Let's go back to 1996 when I first went to China including the Great Wall (which they claim was named by Nixon when he went to China). I was turned off then by the crowds and the T-shirts on sale blatantly claiming for itheir wearers credit for having "climbed " the Great Wall. I started up the section we were taken to and started down quite quickly, fearing that I would be trampled by the Hordes - not Mongolian, but nonetheless quite daunting. I was hopeful this time around because our Cruise promised a less touristy area - their word, not mine. Well!
Our guide told us that 85% of the attendance at Great Wall is Chinese; the other 15% is international. She also told us that Beijing has a population of only 14 million. Shanghai checks in at 23 million. A newer, bigger Disney World is going in there, BTW, because the one in Hong Kong is so successful. More hordes. Well!
We started out at 7:45 a.m. on what would become a 12-hour odyssey in a convoy of buses (I was on Number 10 bus). We drove from the harbour terminal to Tianjin, about 80 kilometers distant, for a pit stop (first encounter this trip with "eastern" toilets. I'm not squeamish and I'm still pretty limber so I managed fine.) Then on to Beijing.
The area between the two cities comprises condos and trees. Millions and millions, literally, of trees have been planted, lining both sides of the highway to a depth of about half a mile, at least, on either side. In between are thousands and thousands of condominia, each about 15 stories high, in clusters numbering about 50 each, maybe ten to twenty clusters in each conglomeration.
We passed an enormous coal plant with a humungeous chimney belching smoke into the turgid air. Heating and electricity in this region, as in many, I suspect, comes from coal firing. It was cool but pleasant at the harbour but the air grew darker and more ominous as we drove toward Beijing: smog not fog. The guide told us that there are six "rings" around Beijing. I had been in the centre my last trip, to the Forbidden City, best seen in the movie "The Last Emperor" - no tourists barring the view. Our bus took the sixth ring, favoured by trucks and large vehicles and faster, unless there is an accident. We took the fifth ring on the way back, slower but more reliable, she said. (And we passed another coal plant.) The air grew clear as we drove past the city and up into the mountains. It was a warm, sunny, clear day when we stepped out at the touristy spot on Great Wall. By that time we were well into the mountains and we could see traces of the wall and beacon towers, very picturesque.
The cherry blossoms were in bloom but far more numerous and beautiful were the apricot trees with a pinkish cast spreading over the lower levels of the mountains. Our guide told us the "almond" of the apricot makes a very nice drink, hot in winter and cold in summer. She also pointed out forsythia in bloom, the surest harbinger of spring. (In Ontario, too.) Oh, and on the subject of nature studies, I saw a magpie, in full flight with an admirable wingspan. I really like magpies.
We didn't stop at the touristy place. Instead we drove on, abandoning a super highway for on a smaller road, still climbing. We had left sea level for 43 km. at Beijing and over 800 km at Great Wall - and up. We stopped in a parking area and were invited to walk 150 metres up a road to the lunch place - or those in the group who needed it could have a van take them. I started out breezily with my cane - yes, I needed my cane for my sore foot. I remember I borrowed a cane to climb Etna because I had hurt an ankle dancing the night before. I'm older now. Anyway, this time I brought my own cane, just in case. Even so, I hitched a ride back in the van after lunch.
We ate in the open air surrounded by mountains and rocks. I was afraid the chef was going to be clobbered by the rock bridged across his working space but he was okay. The area looked like a wedding party. The chairs set at tables of eight or ten were clothed in white with enormous purple sashes tied around their backs. We were served a choice of soft drinks, beer or red or white wine, which tasted like stale perfume. I should have chosen the beer but I was prepping for the toast to the bride.
After lunch, we went back to the buses by foot or by van, and drove some more to the less touristy place. It reminded me of Main Street, USA, at Disney World, but the architecture was generic Chinese. The signs were in Chinese and English, with franchise-friendly words. We walked to the entrance gates and passed through onto a wide, two-lane road, for coming and going, flanked by a sidewalk for slower pedestrians with shops on both sides. The wide road was filled with school or company groups, often in matching sun hats. Good idea, the hats, for identification in case one went astray. More anon. Our guide told us when to gather again and the appointed time.
Well, I tried. I went up that road and up some steps and some more steps and more, I think, and arrived at Great Wall, with the walk stretching both ways away - and up, up, up. I could see in the distance the winding route to a beacon tower and a Horde of people climbing it. I was already tired. My foot ached. I tried to take a picture but I kept getting a reflection of myself, not because iPad was aimed the wrong way but because of the light. A friend on my bus, with whom I had struck up a rapport through Trivial Pursuit, took my picture with my camera. That's all I have . She was tired, too, though younger than I, and she's been here twice before.
Our guide said if you go once to Great Wall, you're a hero; go twice, you're a fool; go three times (or more), you'e a tour guide.
My friend helped me down the steps, also a young Chinese girl, just like the ones on the Toronto subway who stand to give me a seat. We found a tea shop behind a gift store and I bought my friend and me a beer (Sapporo,I think). Then I had to borrow $5 from her to tip the guide. So I didn't have any cash left to buy a magnet with the Great Wall of China on it. I'll never get one because I'll never get back there.
I'm very tired today and my foot was sore. I am recovering nicely: no swim, no pedalling, but a lovely foot and leg massage and sitting around with my leg up, with lots of time for a blog about Great Wall. My advice: go when you're younger. I'm not complaining, though. Oceania gives its staff the trip, on two successive days. My masseuse, Amila, hud the same reaction I did and she's much younger. She loved the mountains, the scenery, the apricot trees, the picturesque towers, but she didn't want to climb. So you see....
My computer tells me that my Mac will sleep soon unless plugged into a power outlet. Me too.