Friday, March 06, 2009

On Top Of The World

These are a couple of pictures that we (uh, Desi) snapped up at the top of our Jiao Shan "wild wall" hike. Between the mountain lake and the surrounding rocky hilltops, it was quite a reward...


Thursday, March 05, 2009

How Do You Get To The Wild Wall?

One of the challenges of the Great Wall is that it is usually experienced in a pre-packaged, sanitized form. Everything about the wall is set up to funnel visitors to a few small sections that have been restored and commercialized for throngs of visitors looking to make a quick trip, snap some photos, and then move on.

There is the high-speed train from Beijing North that connects the city with Badaling, the granddaddy of Great Wall sites. There are the long-distance buses that ferry folks out to Mutianyu, Simatai, and other such locations. All of these destinations are truly spectacular, and we have certainly enjoyed them to the utmost.

But how do we break out from the barriers, and get out to remote sections of the wall, where we can experience past and present more on our own terms? As it turns out, all we needed was to be in the right place at the right time.

As Desi and Z have already posted about, one day we were hiking up a rebuilt section of the wall at Jiao Shan, just outside of Shanhaiguan. It was an incredible climb, with really vertical sections. But, eventually, we ran into the inevitable edge of the restoration, and had a decision to make.

Should we go on, and at last walk along the crumbling wall? Or should we veer off, and stick to a well-constructed side path that would keep us on the proverbial straight and narrow?

Desi and I looked at each other, and pretty quickly decided to err on the side of caution. We began to follow the prescribed pathway.

This was when we scored our really fortunate break.

We had no sooner set out down the path than we heard some voices from behind calling us back. It was a group of young Chinese people, plus an older foreigner. It turns out the foreigner was an engineer from a German railroad company who was in Shanhaiguan on business. One of his Chinese companions was serving as his interpreter during his trip. Together, this unlikely duo and the rest of their gang was just about to embark on a "wild wall" adventure. Did we want to go along with them? It is exciting, a little dangerous, and we know the way, they informed us.

Did we want to go along with them? Now there's a question we didn't hesitate to answer!

And so off we went, following the remnants of the wall higher and higher up into the mountains, totally taken by the scenery, not to mention the dirt and rocks beneath our feet. Finally! It was just us, the wall...and a few of our newest friends, without whom none of the day's memories could possibly have been made.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Where 1:06 is 2:06

I was born at 1:06 am on March 1st, 1997. Since we live in China, I would actually turn twelve at 2:06 pm. One of our top priorities was to be on the Great Wall at 2:06 pm. Success! I turned twelve on the wall, after a long, awesome hike through the crumbling wall.


PS: My first cab ride as a twelve-year old was in a three-wheeled, red car from the wall to the hotel.

Cliff Jumper

As you might know, this past Sunday was my birthday. Where better to spend it than the Great Wall! Shanhaiguan was where we went, and the main attraction...where the wall meets the sea!

Of course, you cannot get on the wall for free, but the beach you can. Arriving on the beach, we saw the ocean, the wall, and twenty-foot high sand dunes. With shrubs here and there, I guess they just kept growing. One cool thing about them is that, at the top, there were cliffs of sand. After a while, I decided to go up. Walking along the top, I had an idea.

"Mom!" I yelled. Looking up, she said, "What is it?" I yelled down, "Watch my suicidal jump!" She got out the camera and I ran and jumped. I landed halfway down the slope and scrambled the rest of the way. I ran to get Dad. Coming back, we hiked up the cliff. I showed Dad the exact way and speed to jump. I jumped, as an example, and landed fifteen feet down. A few minutes later, Dad jumped halfway down. Now, getting into it, I landed close to the base and decided to scope out other cliffs.

Time and time again, I jumped, every time getting that flying, then falling sensation. Sandier and hotter I got. Taking a break, I tried to get Julie to jump. No way!

The next day, we came back. What did Mom and Julie do while Dad and I jumped? Mom took pictures, and Julie tried to climb the cliff.

Every time I jumped, I would climb to where Julie was and pull her down to the bottom. Sometimes, I would jump close to her and roll her down. She never got to the top.

Since that day was my birthday, for a BANG of a finish, I made a twelve in the sand and took a leap with dead accuracy and smothered it. With shoes filled with sand, we trudged back to the bus stop.


One Wall, Many Forms

Our love affair with the Great Wall continued this past weekend, as we added another section to our repertoire. While I consider it "one section" in word, in deed it was actually several segments, each with its own characteristics and charm.

When we reached the city of Shanhaiguan, we headed straight for the Old Dragon's Head. As the easternmost portion of the wall, this relatively short rebuilt section ceases only where the breaking waves begin. The shape of the wall itself at this point abstractly resembles that of a dragon's head, hence the name. A truly beautiful setting for a truly beautiful structure.

Where this section proper ends, the dirt portion of the wall begins. While this part would be almost unrecognizable to a visitor, given its lack of characteristic stone blocks, its use as a raised thoroughfare and exercise trail for locals is apparent.

Our question about this segment, of course, is...Where are the stone blocks? Were there ever blocks in this section, or was it always just a mound? While some research reveals stories that some of the blocks have been carted away by locals for other uses, the remnant mound begs to be included in a historical novel. It is as mysterious as the individuals who constructed it.

Next up, the beautiful reconstructed portion known as Jiao Shan. Very steep in some parts, this section is equipped with metal steps and enclosed ladders to assist adventurous tourists with the climb. (A winding, paved path up the mountain is also available for those who aren't as interested in the rigors of a Great Wall ascent.) The steepness is due to the changing terrain...from coastal plain to rugged mountain. A tough, but worthwhile climb.

The final, semi-accessible section of this area of the Great Wall is what we call the "crumbling wall." Basically made up of rocks and rubble, and climbing high to panoramic views, this part has undoubtedly won our hearts as our favorite part of the wall.

Something about the "road less traveled making all the difference" seems to be a fitting description of the feelings we all shared while scaling the sometimes hazardous areas of what Chinese twenty-somethings call the "wild wall."

In sum, while the Great Wall extends for thousands of miles, it is neither continuous nor homogeneous. The materials used and the textures visible are varied, yet all incredibly powerful in their presentation. From flat to treacherous, dirt to stone, every inch bellows the triumph that is the Great Wall.


Lao Long Tou

The Old Dragon's Head is the name of the place where the Great Wall actually meets the sea (the Bohai Sea, to be exact, although it wasn't until I asked a number of Chinese people we bumped into that I actually for sure figured out just what that big body of water out there was). Lao Long Tou, as you can imagine, is a really, really long way from the most western part out there somewhere in the Gansu province desert. (Hmm...That could be an interesting adventure...)

The short of it is that, once we finally checked into our hotel and got our Shanhaiguan legs under us, the rest of the show was quite a party. Just a great weekend seeing some incredibly unique sites and, of course, celebrating Z's birthday.

Apparently, Lao Long Tou itself used to be nothing more than a bunch of rocks jutting out into the water, the remnants of a wall that had long ago ceased to serve any human purpose. Until the early 1990s, that is, when someone in the know had the idea that the place ought to be rebuilt and turned into a tourist site.

I have to say that it certainly is a crazy visual, for someone who viscerally associates the wall with mountainous landscapes. Looking out and seeing ocean tankers and waves gently crashing on the beach in the same glance as the Great Wall was quite an experience. It made me so quickly forget all of the craziness of the day that had preceded our arrival at that spot. Time both seemed to accelerate away from those moments of just a few hours ago and, at the same time, stand still as we watched all of those timeless beach scenes...young people walking hand-in-hand, people bending over looking for little treasures...all under the watchful eye of the Old Dragon's Head...


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Rolling Suitcases

When we emerged out of the train station at Shanhaiguan, thankful for the opportunity to stretch after our seatless ride to the coast, we knew we were about to confront two problems. One, we needed to walk around town, luggage in tow, to find a place to call home for the weekend. Two, we needed to run the gauntlet of drivers who would invariably want to help us find this new home, at great personal expense to ourselves. And, of course, the second problem would only be compounded by the first, in that the only thing better than a group of newly arrived waiguoren is a newly arrived group of waiguoren who don't actually know where they want to go.

Enter the most persistent hawker we have ever encountered. Most drivers, as usual, took bu yao to mean bu yao, and they pretty quickly left us alone to roll along in the direction where we expected to find hotel option number one. One driver, however, would not take no for an answer.

As we rolled down the street, away from the station, this driver rolled his car slowly along side of us, getting more and more desperate in his quest for our business. "Listen," he said in Chinese, "I'm about to head home for lunch. I will take you wherever you need to go for free. It is my gift to you." Now, this line, of course, only served to make us more suspicious of his motives in following us away from the tracks and the crowds of fellow drivers.

So we kept walking, shadowed wherever we went by our blue taxi companion.

We crossed over the street, hoping to ditch him by going down the opposite lane of traffic. No problem. He just crossed the road himself, and tailed us in the pedestrian/motorcycle/bicycle lane.

We crossed under the south gate of Shanhaiguan's old city wall, figuring he couldn't make it through. Wrong again. There he was, a minute later, back at our side.

We kept walking. We stopped at a roadside stand, and bought some bingtanghulu, figuring he might get bored as we bantered with the other locals. No such luck.

Finally, we turned down into this old, crumbling alleyway. As you can imagine, this was a lot of fun with suitcases in tow. But it finally did the trick. Our driver friend pleaded with us not to go down the alley. "Bu hao kan," he said. It's really ugly. It's not the kind of place you would want to go to. "Hen you yisi de," Desi replied. This is just the kind of place we find really interesting. And, to Desi's credit, that's not a lie at all.

So we killed two birds with one stone. We finally had Shanhaiguan to ourselves and we found ourselves in the middle of this awesome little street market, where there were good breads to eat and cheap products to buy. Desi, in fact, scored by picking up, at long last, a peasant's bowl, a small metal pot that ordinary people on the go often use to carry their food.

We still, however, had no hotel. So we emerged back out of the market area, looked up and down the street to make sure the coast was clear, and set out to finally locate the place where we were hoping to stay. The only problem? The hotel no longer exists. We actually walked back and forth a couple of times past the alley where the hotel used to be, before realizing the error in our ways. Once we finally figured this out, we reached the building, maybe fifty yards down the alley, where we reasoned the hotel had to be. Except that the person who came out and greeted us was not a bellhop, but a guy who works in the motorcycle repair shop, or whatever the company is that is currently using the property.

We then resorted to more desperate measures. We started asking people on the street if there were any hotels nearby. This actually didn't get us very far. Well, actually, by this time, we had walked so far that we decided that Desi and the kids should hang out with all of our stuff in this nearby public plaza, and I would jet around the neighborhood at high speed in a last ditch effort to find a room.

For a while, it was a definite no go. I spotted a place that advertised itself as a hotel, in English no less. Jackpot, I thought. Until, that is, I asked the guy at the front desk if there were rooms. "Yes," he said, "but you can't stay here." I had read that some hotels in Shanhaiguan might not take foreigners, and here was my first-hand confirmation of that fact. "But I'm a Beijing resident," I no avail.

Somehow, after all of this nonsense, I ended up back near the train station, where it had all started. And sure enough, there it was. A high-rise building. A hotel...that actually takes waiguoren.

Phew! Our Shanhaiguan adventure could now begin in earnest...


Monday, March 02, 2009

Traveling By The Seat Of Our Pants

For some time now, we've had the idea of traveling to the place where the Great Wall meets the sea. Given that Z loves running up and down the wall, it seemed to be an especially good choice for his birthday weekend. What better place for a boy to turn twelve?

The only problem was that we were extremely busy on all fronts in the days leading up to our planned travel day. And so, there we were, early Saturday morning, waking up without either a train ticket or a hotel room. This would be an interesting first...Would we actually get to Shanhaiguan? Would we actually get a hotel room?

After a cab ride over to the Beijing rail station, we got on line with the ticket-buying crowds. Thankfully, we discovered that there was a high-speed train leaving for Shanhaiguan in less than an hour and a half. The bad news? There were no seats available on the train.

Now, here's the part where we really revealed how little we still know about Chinese travel. When we arrived at our assigned car, there were plenty of seats open. I reasoned that, perhaps, it was just that there are no assigned seats and it is actually first come, first served. Desi and the kids all kind of liked that idea, and so decided to take a chance. We all plopped down in vacant seats. Things went well for a little while, with people stowing their luggage and paying no attention us.

But then came the inevitable "excuse me, this is my seat" moment. From there, we took our medicine, and staked out places for ourselves to hang out in, in that hallway/doorway/bathroom area in between train cars. We alternated between standing, leaning, squatting, sitting...standing, leaning, squatting, sitting...standing, leaning, squatting, sitting. Hey, at least the fast train only took two hours!

Now, what about the hotel part of the equation...