Beijing Trip – Day 3, Great Wall part 1

After what seemed not to be enough sleep the sun woke me again.  The sky seems to lighten so early in Beijing.  It was good I got up so early as we had to leave very early, The Great Wall was a fairly lengthy trip.  We packed our bags, I cleared my camera’s memory card and went to the bus stop.  We took the #5 bus, in the opposite direction to the Beijing Coin Museum (which looked more impressive then its title indicated).  Here we contracted a driver to take us to The Great Wall.  We were smart enough to ask the prices from various people before we got here because all the drivers seemed to want 2 times the rate we were told.  Finally we found a guy who agreed to our pricing and headed out.

Along the way we got to see some interesting sights.  First was the statue of Li Zhen Cheng.  He is a general who in the Ching Dynasty raised an army comprised of farmers and workers from the country side.  What is important to note about this is he was opposed to the emperor.  His army successfully cut a swath all the way to Beijing, and for the first time since Beijing became the capital of China did the emperor flee for fear of being captured.  The incursion failed and the general killed, but his strength and influence won him honor and respect, which in ancient China was worth more then life itself.

The driver had to stop to get some fuel, and we took the opportunity to stock up on water and more snacks.  Coco was not feeling well but said she was ok enough to go on.  Next we were out of Beijing less then 15 minutes and you could already see the mountain ranges coming up around us.  There were many construction sites and public works projects going on along the way.  We got to see one of the Olympic structures in its early phase of construction.  I think it was the Bird Nest Field and Track Arena.  Another of these was a huge medieval style castle complex, when I say huge I mean close to the size of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee IL big.  I was told this was an amusement park project where the owners ran out of investor funds and could not afford to finish the project, so it sits by the side of the road in about 75% to 85% exterior completed, iron and materials scattered on the outside of the massive ramparts.  Soon we got to see an example of the famous big winds of Beijing.  There was a series of wing gusts that had to be close to 50 mph and lasted for about 15 miles.  We did not see the huge dust storms or sand storms, but this was very windy, had a good amount of dirt in it and spawned a few dust devils on the side of the road. 

Soon after the wind died down and we could open the windows again I go to see small sections of wall by the side of the road and then up ahead through the windshield.  The mountain side is wrapped up in an emerald cloak of evergreens, flowering bushes, scrub brushes and other plants that can live in rocky environments.  Only a few beige sections of rock and earth poke through to reveal the mountain beneath this covering.  The Wall by start contrast is steel gray in comparison.  Only a few sections were viewable at this point and true to the tourist I am I had to begin taking pictures. 

The road did not get as steep as I had imagined.  I have crossed the Appalachian Mountains, even hiked it a few times, many times by car so I knew what it was like to be in the mountains on a highway.  Soon the huge parking structure was beside us, the walls all a faded crimson color.  We exited the Badaling Expressway and into the parking lot and up to the main gate.  It was still early and very very few people were there.  There were only 5 vehicles in the parking lot and none of them busses.  This and the morning air added to the excitement and feelings of the moment.  The driver agreed to wait, but in our negations he told us the entire wall would take 8 to 10 hours to walk, the most famous part only 3 to 4 and he was not waiting all day for us.  Coco being pregnant and not feeling well said she didn’t want to try to go or wait for me to do the whole wall, it gets really hot in Beijing and she had been here before.  So we agreed on a time to meet the driver back in the parking lot and headed to the ticket booth.

Coco and I got our tickets and complementary souvenir ticket and entered through the gate and up to the beginning of The Wall experience.  We snapped a few pictures and typical shots.  I noticed the greenery of the mountain was by design.  All the plants are terraced and in lines, making some parts of the peaks similar in appearance to Tibetan Buddha statues I have seen since a child, beaded head dresses from the brow to the top of the head.  One thing you have to hand to China, if the government wants to do something, build a bridge to planting billions of plants to protect a mountain, it can do it and get it done is a very short amount of time.

Going through the ancient style Chinese gate you past an elevated pagoda and then follow the enormous sidewalk into the base that marks the beginning and ending of The Wall.  Typical of all buildings in Beijing it is larger at the base then the top, almost a lazy pyramid in shape, with the top missing, painted crimson red and topped off with an emerald green roof.  Unlike the Forbidden City and surrounding buildings it did not have a yellow roof but green.  Yellow is owned by the emperor, green is a government building, belonging to the empire and not just the emperor.  The first building you notice inside the large red base is the Guan Yu Temple.  It was completed in 1449 in memory of General Guan Yu (lived in the 200’s).  This general is known for being the perfect officer and soldier.  At his death the emperor had him turned into a god, the god of war… his power and respect is seen in that he is in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  He is the only male only god in the religions and is the same one overlooking Coco’s Guangzhou apartment.  The temple is rather small, and holds the figures of famous generals of that time.

We climbed the steps up to the sentry deck, the area of the wall that allows one to walk from one section to another and see everything below.  Atop this section of The Wall you notice the large wooden stricture, which was closed, a series of cannons, all different and of different ages and periods, and a large stone plaque, with etched and gold painted characters for the phrase “You are not a real man until you climb The Great Wall”.  We followed the wall around through another gift shop, where I got some batteries, and then to a section with parking, shops, and places for sidewalk vendors to setup tents and such.  There is a newer section just built to the left, with elaborate hedge work, but people were starting to show up so we headed up.  Coco was felling better but said she would only go until she started to feel tired.  At this stage of our pregnancy I do not want her to over do it, especially on vacation.

The steps are not uniform in height or length.  This makes climbing them harder then you might imagine.  The Wall is wider here then I imagined.  One thing that I found odd was the ramparts, the areas soldiers and archers use for cover from the attacking ground forces, were facing Beijing, and not the other side of the wall… just an odd thing in my mind.  Off to the right is a large complex of stone buildings, all with ancient style construction and roofs, but obviously not as old as The Wall or other things we have seen this trip. 

Each section of The Great Wall is marked with a small guard post structure.  The first one had its upper level blocked off for some reason.  The second had a small platform that had a display of the Terracotta Warriors and the weapons used during the period.  From here you can not see too much as for the surrounding countryside, you are not too high up at this point.  The most curious thing here are the chains of locks along side the right hand side of the wall, one end is almost all the way to the ground on one side, the rest go as far up as the wall itself.  I asked Coco about this and she told me this is where couples, single and married, will come to place a lock to the chain for luck or to make a wish.  Couples will do this to mean they are locked together.  The fun part is to come back some years later, usually 5, to try to find your lock.  Some are marked with ribbons, others are engraved.  There are tens of thousands of these easy.

From this point the steps get narrow and steep, very steep.  The steps are all capped off with stones, some ground down from the nearly 5 inches at the ends to about ½ inch in the center.  The hand rail is just about necessary as the steps are steep and the height of each step is pretty tall.  It must have made getting up with armor, weapons, anything very long and hard to do.  The third platform was a welcomed break.  Coco made friends with a woman who brought along her puppy to the journey.  This guard house offered a much better view, mostly of the other side of the valley, where the other side of The Wall is located.  Here you can see where time has not been kind to this structure.  There are various parts patched in various ways, offering a calico version of stone, concrete, mortar, and original Wall.  Coco needed to rest and would return once she caught her breath.  I was to continue the rest of the way, about 2/3 on my own. 

I made it to the next guard house without much of a problem.  The guard rail has been switched to the right hand side for some reason on this section.  From atop this guard post you can see Beijing on the horizon, its skyscrapers only mere bumps on the flat horizon.  The mountain is still in its green shroud and it goes on almost to the horizon, only interrupted in the valley by the highway and railway like a long gray zipper.  The sun is climbing in the sky and it begins to get hot at this time.  One thing I have noticed is that westerners are not the only ones who deface monuments as there are carvings, scratchings, and inked Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters all over the place, on buildings, The Wall itself, and rocks within reach.  Once you have been in China for a while you will be able to tell the difference between the languages characters, even if you can not read them. 

The architecture inside the guard houses is all quite remarkable.  The bricks are all uniform in size (huge) and materials as they are all the same color.  The mortar is well laid and even, each layer is straight and level.  The openings in the windows are all arched and the configuration does not seem to include a keystone, making laying the bricks in an arch a bit harder.  The interior of these guard houses are very solid and well crafted.  Sitting back and thinking of the age and then the time they were laid it is rather amazing quality control could be maintained as the wall took many years and many thousands of people to complete.

The next section of the wall is not very long, and is at places almost level the next guard house is not that far away but the steps here are deceiving as the elevation is greater then you first estimate.  From here the wall is only not to tall to the surrounding mountain side.  There is a path that is easily gotten to if you hop over the side.  I did not do this mind you but the wall may only be 3 feet above the surrounding mountain side on the right hand side.  This guard platform marks about ½ way up The Wall, there is a small shop here selling t-shirts, water, post cards, snacks, and odds and ends.  The stairs are from this point on almost vertical and getting pretty narrow.  There are handrails on both sides and the sun is beginning to heat the steps in front of me.  From here you can see the terraced work of the plants here to prevent erosion of the mountain.  It is odd but at this time I am reminded of Mrs. Margery’s 6th grade geography class and the Incas and Mayans who used terraces to grow crops. 

From the top of this guardhouse you can see a new valley hidden behind the eastern side of the west mountain range.  In this valley there is a large farm that stands out because its brown exposed earth contrasts so much with the green clad surrounding mountain sides.  There is also a series of smaller roads visible, one a bridge and tunnel network that cuts its way inside some to the southern and western sides of the mountain ranges.  You have a good view of the 5 previous stations below, and two above and of a welcomed sight for many people, a set of bathrooms.  One curious sign troubled me a bit, Cell Phone Use Prohibited During Lightning Storm.  In the Navy every rule and warning is written in blood, meaning someone got killed or seriously hurt to cause this to be written down and placed in a manual.  So I had to think for a second, and I turned off my cell phone.  There were few clouds in the sky and all are white and fluffy giving no hint of a storm, however I have learned the hard way in higher elevations that weather can turn on you in just a few minutes. 

Continuing on my journey I find the next section is a long ramp up, almost no steps, this is a relief as by now the legs are pretty tired.  Just as you get to the bathrooms you find a sign that points to a path going down the mountain and to the Guandi Temple.  I journeyed down this path a ways I was missing the steps of the Great Wall.  I paused to take some photos of the east side of the mountain and the river and series of man made water falls on the other side.  I turned around and headed back to my main objective, to make it to the tallest point of the Great Wall.  Getting back to the Wall was quite a task but soon I was back on track.  A quick time check informed me I was still on time to make it to the top and back down on time.

The next level up was steep but not too far away.  I made it up and then climbed to the top of the guard tower as I have in every stop on the way up.  This one is a bit unique, as there is a smaller roofed room on top to the guard tower.  The architecture is a little different, square windows, wooden door frames, small cast half rolls to prevent water from running down into the guard house.  This guard house also holds more arched rooms and areas then the others and a 2 series stair way.  From the top the surrounding mountain ranges are all clear, a reservoir is visible in the distance, beyond the farm.  From here you can see less greenery on the mountain tops and more of the beige rock peaks.  The next guard house stands out against the sky but at a distance that makes it seem a world away. 

Climbing once again I ran across the first section of the Wall so far that goes down in elevation.  There are again some ramped areas making it easier on the legs.  The steps have also become much shorter in some sections making them much easier to climb.  This is just a tease as you round a turn you some of the more challenging steps so far.  The passage is very narrow, barely wide enough for two people, where the rest can easily accommodate 2 maybe 3 people side by side.  The steps are also pretty steep and I know this is not a high elevation but after all the other climbing it is hard to keep going forward.  You turn another corner and the steps get much wider and offer a surprise, merging with another flight of stairs leading down.  From here the top is too close to stop now.

The top is not too large, it is pretty high though, the highest part of the Great Wall.  Taking a water break inside the guard house is a nice idea.  The windows offer a good breeze.  The views are pretty breath taking too.  From here you can see the same sights as before but from a different scale and perspective.  The other side of the valley is much clearer and the other side of the Great Wall comes into clearer view.  You look down and realize the portion you just climbed is only ¼ as long as the rest of the wall, but its elevation changes are not as drastic as this was.  Any thought of trying to rush across the rest of the Wall and getting back to Coco on time is impossible.  As I am taking pictures my batteries give out, good thing I picked up a pack at the gift store.  My water is gone as are the snacks of salted nuts and dried fruit are also gone.  I climb up to the top of the guard tower and am surprised to see a vendor selling stamps of any character you wish, usually your name among t-shirts and other trinkets.  The view from the very top is incredible as you can see Beijing in the haze of the horizon and framed by the mountains.  The other side of the mountain is not visible and you can finally see some of that is over there.  As I stated before the other side of the Wall is fully visible looking like a tossed shoe string going on for miles and miles of mountain along with all the buildings on the other side of the river.

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