There's a Subway at the foot of the Great Wall of China. A SUBWAY. Literally right next to the sign that points you to the top, and there's that insidious yellow and green, with the smell of freshly baked bread hanging heavily in the air, the balcony packed with Chinese people, of all ages, guzzling down 6" breakfast rolls. It's very disappointing.
We'd arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall at around 10AM, with our new group, having battled with Beijing's rush hour for almost 2 hours. There are several sections of the Wall which are accessible to the public, not all of them linked, but Drujal had assured us that the one we were at was one of the best. The Wall itself is not immediately apparent from the parking lot, save for the dark silhouettes of some of the larger guard towers outlined against the haze. The walk to the ascension points is via a bizarre arrangement of shipping containers, fold up stalls and concrete lock-ups that gradually unfurl throughout the day to provide homes for the inevitable local commerce including dumpling steamers, purveyors of amusing Chinglish t-shirts, jewellery sellers and even one retired man dressed as a Chinese general (complete with 7-foot spear), with a smile so wide that the top of his head was threatening to fall off. This sort of rampant salesmanship must be common at any of the world's major tourist spots, but the Chinese do seem to inject real energy into the proceedings and the experience is all the richer for it.
As we neared the entrance to the Wall proper, we were offered a choice - we could either walk up the steps to the Wall (no number specified, rather ominously) or we could take the cable car to the top. I'd half imagined that it would be a cable car contemporary with the Wall itself, some rickety thing constructed from vines and bamboo, driven by cleverly harnessed pandas and a water wheel, which (had it existed) might have tempted me to take the easy option. In reality, the thing looked like it had been stolen from one of Britain's 3rd rate theme parks, so we opted for the stairs. And there were a lot of them. I did start to count, but the combination of the sweltering heat and my ailing fitness levels meant that I could either count or breathe. I went for the latter. It was a pretty climb though, from what I could see at the end of my tunnel vision, all dappled shade and overhanging trees. As we neared the top, we spotted a little clearing with a seating pagoda, so we stopped to admired the view and catch our breath.
A little further on and we reached the first gatehouse, through which we clambered onto the Wall proper. It's an unusual experience, seeing such a prestigious world monument up close; I'd liken it to the first time I saw the Empire State Building. You're so used to seeing the thing in it's entirety, through the lens of an aerial camera or in glossy coffee-table books, that when you actually stand in front of it the building is almost unremarkable as you're seeing it from such an unfamiliar angle - one that only lets you see a part of the whole. Similar here; your mind can't see the Wall as it expects to see it so you end up focussing on the little things in an attempt to reconcile your mind's eye with the reality. So I noticed how big the steps are - enough to make me struggle and nearly impossible for some of the Chinese tourists - and how well worn the flagstones are. I noticed how basic, but how massive, the construction is and how well spaced the guard towers are. And slowly, but very, very surely, the majesty of the whole enterprise assembles itself in your mind and reveals itself to be... incomprehensible. The Mutianyu section is 22km long, the Wall is, on average, 7-8m high and 4-5m wide and there are twenty two guard towers that are mostly two storey. I still marvel at the ambition of the thing, how the idea wasn't met with raucous laughter and the suggester's beheading for the amusement of the Imperial Court. But the realisation of this insanity is even more mind blowing. Once it had all sank in, I needed to stop for a few minutes just to let my mind process what I was seeing.
I also needed to stop because I was nearly dead. This section of the Wall is built on the ridge of rolling mountain-ettes, so it's extremely vertical at points. It's impossible not to think of what it must have been like to be standing guard in the winter of 1368, traipsing up and down the ice covered slopes and nearly breaking your neck every five minutes. We decided to try and reach the western end of the Mutianyu section (Tower 21) before heading back to take the toboggan (yes, you read that right) down from Tower 6. The route, as the crow flies, is about a 3km round-trip but involves level changes of about 250m. It was hot (with the ever present haze) but we made short work of the first leg. It was about to get harder.
As we approached Tower 21 we realised that the way up was via a massive stretch of steps, at what must have been a 35-40° rake. As I wheezed my way up, overtaking some elderly Germans who had developed some ill-advised ambitions of their own, it became apparent that the final 20m would be almost entirely vertical - thanks in no small part to the steepest steps I have ever seen. For every 60cm you went up, you'd have to balance on perhaps on 15cm of step. Insane. But once I reached the top, in one piece, it was worth every missed heartbeat. From this high vantage-point the classic image of the Great Wall of China is instantly visible, even through the haze. It was an inspiring moment and a memory that will stay with me for a long time.
We then set off back down, past the Germans (who, in spite of the obvious, were continuing on their very own Mission:Impossible), and back towards the toboggan. We passed several members of the group on the way, as we'd left them for dust on the outward journey, and arrived at the toboggan. It was exactly the same metal half pipe/school DT project sled as you can find in the UK, and would have been great fun (as it's a massive run), but we got caught behind a middle aged Mexican lady who thought that if she travelled faster than 1mph the air resistance would surely cause her to spontaneously combust. So we crawled down the mountain, listening to the lady shriek as we occasionally hit 1.5mph, and met up with the rest of the group to head back.
Once back, we decided to head out to the Silk Market, Beijing's premier shipping destination for tourists looking to be fleeced of their cash. On the way through the lobby, we bumped into Carol and Gille, a couple of French-Canadians from the tour, who were looking a little lost so we invited them to come along. The Silk Market proved to operate more or less in the same way as the Pearl Market from the other day, although here there is a greater focus on knock-off clothing, fake watches and touristy souvenirs. We shopped around, gawped at the Chinese ability to embroider anything onto anything else (A&F, Polo and D&G being the things keeping the sewing needles white hot at present), and headed off for dinner with the Quebec-ians. It was a lovely evening, and we got to break the ice properly with at least a small part of the group, so we retired content with the day and looking forward to the next.
Just before I go, I wanted to share the image above - just for laughs really. Sounded like a good place to go for dinner...