Wall Walking: Adventures on The Great Wall

On Friday the 2nd, the second day of our Beijing trip, our fearless guide Erik led us on a hike of the Great Wall.  We were in a bit of a rush as we had to hike up to, along, and down the Great Wall in less than two hours because we were racing the setting sun.  We had all seen the Wall from the bus as we drove in and were excited and ready to start the hike.  The trek up to the Great Wall was a hike in-and-of itself, but nothing compared to the actual wall.  I am sure that at one time the wall was pristine and beautiful, but after thousands of years of erosion, wear, and exposure to the elements, it was not so pretty anymore. Don’t get me wrong, the views were stunning and the sheer size of the wall took my breath away, but the immaculate pictures you find in books are not what the “real” wall looks like.

As Fuji said “we hiked the authentic wall.”  What he meant by that was that the wall was not in the best shape and had not been kept up well over the years. For example at times the stairs had been so worn away that we were climbing stairs that were 2-3 feet tall in one step.  At other points there were sections of the stairs that had been eroded so much so that the remaining stone resembled piano keys.   At times there simply were no stairs – just bare rock face.  Still other stones had turned into gravel so you clawed your way up.  In other spots there was no wall beside you, you were merely walking on a stone slab with nothing to stop you from slipping off the edge.  Needless to say we were all on edge during the walk (pun fully intended).

At the posts along the wall you generally had to either climb down or up steps to continue on out the other side, for some of them you even had to go down and then back up the other side.  A few of the double stair ones had narrow ledges of rock running along the edge of the outer wall that you could shimmy across if you felt brave enough.  In the beginning we all went down and back up the stairs, but towards the end we were all tired of the stairs and began to brave the ledges more often.  At points along the wall instead of creating stairs the builders simply made the path very steep and then at the last possible moment would introduce the steps.  We all decided that we actually preferred the stairs to the steep graded path.  After walking the Great Wall I will never look at stairs the same again.

As cold, tired, and exhausted as we were, we could not get enough of the view and just the mere fact that we were standing on the Great Wall.  A structure built thousands of years ago, by hand, reaching over 13,000 miles long.  It was an awe-inspiring journey.   When we first made it to the Wall we just stood and took photos for a solid five minutes. We were all overwhelmed by the view and the sheer history of the place.  Simply standing on the Wall and seeing the amount of work and time that must have gone into creating and building it was enough to take you feel very small in the big scope if things.

During a sunrise hike the next morning a few of us took the once in a lifetime chance to call loved ones to say hi from atop the Great Wall.  Everyone’s parents, grandparents, and siblings thought it was really cool to get a phone call not only from China but from the Great Wall.  Wall walking, if it happens to be on the Great Wall, is not only physically taxing but emotionally charged.  For countless reasons it took my breath away.  I know the term “journey” is typically reserved for trips that take more than two hours, but the emotional and personal strength needed to complete this hike counts as a journey to me, even if just a personal one.

 

Trekking the Wall

Climbing the Great Wall was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I learned about the Great Wall as a small child, but I never imagined that I would actually hike the ancient stairs. It was an amazing experience, and the hike flew by like a fleeting dream.

The Great Wall is usually packed with so many tourists that visitors often say there is a second “wall” of people blocking the hike. Fortunately, our thoughtful tour guide Erik took us to Jinshanling Park, which had far fewer visitors. In fact, at most parts of the day, we were the only people walking along the Wall. The Wall was steeper and rougher on our walk, too, which made the hike more exciting. It was incredible to walk along a path with so much history. I thought about all the people that must have worked or walked along the Wall throughout time. Hiking along the Wall made me feel like a player (albeit extremely minor) in China’s grand history.

Although we were alone for a portion of the hike, one woman hocking souvenirs did actually walk most of the hike with us. She couldn’t speak much English, but her reasoning was clear. If she hiked along with us throughout the afternoon, we would share a special bond and buy souvenirs from her. Her tactics did not work on some of us, but it definitely worked on me. I bought some souvenirs at a higher price than necessary just because I appreciated her presence. She had hiked alongside us, and she even encouraged Michael, Fuji’s young son, at some steep points. If that effort does not warrant a few extra kuai, then I’m not sure what does.

I have actually become aware that I am pretty mediocre at bargaining. I bargain half-heartedly, but I don’t have the necessary competitive or hard-nosed edge for serious bargaining. Others have the eagle-eye skill and desire to fight for a good price, but I usually just don’t feel the need to bargain passionately. Everything is so cheap in China that I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks if it helps the merchant. Unlike in the United States, I don’t feel like I’m being ripped off by corporate greed; I feel like normal people are just trying to make a living. So I buy a package of chopsticks for 20 kuai, and I figure that both of us are happy. The merchant made a profit, and I got a great cheap gift for my grandma.

The Great Wall hike took about three hours, and it was enjoyable the entire way. The next morning we did a sunrise hike on the Great Wall, and the sky was beautiful. At a certain point, Nicky had the brilliant idea of using his international cell phone to call his mom. In turn, each of us called our moms on the Great Wall. It was amazing and truly bizarre to call my mom while watching the sunrise on the Great Wall. Information and communication flows so easily nowadays, but it’s a wonderful and disheartening fact. Of course, most of me loved the opportunity to call my mom from the Great Wall. It’s fun, and she obviously loved the gesture. But another part of me recognized how completely strange the experience was. I can go around the world, but I’m still never more than $.50/a minute from home. Such advanced technology feels almost inappropriate on such an ancient structure. That sentiment relates to the whole argument of globalization, though. Culture changes, and the symbolic meanings around these ancient structures change, too.

Hiking the Great Wall was my favorite part of our trip to Beijing. The hike was unbelievable, and I am so happy that I had that opportunity.

Beijing or Shanghai?

This week’s trip to Beijing proved to be the most challenging, if a trip can be called such. The weather gave each of us a fierce fight. As soon as we arrived at Beijing Nan Station and met our guide, Erik, we were immediately told that the next morning we would leave at 8 am for the Great Wall. According to our itinerary, the Great Wall trip was scheduled for later in the week. Unfortunately, with the possibility of snow, the trip had to be earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It snowed the morning after we returned to Beijing. This day was meant for touring Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We walked through two-inch deep water with our umbrellas in hand, each shouting loud expletives along the way. Having been able to take many beautiful pictures at other tourist spots, this day proved to be most challenging. Thankfully, the other days were much better for sightseeing and shopping. While I enjoyed my time in Beijing, I do not see myself spending much time there in the future. The people are less fashionable and overall China’s capital seems less like a global city than its southern counterpart, Shanghai.

Having visited Suzhou, Taiwan, Nanjing, and now Beijing, I am realizing that I am thinking the same thing after each trip. I miss Shanghai. The idea of returning to my “home” fills me with excitement. After traveling to these places, I asked myself, where are my tall buildings? Where is the nightlife? Of course I compare it all to my experiences in Shanghai.

Can I consider Shanghai specifically Chinese? Granted it is in China; therefore, my previous question cannot be disputed by territorial definition. What about culturally? By Chinese standards, Shanghai is a fairly new city filled with many internationals, visiting and living in the city. Many restaurants and clubs cater to the western audience. The buildings even resemble those seen in Europe. I guess Shanghai has captured my heart just like New York City did this past summer. How will I ever be able to leave this place?

Serenity on the Great Wall

Our class trip to Beijing was an incredible introduction into the history and culture of China’s capital. We arrived in the city last Wednesday night. After listening to the weather forecast for the weekend, our tour guide, Erik, made a last minute change to our Beijing travel agenda. In order to avoid any chance of snow, our two-day excursion to the Great Wall of China was moved to the beginning of the schedule.

On Thursday morning, our class left the city of Beijing and made our way to Jinshanling, a quaint and quiet part of the Great Wall. The weather in Beijing was significantly colder than Shanghai, so we were all bundled up in winter coats, gloves, hats and scarfs. We arrived to Jinshanling around 2:30PM. The bus ride took a total of three hours. Upon arrival, we checked into our hotel and immediately left to start our hike on the Great Wall. Our hotel was located at the base of the Great Wall, so the trek to the nearest entrance was entirely up hill and up stairs. Erik told us that our hike toward Simatai would take two to three hours. When we reached our first Great Wall tower, my classmates and I were all out of breath and realized that this hike would be harder than we expected. Additionally, we knew we had to keep a steady pace in order to make it back to the hotel by sunset.

Although we did not keep count at the time, I estimate that our group hiked over fifteen towers. Each tower was located at the top of a hill, so we hiked down and up stairs between each tower. Even with cloudy weather, the view from the Great Wall was incredible. The section we hiked was empty and serene. We only passed a few other tourists during our hike. There were no loud vendors or crowds to distract us from the moment on the Great Wall. A few members of our group visited the Great Wall in the past, but this was the first time they ever saw the wall so calm. While hiking, I felt completely removed from my life in Shanghai and the chaos of Beijing. After spending over two months in a loud and overcrowded city, the time on the wall was even more relaxing and surreal.

Erik also planned a morning sunrise hike for the next morning. He was little unsure about the weather, so going or skipping the hike was to be decided at 6AM. Most of us wanted to get up early for sunrise on the wall. Although we college students would never wake up before sunrise on any given day, we did not want to miss out on this once in a lifetime experience. Luckily, the weather was clear at 6AM, so Rebecca came door to door to wake up each student. I tiredly crawled out of my bed, slipped on my hiking boots and shuffled out the door.

The morning hike was significantly shorter and easier than the previous hike. When we reached the top of the tower, we realized that the sky was even cloudier than the day before. According to Erik the sun was supposed to rise at 6:40AM. But, even at 6:50AM the sky remained gray and misty. Nonetheless, we all agreed to stay and wait for the sun to show. To pass the time we all took pictures of our group and the morning scenery. Some of my classmates even made “I’m on the Great Wall” phone calls to their parents and loved ones. It was not until 7:20AM that we finally saw the sun appear from the horizon. Though the sun was not big or bright, the moment was still breathtaking. We all leaned against the wall watching the sun rise slowly and disappear into the clouds.

 

Cruising Through Nanjing

 

 

On Friday morning ten Davidson students set out on a whirlwind tour of Nanjing.  The trip was organized by The School of Social Development and Public Policy of Fudan University, the school that is sponsoring the Davidson College group and a few others during their study in Shanghai.  We were told to meet at the main gate of Fudan University at 7am to catch the bus at 7:30.  Thanks to a concerned call from Chai Lu at 6:50 wondering where we were, after both of our alarms failed to go off Friday morning, Ali and I managed to make it to the bus stop by 7:27!  Despite racing to get to the bus on time, the busses were late and we did not leave campus until well past 8.  Once all 62 of us were in the buses and on the road, however, we were told that we had a 3 and a half hour bus ride to Nanjing, so just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

 

Upon reaching Nanjing we had lunch, yet another banquet style set-up with about ten preordered dishes and a lazy-Susan in the middle.  While all the Davidson kids complain endlessly about the banquet style meals we have to take part in, I was actually thankful to Fuji for making us endure them as we knew what most of the food was and the proper etiquette for operating a lazy-Susan.  Our other SSDPP classmates, however, were much more hesitant of the Chinese food and did not fully comprehend the notion that you had to make sure that no one else was trying to serve themselves when you decided to spin the lazy-Susan.  We did manage to avoid any spills, but there were some “exciting” moments in the midst.

 

Our first real stop on the Nanjing trip was the XuanWu Lake Park.  As we reached the gate to the park and gathered for the mandatory group picture we were swarmed by a group of Chinese tourists all dressed in black suits, most wielding professional looking cameras, who all believed that the large group of foreign tourists was the “real” attraction.  Our two groups then got in to what I can only describe as a “photo war,” with their group furiously taking pictures of us and our side taking pictures of them taking pictures of us.  The whole thing was simultaneously mildly unsettling and hilariously funny.  After we finally assembled for our official group photo we were released into the park to wander and explore.  In the park we again ran into Chinese people who unabashedly stared at us.  We had all dealt with similar situations before, however, in previous encounters when the people realized we had caught them staring they looked away, but here they just kept staring.  We were all joking about it and Ali finally said, “They can stare all they want but I am going to acknowledge them, wave and say hi and hopefully they will respond.”  Others even joked that they were going to start charging 5元 for a picture.  The park itself was pretty with a nice lake and pleasant architecture, but the thick mix of fog and smog really put a damper on its beauty.

From the park we went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum.  For those unaware of the history of the Nanjing Massacre, it is in loose terms the Chinese version of the Holocaust.   When the Japanese invaded China they took Nanjing as a stronghold and slaughtered 300,000 people in a matter of months.  The Japanese troops pillaged, raped, and murdered the people of Nanjing, this horrific event is often referred to as the Rape of Nanjing.  Needles to say, this was a tough museum to walk through, but a good thing to experience and acknowledge none the less.  Unfortunately we only had an hour in the museum and had to move quickly; but I am glad that we had the chance to think about that facet of Nanjing history and, therefore, how Nanjing fits more into the overall history of China.  It also shed more light on the complicated relationship between China and Japan.  It was definitely a place I would like to visit again and explore more.

“Ah, close your eyes, rest in peace!  You innocent soul!  You poor boy” – A monk fleeing on his way

“They rob and rape, they set fire and bury people alive… They even kill my three-month-old little grandson”

“Frigidity and horror have frozen this crying baby!  Poor thing not knowing mum has been killed, blood, milk and tears have frozen, never melting”

From the museum we went to yet another banquet style dinner and then on to a river cruise on the QinHuai River.  There was not really that much to see from the boat but we had a great time on the cruise.  Chai Lu, Benito, DJ, and I were all sitting together and we played word games and joked around the entire ride.  It was a very relaxing way to end a long day.  The next morning we went to the Presidential Palace and Sun-Yat Sen’s mausoleum.  The palace was not all that exciting but the mausoleum was definitely more than I was expecting.  Sun-Yat Sen requested to be buried in the side of a mountain, so his followers obliged.  They built a mausoleum in the side of the mountain atop 329 steps to represent the 329 million people in China at the time of his death.  The views from both the bottom and the top of the steps were impressive.  Most of our group of 62 made the trek up the steps and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the gate at the base of the mountain and the surrounding mountains.

Overall it was a good trip.  We did not spend that much time at each place, but we covered many important Nanjing landmarks in less then 36 hours.  For a city that was once the capital of China, I feel that we did it justice.  If we can do this much stuff in two days I wonder how many new things we will be able to explore and discover during our week long trip to Beijing.  The China adventure continues.

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