Photo: The Great Wall of China – Mutianyu Section
The Great Wall of China – yet another site that I never really expected to see in my life – but when you do – it makes it all that more special and amazing. Thousands of years ago, the various Chinese emperors, mainly the Ming Dynasty, built the Great Wall to keep the Monguls (Mongolians) out. It was actually rather effective. As I would marvel at the wall construction on steep mountainsides I wondered not only how they got materials up there to build it – but what Mongolians could make it up there to attack?! It looked like an impossible place for any human to go. Yet my father and I took off for 3 days of hiking on the Great Wall.
Photo: Yes – it is steep!
I was a little wary of taking my 71 year old father on a 3 day trek on a steep and crumbling Great Wall – but he seemed up for it – and I promised him we would go slow. Little did he know how out of shape I was – so going slow was for my benefit too! It is the longest (4,000 miles) and largest human-made structure – and after hiking on it for 3 days, it pretty much felt like it! We had planned to visit 3 separate sections of the Great Wall so that we could get a feel for the various types of construction as well as the different terrain that it was built upon. Plus – I really wanted to try to get to the less visited sections of the wall as I didn’t want to be elbow to elbow with busloads of tourists groups – therefore I had to choose sections that would be a little more challenging to weed out the ‘normal’ people! My dad was up for it – so we were off!
However – the first adventure was the drive out of Beijing and to the Wall. This was my first chance to really get a feel for Northern China besides the wide concrete roads and tall buildings of Beijing. It shouldn’t have surprised me that in a city of 14 Million people where 600 new cars are added to the roads every day – there would be gridlock. We sat in traffic for quite some time, our first test of patience. I have to admit – I was impressed that my father was patient about it. I still remember him being disgusted by the lines at Disneyworld and refusing to stand in line for the ‘good’ rides if they were too long – which pretty much subjected me to the “It’s a Small World” ride multiple times. However – we were trapped in the car, couldn’t speak the language, and had no idea where we were – he could hardly get out of the car and walk away – yet I’m positive the thought crossed his mind!
The other thing I noticed as we were trying to leave Beijing at a snail’s pace was that there were tons of police officers at every corner. This didn’t seem to help with the grid-lock – but it did intrigue me for a while – watching them each do their boring, mundane job – it made me feel a little better about sitting in the car not moving. In China it seems like everyone has some type of job…no matter if it’s needed or not. It’s as if they have to make up jobs for people. There were people out sweeping the roadways with a small household broom…at that rate they would make it about 500 feet a day! As for the policemen – I learned from Roseanne, our guide, that the different uniforms they wore meant that they were from different backgrounds and had different responsibilities. The men in the blue were policemen – and they tended to be in the middle of an intersection on a little box direction the vehicle traffic. Sometimes you would also see people in green uniforms – which were the military…I honestly have no idea what or who they directed. Finally the people dressed in Gray uniforms were ‘security officers’ and they seems to carry red flags, stand at each corner and direct the bike traffic and pedestrians. There were normally 6 to 9 various officers at each corner…just standing there…not really effecting the grid-lock from what I could tell – but who knows what it would have been like if they hadn’t been there! I can safely say that I wouldn’t describe China as being efficient. Whether you were talking about traffic, mundane jobs, or pollution control – efficient is not a work that comes to mind.
As we continued to drive out of the city and to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, I found myself surprised by Northern China – it didn’t seem to be like it’s Asian neighbors. This last year I have traveled through much of Asia – in fact there are few Asian countries that I haven’t been to – so I thought I had a feel for the continent. Yet China was proving me wrong – my expectations were being shattered. I found myself wondering how in the world China turned out so different from it’s neighboring countries. My only explanation is that after years of being closed….they developed their own way. Most other Asian countries had busy/crazy traffic – but it was mostly made up of either cars (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia) or bikes/motorcycles (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia) – but China was a mix of both…huge 5 lane highways with tons of vehicles – and bikes intermixed. It was a strange and dangerous mix of vehicles – trucks spewing black fumes, bikers, cars, mopeds, motor scooters, and little 3 wheel trucks sputtering down the highway with as much power as a lawn mower engine! The vehicle traffic wasn’t the only thing that set China apart from it’s Asian neighbors – there were many other things such as good roads, cleanliness, not many stray dogs, not many visible poor and destitute, no rice fields (up north), no major religion, and a myriad of basketball courts. All of these things were oddities to me and based on what I had come to know about Asia. It was kind of like bizzaro Asia…everything opposite.