For the first time visitor to China, seeing the Great Wall is usually near the top of the list, and we were no different. After having a fun meeting with the Airstream dealer (“Leo”), we had exactly one full day in Beijing for sightseeing. We could easily have spent the day just walking around central Beijing (with a little help from the subway, because this is a big city) but as Eleanor said, “How can you go to China and not see the Great Wall?” I couldn’t argue with that.
The trick with visiting the Great Wall is that it is not close to Beijing, so any visit will consume most of your day. The closest segment is about two hours drive away, and that part is overrun with tourists. If you can, imagine a fully reconstructed section of Wall, jam-packed with people, with snack bars and souvenir shops, queues and people dressed up as “Mongol invaders” who will pose with you for a tip. There’s even a cable car strung along it so you don’t have to do any actual walking.
I suppose this is great if you want the Epcot Center version of the Great Wall, or if you have mobility problems, but we were seeking a quieter experience and so it seemed worth while to hire a guide and travel 2.5 hours to the Mutianyu section. Once we escaped the traffic in Beijing, the drive became almost bucolic, along narrow roads that wander through the countryside and cleave tiny villages. The terrain starts to resemble the hills near California’s Bay Area, until you get to a village where the road drops to a single lane and you have to dodge a cluster of pedestrians who don’t seem to care at all that there’s a van coming.
For me, the best part of this was that for this one day–out of 15 days spent in China, Korea, and Japan—we were at last away from crowds and noise. (One of the reasons I like living in the desert southwest is that there’s lots of open space.) Being in major Asian cities was starting to get to me, but here in the foothills north of Beijing I could have a moment to absorb the scenery and soft sounds of the rural countryside.
Near our destination of Zhuangdaoku Village, I noticed cement koi ponds beside many of the houses, fed by streams running through, and asked our guide about this. She said the people were accustomed to having fish because historically the village had a small river fishing industry, and now they kept koi ponds for a source of fresh fish. They aren’t pets here.
Before our hike, we stopped to use the “country toilet” next to the restaurant where we’d be having lunch. We were prepared for this experience so it wasn’t too shocking, but I think most Americans would be horrified. It was outdoors, basically a partly-roofed cement bunker with three narrow chutes in the floor. Through the chutes we could see daylight. You squat over the chutes and hopefully whatever you put in them slides down and into an open sewer below. There was no running water to flush it, and like most public toilets in China there was no toilet paper, but there was a garden hose outside nearby.
Often however, the air is far more scary than the toilets. Air pollution in Beijing is some of the worst in the world, second only to Delhi. I was aware of this and had loaded an app on my phone which showed the real-time air quality ratings in and around several major Asian cities. In the week before our arrival, the ratings for Beijing were phenomenally bad, reaching well over 500 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles (“PM 2.5”) for several days. This receives a “HAZARDOUS” rating, the worst rating possible, and was far beyond anything we wanted to breathe. So I was packing a few 3M air filtering masks (with the “N95” rating, available at hardware stores) just in case.
But we were incredibly lucky. The dense air pollution that normally obscures views had blown out the day before, and left us with a light breeze in cool fall temperatures that made a perfect day for hiking. The Mutianyu Great Wall is a scenic ribbon of pale stone running up and down the ridges of the foothills, and on this day the views were outstanding. It was so nice that even our guide, a woman who hikes the Great Wall five days a week, brought her camera along to capture the scenery.
Best of all, we were the only people there until we got to a particularly nice high vista and found a Chinese man and his son relaxing there. There is something really inspiring about walking on the stones of a Ming Dynasty-era wall on a beautiful day, with hardly another soul around. I stopped for a rest on the steps next to the older man, and he smiled at me and said “Tired!” in Chinese. I could only smile back and nod, which is often all you need to do in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.
We didn’t want to end our hike after about a mile on the Wall but because the Wall is so steep in places it had taken us a couple of hours to get that far, and it was time to break for lunch. We hiked back down a dirt trail to town. Along the way I was stung by a Chinese bee or wasp near my elbow. Not far after on the dirt trail we walked past a sort of inn, really just someone’s house with rooms for rent, and the proprietors gave me a bottle of aromatic green lotion to smear on it. It didn’t do much for the pain but it smelled interesting.
We had lunch alone in the restaurant that featured the country toilets from earlier. As patrons of the restaurant we were offered use of an outdoor cold-water sink and some soap to wash our hands before lunch–a considerable upgrade from the garden hose of earlier. I mentioned this meal in my previous blog about “Meals As Memories,” so I won’t recount it here, but suffice to say that it was a fitting end to a memorable day, and left us ready to doze on the 2.5 hour ride back to crowded Beijing.
I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, but this is why I travel. Everything: rural scenery, ancient masonry, modern air pollution, rustic toilets, koi fish and bee stings, local people, and yes—a simple Chinese lunch, all offer the chance to grow and learn. Most people aren’t happiest when they are relaxing. They are happiest when they are growing. The Wall was the inspiration, but as you can see, it was not the destination.