“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.
The sun blinds us as we pedal towards the main square of the city. My jacket is dark blue from sweat, but mostly rain. All that stops me from sailing off in the wrong direction, is the dark lines of the cobbled stone in front of me that don’t catch the glaring setting light.
Ill preparation is part of my existence. I seem to feed off it, like as if the time constraint, the lack of supplies is a challenge to be faced, rather than a careless burden that could have been avoided. Everything is purchased last minute, bikes, locks, cellphone, GoPro gear. I don’t even consider proper shoes, clips, tubes or even a fully packed practice ride around the city. My route planning is also off, delusional that we could bike 50 km, even though Rachel has never biked long distance in her life. Plus, I hated doing things for endurance. I get no thrill in pushing my body, without allowing my mind to indulge in the culture and history that whizzes by without me giving it a second glance. And yet, with all that said, this week was all about Rachel’s endurance.
The first destination outside of Amsterdam was the old university city of Utrecht. We prepped for several days prior, getting bikes at second hand stores and markets, getting film equipment, etc. People who go to Amsterdam for that one immature purpose, miss the heart of why this city is so magnificent and how effortless it seems to be as awesome as it is, from it’s bakeries, to it’s architecture, to it’s wonderful herring and stroopwaffels. Besides the bike and camera stuff, we also had a chance to taste wonderful fresh stroopwaffels at a local market, all thanks to our fearless leader and host Dennis. If you don’t know what a stroopwaffel is, I will not bother explaining it, because I feel if I do, I will not do it justice and undersell it, even though it will sound as if I was 14 year old prepubescent girl talking about Justin Bieber. Just look it up. We also had a chance to look at a few museums, including Anne Frank’s house, the Rijks Museum and the Church in the Attic and the wonderful Rembrant’s House. We also saw the dark tryptic work of Frances Bacon, which was on display at the New Church and had a good chuckle at the Sex Museum. After all said and done, it was nice to see Amsterdam again and knew that we would be back at the end of our trip to see a bit more before heading home (so many museums!!).
The journey started out in a tangle of bungie cord and confusion. Putting on the panniers and gear for the first time made me come to the realization, when under the gun, it really looks better if during the actual event you had the entire procedure written into memory, rather than ad-libbing as you go. Many questions arose that morning:
What are all these straps for?
What snaps to what?
Where is this going to fit?
How does this even go on?
Lucky our couch surfer Dennis came to the rescue and explained everything in laymen’s terms, which is a nice way of saying, he had no other choice but to talk down to us. So after some trial and error we were off. Or were we?
Now, Rachel is amazing at many things. The one responsibility I have is to route plan. Now, when you route plan you have to take into account various factors, such as weather, terrain, wind etc. I did most of that, except for one essential piece of the puzzle, that without this one piece, the entire picture reads as unartistic nonsense, derelict of any rhyme or reason for it’s creation. When route planning you have to take into account as to who is cycling. Now, I thought, well 60 KM, no problem. Rachel, on the other hand, has never cycled a distance longer than 25 to 30 KM, so double that length, is quite a big deal. Needless to say, my acute blunderbuss led to many yelling fits at the elements, at the hills, at a innocent tree, whoever or whatever was around to receive a verbal lashing got it. But I shall cut out such details from our trip, because the first week’s scenery and adventure much overshadow such inane parts.
The bike paths in the Netherlands are wonderful and we easily exited Amsterdam without much issue. Along the river, we say a regatta race taking place, sponsored by the drink of champions and people who piss in public areas with no shame, Henieken. Over several lovely bridges, passed the Hermitage Museum, the Dutch extension of the Russian Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Then south, along another river, passed section off plots of land by green painted chain fences, where small gardens were just starting to show their bulbs and stalks through the wet earth. The weather was cloudy and it looked always on the cusp of raining, but thankfully, day one, we didn’t see a drop of precipitation.
And then we were lost. The scent of the trail had gone missing and we are in a random residential area in Amsterdam Zuid. Asking around, after several wrong turns, through a university campus, dead end, turn around, we were off to Utrecht. Everything was on our side, the weather and the wind. Through some city and then WOOMP, into the countryside, with windmills and cows on all sides. Picturesque scenery overload. Small towns with people going about the daily routines gave life to the colourful backdrop, ancient structures with beings sitting inside of them reading books at a kitchen table, playing with their children or sitting outside at tables drinking cold beer and laughing, either at stories told or at the two strange figures, one with some sort of attena coming out of his head, pacing swiftly by on four wheels (two bikes, four wheels, yay math). The antenna, being the go pro camera, that while it looks a bit silly, is way better than the filming system I had on my last cycling trip in 2010, which involved me holding a handy cam in one hand and steering the bicycle with the other. The danger factor isn’t the concern, but the effort to do both things at once, film and steer and the shaky result, was like forcing people to watch one of those terribly amateur bootlegs of Lord of the Rings, lot’s of action is going on on the screen and you as the audience really want to enjoy it, but you are not sure what exactly is happening and the cameraman seems to have been sitting on a mechanical bull while filming it.
Around 3pm, we stopped at a lone restaurant in the middle of small town. I had a club sandwich and Rachel had an egg salad sandwich. Both hit the spot, giving us that burst of energy we needed to make it to our final destination for the day. Passing some house boats where people were out on their deck drinking red whine and people watching, we turned right into the city. Utrecht at around 6pm is full of students, biking in all directions, home or to the library or to an eatery, actually these are simply assumptions, who knows, they could be off to a cuddle party, I can’t be the judge.
We pushed on through the hordes, along the river, through the old buildings of red brick, that looked as if they we covered in flowing blood that was darkening in hue, as the sun dipped farther down behind them. A right turn and we were at Louis’s house. He was our host for the evening, a wonderfully jovial man, with a silent laugh and amazing electric viola skills. He greeted us with a banana, which seems perverse, but he actually presented us with the fruit, a very edible and peel-a-ble banana, intuitively knowing that the first day of cycling is hard. After locking up our bikes, we dragged our blue Ortlieb panniers up 3 flights of stairs, that I would consider to be more ladders than stairs, as you are forced, due to their verticality, to climb up them on all fours. I could imagine a night of drinking and being faced with this challenge. I can imagine a five minute climb, turning into an Everest ordeal, involving a lot of awkward body positions and several steps backwards and by steps I mean brutal falls.
That night, Rachel made a wonderful pasta and we drank wonderful local microbrewed beer and watched video of Louis at last year’s pride parade in Amsterdam, which involves 80 floats going down one of the larger canals. Louis’s float, which I don’t remember exactly who it was sponsored by, had a large Teddy Bear on it and a bar. Before reaching a bridge that stretched across the canal, the large inflated bear had to be deflated at a rapid pace and then inflated again once the bridge was cleared. Quite a process that involved some training prior to the actual parade day. It reminded of a Buster Keaton film called The Boat, which involved a similar gimmick. Behind their float, was a small boat, where a two woman, both in wedding dresses, celebrated their 16 years of marriage together. The magnitude of this event was impressive and the 700,000 people that attended just added to the epic proportions of it.
It was a wonderful evening, which again reminded me why I love couch surfing over hosteling. You can visit the museums, you can eat the food, you can even share some words with some locals, but actually being in a local’s house, eating with them, conversing with them, that’s where cultural exchange actually occurs, where you are no longer seeing a country as a tourist attraction, but as a visceral experience, with a unique soul and stories to be told in singular identifiable voices of people you have had the pleasure to be in the company of.
We awoke to a cat in our face. Chip, 16 years of age and grumpy looking, sits on my chest, starring at me expectantly. Louis has gone off to work, trusting us to lock up and be on our way. And we were, quite rapidly, out the door, down the three flights of ladders, out the door, bags on the bikes, sun peaking behind clouds, a slight ting of rain in the air and off we go, over bridges and cobbles and bike paths of painted red.
We were rushing for the border. Day 3 and we were crossing from The Netherlands into Germany. And yet, our Dutch friends never ceased to amaze us. This museum sign is literally in the middle of nowhere on some back country road. Since of our hurry we never did get to check it out. Lucky for me, the internet let me have a second chance. PS, my friend biked all the way to Budapest, this being his only faux injury. No poles with museum signs were harmed during the taking of the picture.
The crash museum website: