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Beijing—The Great Wall
We woke this morning eagerly anticipating our visit to the Great Wall. Today was the day!
But first, we had to find breakfast. We planned to hike for a couple of hours on the Wall, and we needed to have plenty of energy.
Ben’s efforts at quizzing the desk clerk about a breakfast restaurant yesterday hadn’t been too successful. Today was my turn.
I approached the desk clerk, who was always very polite as well as earnest in his assurances that he was there to answer “any question” we might have. (The fact that his answers were often not helpful did not detract from his sincerity in wanting to help us.)
After exchanging greetings, our conversation went something like this:
Me: Does this hotel serve coffee? And do you know of a place where we can get breakfast?
Desk Clerk: Yes, we have coffee, and we have breakfast.
Me (after a stunned silence, in which I'm wondering why he didn't reveal this yesterday before our elusive search through the surrounding neighborhood): This hotel serves coffee and breakfast?
Desk Clerk: Yes. Breakfast is 20 yuan [about $3].
Me: What do you offer for breakfast?
Desk Clerk: What do you like?
Me (wanting to try a typical Chinese breakfast): Well, whatever you normally serve for breakfast will be fine.
Desk Clerk (very long hesitation): Egg? Bacon?
Me (not wanting to offend him, but realizing that he is naming food that he thinks I will like): Is that what you serve other guests here? We just want to eat whatever you would normally serve to your Chinese guests.
Desk Clerk (big pause): Yes. Egg? Bacon?
Me (seeing that we are having a dance of miscommunication and that I am not helping): Okay, eggs and bacon are fine. Do you have toast?
Desk Clerk (writing up the order on paper): Yes, toast.
Fifteen minutes later, we were each served a plate with one fried egg and two pieces of toast (the cook must have been out of bacon). And each of us, including the children, got a cup of coffee—the presweetened kind that comes from a can of powder. (The children don’t drink coffee at home, so they passed their cups to us after taking a sip—accompanied by much giggling and sideways glances at each other that read, “I can’t believe Mom and Dad are letting us taste coffee!”)
After breakfast, we walked down our small alley and met the driver who would take us to the Great Wall. We had chosen to visit the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall, which was about 1 ½ hours north of Beijing. Mutianyu was supposed to be less crowded than the section closest to Beijing, plus there was a toboggan that we could ride down at the end of our hike. Before our trip began, we had lined up a private driver who would take us there, wait for us while we hiked, and then drive us back to Beijing.
The street near our hutong was very quiet this morning.
Further down the road was heavier traffic, including pedal bicycles and electric bicycles:
Where was this pristine and roomy tuk tuk last night when we needed it?
We passed the northern wall of the Forbidden City.
A long line of tourist buses and cars stretched down the street and around the corner, waiting to discharge passengers at the northern gate:
We didn’t expect to find Santa in Beijing!
This office building had panels that reminded me of a dominoes game:
Some modern buildings:
The traffic and the air pollution today were both pretty thick:
The stop-n-go traffic increased our 1 ½ hour drive time to nearly 3 hours. We sat back and looked at all of the sights. How many rows of cars can squeeze across a 3-lane road (in one direction)? And what was the story behind these men peeking out of the rear truck windows?
The truck’s interior would probably be a bit claustrophobic if the windows were shut.
This couple was out for a little cruise:
Creeping down the highway allowed us to see things that perhaps we wouldn’t have noticed if we had been zooming—such as this little bird.
These men were in the process of planting new trees by the side of the road.
During our travels through China, we saw literally thousands and thousands of newly planted trees, many with long poles (like those below) to hold them upright until their roots grew long enough to clutch the earth.
A crowd waiting for the bus:
This man had a stash of sport bikes, including an older model and sidecar with “Save the Glaciers” painted on it.
We left the highway behind. All around us were massive new development projects in the process of being constructed. The first step seemed to be the posting of large signs, depicting what the finished community would look like. The designs were often elaborate. Look at the bridge on this one:
Here are a few more examples:
We could see a new development through the trees.
Many people are displaced by the new projects. The people in China do not own the land on which their houses sit; instead, the land is owned by the government. Therefore, when the government decides to sell (for a large sum of money) to a developer the rights to build a huge new set of apartments on land that already has farms or villages, the people living there must move away whether they want to or not. The government will generally pay them some money to move, but the funds are usually insufficient to cover the cost of another home.
Genevieve and Sebastian (acting crazy) in the back of the van:
They had been remarkably patient during this long drive.
Despite China’s continuing dependence on coal, it has implemented an amazing amount of new “green” energy projects. For example, these street lights were solar-powered.
The “new” was juxtaposed with the “old.”
This man was carrying a bag on a pole over his shoulder:
Moving some large pipes down the road:
The road ahead:
On both sides, the trees had been planted in neat rows:
This community had an interesting entrance, with a gate and a bar across the road (to keep out the tall trucks, perhaps?).
Passing a bulky load:
The passing technique in China seemed to be very slow and easy-going, quite different from the “get it done” approach in the U.S. When approaching a slower vehicle, our driver would sometimes ride in the opposite lane at a mellow pace for long periods, including through blind corners. No one seemed too keen on pushing the pedal to the metal (perhaps to save gas?). Everything flowed gently, with a relaxed rhythm. This slow process was actually very good, as cars coming the other way had plenty of time to move over to the shoulder or weave around us to avoid a head-on collision. With that said, our driver was very skilled.
We passed through one small town that had a lot of flowers for sale.
Piles of new red brick lined the streets, evidencing the current construction boom.
A red brick building with a peeling grey façade revealed that the grey “brick” surface was merely a thin covering.
This large fruit sculpture had a sign announcing that we were in the “county of fruits.”
We all said “wow” (or perhaps it was “whoa!”) at this creative entrance to a new housing development:
These columns marked the entrance to a golf course:
Lumbering down the street was a donkey pulling an enormous load:
This man had quite a load himself:
A decorative water wheel had been placed at the spot where the water gushed over a low wall.
Some sculptural fish:
The walls along the roadside were built with a crenellation pattern to look like the edges of the Great Wall.
The public art was vibrant:
We were thrilled to get our first good look at the Great Wall, running up a steep mountain.
To get to the Great Wall, we could either hike up the hillside, or take the gondola that is shown in the above photo. We chose the gondola, as we wanted to save our leg strength for hiking on the top of the Wall.
One misperception that many people have about the Great Wall is that it is a single continuous wall that was built at one time. In reality, the Great Wall consists of many separate pieces, as well as branches that “T” off of some portions. Parts of the Wall were built at different time periods.
The Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall is believed to have been first built around 550 A.D. Almost 1000 years later, the Ming Dynasty rebuilt this part of the Wall to protect the imperial palace in Beijing. A 1.4 mile expanse was restored in 1989, and is now a major attraction for tourists. The Mutianyu Great Wall is considered one of the most picturesque portions due to the steepness of the mountains that rise all around. The Wall is described as flowing along the mountain ridges “like a flying dragon.”
Genevieve posed in front of the map, showing the two cable cars, the toboggan slide, and the numbered watchtowers.
We would be taking the cable car up, hiking along the Wall, and then taking the toboggan down.
Near the parking lot was a small market area packed with vendors selling T-shirts and souvenirs. This woman had some nuts and other snacks, and she offered me a sample.
Sebastian and Genevieve on the cable car—going up!
We could see the Wall along the ridge.
Looking back down:
Finally, we reached the top! There in front of us stretching out into the distance was the Great Wall in all of its magnificent glory.
A large stone at the side entrance read, “Once intended to ward off enemy attacks, today it brings together the peoples of the world. The Great Wall, may it continue to act as a symbol of friendship for future generations.”
We stepped onto the Wall.
After reading, and dreaming, about a place for so long, actually being there is a bit surreal. I stood still, relishing the moment.
There weren’t many people around us.
We could see a very steep section far away (in the above photo) and decided to walk toward it until we started getting tired. Then we would retrace our steps to the cable car drop-off, and continue walking until we reached the toboggan ride.
Genevieve and Sebastian led the way.
We had to climb all of the watch towers, of course! Some of the stairs were a bit tricky.
On top of a tower:
The towers provided even grander views of the Wall. Here is a scene showing where we started from—the small platform area on the far right side, with a railing.
The Wall rose, dipped, and curved, in a rhythm that traced the contour of the mountain ridge.
And Sebastian too!
Sometimes the path became very narrow:
This is one of my favorite shots of the day:
The steep section didn’t look so far away anymore. I started considering the possibilities. Could I entice the children to climb that far? Would they be too tired? A small group of people was coming from that direction. “Oh, it’s only another 15 minutes,” one said. “The watch tower about ¾ of the way up is the end. The Wall is blocked off past that point.” I turned to Genevieve and Sebastian and asked, “Do you want to climb up there?” “YES!!” was the booming response.
We were all so happy to be experiencing this together. There were many smiles, plus some lovely hand-holding.
Here is Sebastian, getting ready for the climb:
It was steeper than it looked:
The last push to the top:
The Wall continued onward, but it was closed to the public.
We would be hiking back over this section:
Genevieve and Sebastian were chatting away together up front:
I think that the Wall definitely stimulated their imaginations.
Another watch tower:
Thousands of other feet have walked this path.
Another view of the Wall:
We could see the second cable car and the top potion of the squiggly luge that we would take down the mountain.
One section of the Wall made a “T” at a watch tower and snaked up the hill:
Tall watch towers rose from the next mountain, evidencing the Wall’s meanderings along the ridge.
Sebastian and Genevieve:
The top of the luge:
The line was long, but it moved swiftly:
This Chinese man was holding his wife/girlfriend’s purse—my heart gets all aflutter at sights like that.
Genevieve took off first, and I was right behind her. Most people were going fairly slow, and posted sentries made sure to call out “Slow down!” to anyone who gathered a bit of speed. All in all, however, it was a fun and relaxing ride down the hill.
Sebastian did not weigh enough to go solo, so he and Ben rode together.
Two costumed men were waiting at the exit for a photo-op--for a charge, of course. We gladly paid.
It was way past lunch, and we were all very hungry. Our driver was supposed to take us to a local dumpling place, near the town of Mutianyu; this had been prearranged with his wife before our trip. We easily found our driver and confirmed that we would be going to lunch next. As I buckled my seat belt, I commented, “I am SO hungry!” There was a pause, and our driver said, “I will drive fast then.”
The minutes ticked away, and we were driving away from Mutianyu. Soon, we had left the town far behind. Genevieve was sitting beside me, and she whispered, “When is he going to stop? Aren’t we having lunch?” I finally said, “Are we going to be at the restaurant soon?” Well, this was the wrong question. I should have asked, “Aren’t we stopping at a local dumpling restaurant near Mutianyu?” Our driver responded by saying, “Yes, soon,” and he promptly floored the gas pedal. We drove all the way back to Beijing at lightning speed, zipping past all of the other cars, and causing me to send up little prayers that started with, “Oh, please, dear God, . . . .” Apparently, our sweet and very considerate driver had interpreted my question as an impatient desire to arrive at the restaurant quickly.
We did manage to snap a few photos along the way.
The road walls had some wonderful bas relief sculptures:
In a small town, people were playing pool outdoors.
A truck was carrying large trees on the highway:
We pulled up in front of a restaurant, and I must say that our driver did an impressive job in expertly maneuvering into a very small parking spot. The restaurant was large, with nice décor, and filled with Chinese people. The bottom floor was crowded, so we were ushered upstairs to a large round table and given menus in English, with pictures. The food was superb. Really. It was some of the best food that we ate on our entire trip. Everything was fresh and delicious. And the price was extremely low—definitely “cheap”. We were so pleased. It was worth the wait.
I don’t know the name of the restaurant because it was written in Chinese characters. However, here I am with the children in front of the entrance:
Our driver, bless his heart, wanted to take us to visit the Bird’s Nest Stadium, from the 2008 Summer Olympics. But we were just too tired, so we opted for a “drive by” experience.
Here is the Bird’s Nest:
It actually looks like a French beret from this angle:
Behind the stadium was a building that had a wave on top, like a flaming torch.
After a rest at the hotel, we walked over to Wangfujing Street to find the famous Donghuamen Night Market, where one can eat food such as scorpions, lizards, sea cucumbers, and starfish—all served on a stick. Sebastian was eager to try a starfish.
Sebastian and I, entering Wangfujing Street.
We walked down a block and easily found the Night Market. It was a popular place.
There were many kinds of food. Genevieve tried these sugar-coated strawberries.
Squid and eel (actually two of my favorite foods):
At the very last table in the market, we finally found the starfish:
Sebastian picked out a nice one and had the first bite:
He liked it!
In fact, he ate almost all of it. He shared a bite with me—the outside was very crunchy, as I had expected. However, I had not been prepared for the mushy insides that tasted very salty. One bite was enough, thank you.
We sampled other things from the market—fried banana balls (make sure you count your change!), deep fried milk, fried ice cream, and some dumplings. Yum.
Amidst the crowds of people was a homeless man digging through the garbage can to find uneaten portions of food. We shared some fried ice cream with him.
On the way back to the hotel, Sebastian began a long and earnest discussion with me about how fast an airplane must travel in order to go around the spinning earth.
It was a good day, indeed.
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