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Monday, August 5, 2013

A great day at The Great Wall . . .

The number one recommendation in the Lonely Planet guide to China is one most visitors also have at the top of their personal list – the Great Wall. On my first, very brief visit to Beijing close to a decade ago, I visited the wall, as do most tourists, I am sure. Alas, like many of those tourists, my visit was much less enjoyable than I had anticipated. My tour, again like many others, seemed more geared toward steering the tourist dollar to vast halls of souvenirs, jade factory outlets and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners than to experiencing the man-made wonder that is the Wall. The LP guide has a first person tale of woe titled “Badaling Blues (or Journey to the Great Mall)” in which an 8-hour trip included a mere 75 minutes on the Wall, completely missed the Ming Tombs on the tour guide’s advice but managed to fit in two jade factories, a dried fruit and roast duck shop, and an exhibition on Tibetan culture where the writer was asked to sign a Buddhist talisman then belatedly told the cost.

My own tour years ago was similar except with different outlets and it’s well known the tour guides get a commission for the people they funnel through such places, particularly if they spend well. There was a video making the rounds of the Interwebs here last month that showed a tour guide aggressively berating his group at such a store because they weren’t spending enough.

If one wants to avoid such annoyances, it’s easy enough to take a bus to the Wall, though you’ll need to take a taxi or minibus for the last part of the journey so may have to negotiate that price once there. Or, for those who want comfort and control of their itinerary, there are plenty of taxi services or cars and drivers willing to take you wherever you wish to go. They’re easily found under services on the Web site

I’d decided to visit the Wall when a Kiwi friend came to visit, and she arrived Friday night. I had been in touch via e-mail with a driver I liked the sound of and ended up booking him to collect my friend from the airport also, as it was much simpler than her having to negotiate getting a taxi in a country and language she didn’t know, and the cost was about the same. It also meant I could work that day as her flight was due in shortly before I expected to finish work, meaning we could enjoy a full two-day weekend together before I needed to get back to work.

All of which went exactly as planned, and my friend was happy to have no hassles at this end after a 14-hour flight from Sydney. The driver sent me a text from the airport when they made contact and they arrived at the apartment/work complex 15 minutes after my part of the paper had been put to bed.

We’d decided to go to the Great Wall on her first Sunday here and I’d booked the driver for that, intending to visit the Mutianyu section and the Ming Tombs, which are on the way and often part of any tour to the Wall. My first time, I went to the Badaling section, which was very crowded and had very aggressive hawkers, plus stopped by the Ming Tombs without being overly impressed. Then, last week, I decided it was a little silly to take a car for only two so invited two friends to join us and, preferring hedonism to history, changed the Ming Tombs visit to a stop at a restaurant I’d heard wonderful things about, The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu.

Saturday we spent wandering a small part of the inner city, enjoying lunch at Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant in Ritan Park (hot and sour soup, beef with coriander and asparagus grilled with garlic eaten on a patio overlooking the park), then strolling through the park before looking at the Alien’s Street market (in the heart of the Russian area where you’ll see more furs than you could imagine), picking up a few essentials at Jenny Lou’s - a grocery store with lots of imported goods - and looking through the Silk Market before taking the subway home tired and footsore.

Sunday dawned fine and hot, as was expected as the country endures a heatwave, though with the customary smog-filled sky. (There have been some beautifully clear skies since I have been here but I have come to learn they are the exception and the norm is the smog. Thus far, my asthma seems better than when I lived in Seoul but I’m sure the long-term health effects here must add up.) We breakfasted on fresh fruit and yogurt, filled a cooler bag with bottles of water we’d put in the freezer the night before, met my friends downstairs and found our driver waiting at the compound gate.

Less than an hour later, we had passed Beijing’s 6th Ring Road and were driving along picturesque tree-lined country roads, often bordered by streams and with camping grounds and makeshift pools dotted among the farmlands and occasional massive factory complexes. Roadside stalls all along the way sold fresh produce (it’s stone fruit season at present and there were also many cornfields along our route, with many stallkeepers grilling the cobs on the spot) and there were also a good number of “picking farms,” where I guess you could pick your own fruit. The further we got from the city, the clearer the air became and we fantasized about living in the country while knowing, just as clearly as China’s millions of migrant workers know, that the best money is to be made in the city, especially for us “foreign experts.”

Within about an hour and a half, we’d reached Mutianyu where the first things we noticed were a Subway/Baskin Robbins restaurant and a pizza outlet. I remember, back in 1993 when crossing the equator while sailing from Thailand to Kenya, I’d half expected to see a floating McDonald’s or Pizza Hut straddling the hemispheres – it’s probably even more likely these days.

My three friends decided they wanted to take the cable car up to the ridgeline on which we could see the wall and its Ming-dynasty guard houses, but I had been given a stout wooden walking staff the previous week by a colleague who was leaving to take a job in Melbourne (first traveling by trains from Beijing to London) and I wanted to walk to the Wall. Our driver, James, escorted us to the ticket booths, where we brought tickets according to our choices (45 yuan entry for everyone plus 60 for a one-way cable car ride for my friends). Another colleague had urged us to take the toboggan chute down from the Wall and we were told we could get tickets for that at the top.

My friends headed for the cable car and I started walking, and was instantly pleased I’d made the choice as the beginning of my path passed through a series of caves full of stunning stalagmite and stalactite structures. They were not part of the Great Wall pathway itself but came before the entrance, as did several exhibition halls of similar natural sculptures plus various quartz formations and fossils. I would never had known they were there without choosing to walk.

An amazing fossil - I took this just before being told, "No photos" - a common occurrence

I was also sending photos and texts to a friend in the U.S. as I explored, which caused me to feel a little conflicted about the ubiquitous role of the Internet in our lives these days (a little less ubiquitous here where we have the Great Firewall of China, but never too far away, regardless). On one hand, it was great to be able to share some of the experience and the stunning scenery with a friend far away who may never see it in person (and who amused me highly by asking what was on the ridgeline after I’d said I was on my way to the Great Wall), on the other I wondered if I was removing myself from the immediacy of the experience by framing it for someone else’s eyes. I guess, as a writer, I tend to do that most of the time anyway, and my compromise was to put away the phone once I began my ascent proper, apart from using the camera to take photos (I’d left my camera in the car). 

"Beautiful scenery, what is on top of the ridge?"
The Great Wall of China, d-oh."

The walk was enjoyable and I was pleased to see how clean the pathways were, kept that way by workers I saw along the way sweeping and tidying and, I hope, also by the frequent trashcans along the way and exhortations to keep the environment clean. The first part of the path I took consisted of several flights of very steep steps that quickly got my heart rate up and having the Hari Raj stick (so named for the colleague who bequeathed it to me) made the climb much easier.

Once atop the wall itself, I headed in the direction I thought the cable car would terminate and walked up and down several sections as they undulated along the ridgeline, interrupted every so often with guard towers that looked out over the mountains on either side. Having passed two guard towers, I looked back to see a cable car behind me so retraced my steps, then saw when I’d gone another two towers past my starting point that the large cable car was in the direction I’d first thought. So, back up and down and down and up again, til I met my friends and turned around again to head to where the toboggan chute originated. By this time, we’d been on the Wall a couple of hours and were getting hungry so decided to head back down and meet our driver.

Vendors atop the Wall encouraged walkers to buy cold water, beer, ice blocks or souvenirs, all of which they’d ferried up earlier in the day. (A local I talked with while my friends were having name stamps carved once back below said they carried them up rather than take the cable car as the cable car cost would have wiped out a good deal of profit). I have two friends who collect fridge magnets so bought them each a Great Wall magnet from the Great Wall.

We then bought tickets from the Beijing Mutianyu Great Wall Speed Chute Amusement Co. Ltd. (60 yuan), boarded our toboggans, had the braking mechanism explained, were told to keep our distance from the toboggan in front and to lean into the corners. I left some time and distance between me and the toboggan before mine so I could test the speed without having to worry about bumping my friend but, even with the brake fully released, there was little danger of flying out of the chute. I quickly gained on my friends who were stuck behind a woman who shouldn’t have been allowed the controls of anything faster than a supermarket trolley and we all had to ride our brakes to keep to her sedate speed. It was fun, but I’d probably have been just as happy walking down by a different trail.

Once back near the entrance, I took my friends to explore the waterfall cave, which would be a shame to miss but wasn’t obvious unless you knew it was there or stumbled across it, as I had.

Back to the car and a 5-10 minute drive and we arrived at The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu. I’d been intrigued by this place since I’d seen an advertisement for weekend grills there with live jazz in the evening and did a little research. It turns out it’s a restaurant in an old schoolhouse attached to an eco-retreat where much of the restaurant’s food is grown. Slow food, locally sourced produce, environmentally aware and, I’d read, wonderful meals, attracted me much more than the tombs of some ancient Ming Emperors.

I made a good call. 

We asked for an outdoor rooftop table and sat down to school-paper placemats and crayons with which to draw on them and were given menus with covers made of previous diners’ drawings. The major difficulty was deciding what to eat as everything looked so good but the two friends who also live in Beijing and I had decided by now that we would return to Mutianyu each season to see how it changed so we would have at least three more chances to sample the Schoolhouse’s menu while doing so.

I chose the salad of the day – fresh greens with smoked duck breast – my Kiwi friend chose a burger and surprised our American friends by NOT wanting it with cheese (gasp!) or bacon (horror!) and the others ordered grilled duck breast with polenta fries and mushroom risotto with a duck confit. Nachos and a tasty home-made salsa full of fresh coriander were brought as a complimentary appetizer and roast garlic in oil and balsamic served with tiny rolls came with the mains. My salad was excellent and my friends ate every bite of their dishes also but enjoyed them too much to offer to share. Two of us finished with affogatos while the others shared a thick coffee-caramel milkshake for dessert. 

I’d noticed a gallery downstairs and a sign saying there would be a glass-blowing demonstration so we took our unfinished drinks and headed down there in time to get seats front and center and were treated to an artist at work. The gaffer (glass-blower) started in the industry at age 17 and has been working at the art for 17 years now and was both extremely skilled and a relaxed performer. He explained to the audience each step of the way and his assistant, a young American from Rhode Island, and an English-speaking Chinese staff member did the same for us English-speakers. It was fascinating to watch a blob of glass be transformed into a beautiful vase that needed another 20 hours of slow cooling in an annealing kiln before being able to be handled. To demonstrate how hot the completed work was, the artist put a piece of newspaper inside it, which quickly burst into flame. 

My friend bought a beautiful art sculpture of lovebirds to take home with her and many others in the audience bought items from the gallery I was tempted by some of the hand-blown glassware but suspected I would only break them and then be heart-broken to have done so.

I had wanted to look at the accommodation while there but the Maitre ‘d explained it was in an adjacent village so I will return another time to check that out. Instead, we rejoined our driver for our return trip, by which the roads had become much more busy and we had one nervous encounter with a bus trying to edge us out on one side while a cement mixer barreled down on us at speed on the other. I’m sometimes happy to have become almost blase to such driving in the years I’ve spent in Asia.

As for our driver, we were very happy with his driving, his attitude and his company and the cost of hiring him for 10 hours, including tolls, fuel and parking was less than $US100. I will happily use the service again. 

Back home, we rested a few hours before regrouping at my apartment for Thai Green Curry Chicken and a salad, after which we all called it an early night.

I look forward to returning to both the Great Wall and the Schoolhouse in autumn to experience the beauty of the trees changing color, then going back again in winter when it’s snow covered and in spring when it bursts back to life.And, of course, enjoying the seasonal specials at the restaurant.