Sunday, January 8, 2017

Visiting the Great Wall

Mutianyu Great Wall, China (May 28, 2016)

Flying to China from the US is expensive, especially if one is forced to use american carriers to get travel reimbursement from work. One way to reduce the cost is to relax the constraints on the traveling dates, in order to get the cheapest available flights. It turned out that paying the hotel for one day more after the end of the conference was cheaper than returning the same day. So, I ended up having an extra day to kill in Beijing: perfect occasion to visit a nearby section of the Great Wall.

On the bus to Mutianyau
The Great Wall was built starting from the 7th Century BC, even though little remains of the most ancient parts of its construction. The majority of what survives today is from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The wall was built to control the northern access of China, and to contain the raids from the nomadic hordes living in the northern Mongolia steppes. Overall the actual wall is long more than 6,000 km (almost 4,000 miles), but extends much more if one includes trenches and natural defensive barriers. Most of the Ming Great Wall has now disappeared, a victim of the ravages of time and history. A few sections however have been restored and are now visited by million of tourists every years, many of them Chinese. Visiting the Great Wall is in fact considered a patriotic duty by the Chinese. This may be due to a quote attributed to Chairman Mao: "If you have never been to the Great Wall you are not a real man". Truth is however a little more complicated, as the quote is only the third verse of a poem Mao wrote in 1935 to inspire men and women to complete the Long March:
The heavens are high, the clouds are pale,
We watch as the wild geese disappears southwards,
If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not true men,
We who have marched more than 20,000 li.
The isolated sentence may have lost its original meaning, but is nevertheless very effective to promote Chinese tourism to the wall (street vendors offer you a "certificate" if you walk along the wall), especially the Badaling section, the first to be restored in 1975. That section of the wall is the easiest to reach from Beijing, 80 km north of the city and well served by public transportation. It is also the most crowded, so we decided to visit another section, near the fruit producing area of Mutianyau (about the same distance from Beijing than Badaling, but no easy public transportation). Arranging that is not difficult (plenty of travel agencies with english-speaking personnel), as long as you are careful to avoid the "cheap" trip offered by the hotels, which inevitably end with a long stop at a local mall. After some searching we chose to hire a trip with, offering "Mutianyau no-shopping tours" for $64 each person (we were 10, so we ended up hiring an entire minivan and private tour guide for that price). The bus picked us up at 8AM, right in front of the hotel, for the 1.5 hours ride to reach the wall (if there is not much traffic, which is instead expected in the morning).

Huge apartment blocks
You can see our guide in the small photo above on the left: she was actually living in the area near Mutianyu and had to leave very early in the morning to pick us up at the hotel. The bus ride was comfortable, but we indeed ended up stuck in highway traffic for half an hour or so. The difficult part was to getting out of the city, an endless expanse of high rise apartment blocks, many of them built surrounding what looked like a factory or assembly plant of sort. One can only appreciate the huge size of Beijing by driving through its never-ending outer suburbs. Once we managed to escape the traffic of the city the flow in the highway became easier, and we drove through a pleasant countryside full of orchards (the area North of Beijing is famous for its fruits production). Until we finally reached the mountains. 

Chairlift to the wall
The wall is a big touristic attraction and its access is well organized. The bus left us at the base of the mountains, where we got a chairlift to the wall, a few hundred meters above (some of us elected to walk on a steep path in the forest). The chairlift (small photo on the right) is actually quite nice, and it affords an unobstructed view of the wall which you cannot have from the wall itself (see large photo above). Once on top, you walk. I will write more extensively of the wall hike on a separate post, but for now I would just remark that even this short restored segment of the wall is actually very long, more than enough to satisfy any wall-walk urging I had, especially considering that any step forward must then be retraced back to the chairlift station, to get back to the bus at the end of the day. Notice however that in the photo on the right the chairs coming down were all empty. That is because the fun way to get back to the base is not with the chairlift, but rather with a very long toboggan.You sit on a small wheeled cart, pull up the brakes and slid all the way down as fast as you trust the centrifugal force to keep you within the banked tracks in the curves (or as fast as the person in front of you). It was indeed quite fun.

Beijing highway (May 28, 2016)

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