booth or official check in procedures. This SHOULD mean no opening or closing time. I was confused and in my confusion, we got off the bus and loaded into his vehicle. It was like so trance. Like trusting the white panel van full of candy.
“Where are we going?”
“To the Great Wall”
“What? I thought it was closed”
“Mutianyu is open”
Mutianyu was one of the horribly touristic sections of The Wall I had wished to never encounter. We had been duped. The man, who was wearing an official bus staff uniform, removed it. He was a Black Taxi Driver and we were at him whim, along with another white couple that sat in the car with us as well. I counted my wad o’ money. I knew that Huanghuacheng was no longer an option anymore, but I was damned if I was going to pay a zillion dollars to go pay a zillion more dollars to hang out with a zillion tourists on a 5 year old’s macaroni art project, deemed The Great Wall. We came to a “reasonable” deal. Exiting the black cab, we were suddenly drenched from above and from all angles, by rain and dripping hawkers. Pretty sure I don’t need a 4 foot statue of Mao made of the finest plastics. No, thank you, that’s awful kind of you, I just don’t think I am in the mood to buy a pet bird or cat or dog or ?. Though we did need an umbrella. Again, hard bargained, including using the line, I live in Beijing, I know how much this should cost, don’t fuck with me (yeah, I totally have no idea how to say that last line, but imagine that reaction). The adult umbrella was ridiculously priced, so we bought two kid ones. It was like walking on a tight rope, balancing the circumference of the small umbrella perfectly above our heads. Through hawkers row, lined with booths, flashing blinding lights into your retina, like maybe if you were blind you wouldn’t be able to see the piles of shit, drinks, t-shirts, shit and more shit being sold. But, to be honest, they are people just trying to scrape by, so I get it. I feel for them, but on a day where the clouds had opened both physically and metaphorically, I had very little patience to gab. Purchased expensive tickets with a glib smile plastered to my face plastered in wet hair. Climbed numerous stairs up and up and up. AND Viola! On the Wall. Or were we?
The fog, which was as thick as being surrounded by a legion of Santa beards, made it difficult to tell exactly where you were. It felt as if we were on a road in the clouds. The rain was actually a blessing in disguise, as it cleaned the wall of most of the tourists and hawkers. Yet, with map in hand, I had alternative plans. I was heading to the greyed out area at the edge of the map. I was going to see the REAL wall. And no, you can’t go beyond this point sign or cement blockade was going to stop me. Up an over the blockade and finally, we were face to face with antiquity. The fog felt more appropriate here, as if it became part of the myth of the wall, something that existed on a scroll in waves of black ink. We stood atop a crumbling tower, one of the many guard towers that appear along the wall. We followed The Wall for a bit. Old growth vegetation fought its way up through the crumbling structure. At points it was hard to tell where The Wall was and if we were just aimlessly meandering, lost in a sea of evergreens. But then a small rock, a patch of rubble would lead us onwards. We walked for 40 minutes until the underbrush, became the overbrush and we had to turned back, in fears of being engulfed. This part, getting to touch the real stone of this magnificent work, the same stones that the builders had assembled hundreds of years ago at the orders of their Emperor, was the pay off. Done with the Real Wall, the rest of the Wall was simply the elaborate pathway back to the bus stop. But wait! The story doesn’t end there!
I had to go to the washroom. Not being completely savvy in ways of the public washroom at tourist sites in China, I thought there’d be toilet paper. There was definitely not. My favorite game ensued. Check your pockets and see what will work. Several receipts and the umbrella cover. FINALLY, I found an alternative use for those things. Velvety soft.
Famished from the walk and not interesting in indulging in the extremely out of place Great Wall Subway or Baskin’ Robbins, we tried the local inn. The food was meh, but it filled the gap. Unfortunately, the slow service led to us missing our bus. No problem, we’ll just cab somewhere and bus from there. Black carred it to a bus stop. A bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Like NOWHERE. Wait. Wait. Wait…..RAIN. NIGHT. Finally. Bus…..bus comes and takes us into Huirou, where we catch a connecting bus back to Beijing.
The Great Wall is an interesting place to visit and can make a wonderful great day trip from Beijing. Just realize what you are getting into, what you want out of the experience and research alternatives. I ended up making it to Huanghuacheng and it was more of the experience that I wanted. Again, if you want to see an easily accessible, no hassle part of the wall, Mutianyu, may fit the bill. One note: Bring some information about The Wall with you, as it will truly enrich the experience.
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Quick Dos and Do Nots of the Great Wall of China:
DO your research. There are many sections of the Great Wall to see. Make sure you find a section that fits what you want to get out of the wall.
DO NOT listen to people telling you alternative information than watch you researched, especially shifty guys on the bus. They might be simply black taxis trying to get you to pay exorbitant fares to go with them. The bus will get you there.
DO Bring supplies. Food, water, rain coats, toilet paper. It’s for sale there, but at three times the price. PLUS, I don’t think toilet paper is for sale out there. It’s just a good idea to bring it with you everywhere.
DO NOT listen to the DON’T WALK HERE signs. They are simply trying to prevent you from walking on the part of the Wall they haven’t charged people to walk on. It has nothing to do with Wall preservation. Do you see anywhere else “preservation” happening?
DO bring info about the Wall. It’s a magnificent marvel, but context makes each part of it that much more awe ridden.
DO NOT expect that you will be alone on the tourist parts of the Wall. It will be you and 85 billion people trying to get a picture of the pristine Wall, without dude picking his nose not in the shot.
DIRECTIONS and INFO
The Great Wall – Mutianyu (慕田峪)
Cost: 45 Yuan
The fastest way is to take bus 916快 (express) or 916, which run from Dongzhimen to Huairou Bus Station first, get off at the terminus (or Qingchun Road North End or Huairou North Street), Walk to the bus stop on the diagonal corner of the intersection and take bus H23, H24 or 936 (Huairou to Dongtai) and get off at Mutianyuhuandao. Again, these buses’ numbers change frequently. Best to show the symbols of Mutianyu to the bus driver.
Our bus from the famous karst landscape of Yangshuo sits on the highway in a nameless, industrial spread. The only movement that exists is on the bus, as people squirm in the uncomfortably small and metallic sleeper bunks.
Finally, I jumped down from my bunk, unable to hold on anymore. I had to pee and no traffic jam or on bus facilities would stop me from accomplishing this goal.
In broken Chinese I told the bus driver my intentions and he reluctantly opened the door. Seeing this act of rebellion, several other Chinese men jumped down from their bunks and followed me out of the bus, into the resonating heat of the valley we were in. They followed me in a line as if we were on some sort of school field trip. I had no idea where I was taking this cohort of mostly suited Chinese men.
Fuck it. With limited options I resorted to the tried and tested, pee on a tree (a lemon tree, to be exact). The men, crowding to see what I was doing, looked flabbergasted.
“Peeing on a tree! Good lord! What’s next? Eating cheese???! Barbaric!”
So logically for them, the best place to urinate was in someone’s shed that they found open.
After relieving myself, I climbed up onto the wide highway to see what the hold up was. It was a gruesome scene. A car vs big truck scene, where the body of a man now lay splattered on the road, face covered by a poorly weighed down napkin.
We got into Sanjiang at night. With no leads on accommodations, we found a random lady waiting at the bus stop, whose broken English promise of a ‘warm bed’ seemed like an oasis in the dark. Our room was in a non-descript building near the bus station. It had running water, two beds, slippers and lock. Heaven as far as I’m concerned. Satisfied, we quickly ate some foodly food and went to sleep.
The next day, we were up early, as we had to find this mystical bus to Chengyang, our final destination on this leg of our South China Adventure. I refer to the bus as mystical, not because it’s driver is Greek God or a Wizard, no, it’s because finding buses in China is somewhat of an epic task, as they are constantly changing numbers and services. Crossing the river, following the much-lauded Ipad GPS, we found the bus stop up a hill and miraculously purchased tickets and got on the right bus in one fail swoop.
Forty-five minutes later through farmland, following the Linxi River, we had made it to Chengyang, in the Guangxi Province of Southern China.
Chengyang is a series of 8 villages of the Dong Minority that the Chinese government has made into somewhat of a tourist attraction. What this means is, along with sleeping accommodations, such as ours, the Dong Village Hotel (which was a lovely wooden structure), there is also an entry fee and hockers trying to sell you “local products”, which look oddly similar to items I could purchase in Beijing.
The local Dong Minority are friendly people. They have their own language, but from what I found, many of them understand basic Mandarin. They are known for the Wind and Rain Bridges and their polyphonic choir singing, which is a UNESCO recognized intangible cultural heritage. Their songs and stories are about nature and agricultural work, which are still very much part of the Dong peoples’ lives. Like elsewhere in China, they were curious about us as we walked through their towns, but seemingly were happy to have us there and were excited when they interacted with us, especially the kids. On a random side note, I also found out these people were traditionally involved in bullfighting! That is nuts and doesn’t fit with the image of this truly tranquil place.
We quickly dropped off our stuff at the hotel and went to explore. To gain perspective of where we were, we climbed up some random steps into the forest, past some tea terraces where we found an observation deck that looked out onto the whole valley. If we followed the river to the horizon, we could see the villages, nestled into the green trees and hilly landscape, with their easily identifiable dark wooden tiled roofs and their central cone shaped drum towers.
Not a lot of movement going on below, which in China, is an odd feeling, since even in the remotest of places, hustle and bustle seems to be a national credo that all adhere to.
No, Chengyang is a place for the somewhat slower paced. Though the bridges are UNESCO heritage attractions, it’s remoteness and lack of anything to do (completely subjective, as I found LOTS to do), make it still a safe haven for travelers wishing to just walk around and be with the locals. And that’s what there is to do.
Over the two days we spent there, we made our way from town to town and stopped and sat with people in the traditional drum towers, that act as a meeting point for each town for ceremonies, such as dancing, smoking tons of gross cigarettes, playing cards, washing the town TV (wonder who decides on the channel) and simply a hangout spot:
“Hey, where you at?”
“I’m at the drum tower”
“Ya? What you doing?”
“You know. Sitting around smoking, around a fire, with a bunch of other dudes.”
“Sounds like a blast! See you there!”
Though we couldn’t speak to the older generation that asked us to sit around a fire as they chimneyed smoke from their cracked mouths and blackened teeth, we shared a few international laughs at our situations and shook numerous outstretched hands, liked celebrities. The towers themselves look like wooden Christmas trees, with beautifully painted and decorated interiors.
The main attractions are no letdowns. The Wind and Rain Bridges are defiant marvels, spanning over the Linxi River. Since the turn of the 20th century when they were originally built, hey have survived the elements, without a single nail in their wooden structures. And they aren’t simply covered bridges. Like the drum towers, they are also focal points with many functions to them. They act as a thoroughfare for vendors, a safe haven from the rain and as a place of tranquil prayer at one of the many alcoved temples.
The meals we ate in town varied in quality and if you asked me, I couldn’t name you exactly where or what we ate. And that’s the joy of exploration, the spontaneity of trusting new situations and just putting whatever they have labeled food into your mouth. Though, the food in Chengyang isn’t ex-factor level. It is simple fair of veggies and meat. There are a few local specialties, such as rice wine and cooked pumpkin, which are both delicious and apart.
The towns themselves are fun little mazes to wander through. The buildings are two storied or on stilts (Ganlan houses), tightly compact, intersected by small cobbled passages. Life exists up and down, left and right, and of all variations and species. Where you’d expect a human head to poke out, a rooster stares down at you, head cocked sideways, listening. The sun is all but blocked out of these wooden crevices, and black figures make their way from one house to another, pausing for a curious moment to see us making out way towards the light.
Though the hotels rent bicycles, the immediate villages are easy enough to explore on two, semi-affluent of hiking all day, feet. I, myself, are always curious what’s beyond the tourist map (literally a map outlining the 8 walkable towns), so we did rent bicycles and cycled beyond the Chengyang area. What exists there are other Dong Villages that are also attempting to build up their tourist cred to attract new visitors to their towns. Though, it’s hard to say if this new infrastructure is a local endeavor or the government’s moneymaker.
It’s a place of deep reflection and nature. Sitting by the river and staring at the wooden villages, like stilted reminders of the past, I realized how utterly dense this country is and how diverse it’s makeup is. Many of these people were force fed nationality, of a country they couldn’t be farther from being apart of. And yet that underlying animosity that exists slowly flows downstream. What you’re left with is nature sounds, the window flipping through my book novel. Thank goodness I folded the page to remember my spot.
Some would say that once you saw one village, you’ve seen them all and there’s only one lousy museum with NO English. This is culture at its rawest, real people who have to get up and work the fields or they starve, wells in use, because there isn’t enough water, fires in pits used to heat the room. The museum isn’t MOMA, it’s what some MOMA artists use as inspiration or as reflection upon. It is a room filled with preservation, a rare feat in China, of usable items, of tradition, of belief. But above a basket or a drum tower, the people in these small pocket communities, have the twinkle of a deep routed, energetic spirit in their eyes and are well worth the several bus rides and train rides to get there. Did I mention they use to be in BULLFIGHTING? Ernest Hemingway approved! Travel details and gallery below!
If you arriving from Guilin, you will arrive at the HeDong bus terminal. To get to He Xi bus station walk out of HeDong bus station, turn right and then turn right onto the bridge, when you come off the bridge, keep walking straight across the intersection and the bus station is a little way up the hill on the right.
The address for He Xi is: 三江河西客运站, located in 71 Xingyi St. Sanjiang.
If all else fails, the word Gong Gong Qi Che (Gong-gong-chee-ch’uh) means bus.
Simply saying Chengyang Gong Gong Qi Che should get someone’s attention.
At the end of saying that phrase, if you want to add a bit of flair to your random blurt, you can say “Zai Nar?” (Z-eye N-uhr), which means “where is”.
The word for ticket is “piao” (pee-ow! – like a laser sound).
The bus heading to Chengyang costs around 6 Y and takes around half an hour. From around 7:30am, it leaves when it is full, to around 5pm.
The bus coming back, meets right outside of the main entrance to the park. Make sure you flag it down. The last bus leaves around 5pm.
The bus to Chengyang, was around 10 Y. The park entry fee is 60 Y. There didn’t seem to be a way of avoid this, though, if you can it’s not such a bad thing, since the money apparently isn’t going into the pockets of the locals.
The Dong Village Hotel cost around 80 Y per night, but had spacious, wooden rooms, wireless, western toilets, BIG balconies, overlooking the Linxi river and the Wind and Rain Bridge. They also have bicycles for rent, which we used and were quite well maintained. There are also a few guesthouses in town that are both labeled and unlabeled. I am sure you could also stay with a local for a really, personal experience, exciting for both yourself and your host.
I did see some western food on the menu, but why…..would….you? Eat local and try something new. If you are not allergic to anything and don’t have any food inhibitions, point to something on the menu and get ready to eat a mystery meal.
If you are into trying to local foods, you can attempt to ask the waiter (foo-yan) if there are any local specialties:
“yo te se t’eye ma?
Up a flight of stairs. Not in pitch darkness, as they are lit, dimly. Gangrik’s apparently is fair sized, with a hallway kitchen, a balcony, a single bedroom and living room. The living room at first glance seems like any normal apartment living room furnished in the 90s, complete with low central table, a couch, a few chairs and a desk, with papers stacked around a desk top computer, as if the misshapen piles created privacy. But then we look down and suddenly we are in a house of an occult, where sacrifices are surely made. The carpet, stained brown, has drawings on it, in crayon. Drawings of circles, shapes, crosses and a large Angel in the middle, hands reaching out, as if asking to be dragged from the drawing itself.Gangrik asks if we’d like some tea and knowing it is impolite and potentially life threatening to not accept such a generous offer..we accept. Tonight, no more cliff hangers.