Sunday, 27 July 2014

Walking the Great Wall In Slippers

27th of July, 2014. It is the thick of stinking summer in Beijing. I am woken up by knocking at the door in the middle of the night. Why? I am getting such good sleep, who could be asking me to wake up at this hour. Turns out it was the hotel manager, reminding me that I was visiting the great wall today. Who does he think he's kidding? It's the middle of the night - I wasn't supposed to be visiting the Great Wall until morning time! Then Suzanne knocks on my door, telling me it's nearly 7 o'clock. I call bull, but produce my clock, confirming that it is indeed nearly 7! Why is everything so pitch dark? Turns out my hotel room cuts off every single trace of light from the outside. It could be day, night, or raining acid from blood red skies, and I wouldn't know. I have almost no time to get ready! But I do. I put on a thin cotton shirt, some trousers, and a pair of slippers. I'm not too sure why - either I couldn't find my shoes, or in my sleepy induced dementia I thought slippers would be good footwear for the Great Wall. Slippers of which I would discover, were actually meant for the bathroom only, and fall off with practically every step. To make matters worse, it is said that in China a woman is judged by her handbag, and a man is judged by his... shoes. I don't know what they made of this foreign bloke wearing a pair of Korean toilet slippers.

I didn't take a sunhat, or a fan, which totally shouldn't be necessary in the cool mountain air, right?

I got on the bus, without breakfast, only with a few big bottles of water which I thought would surely be enough for the hike. I thought wrong about the slippers, so you can guess that I thought wrong about this too. The bus heading to the Wall had a large assortment of tourists, and we were all in silence. (I practically cannot speak without breakfast), until Suzanne broke it (the silence, not the fast) by asking everyone to introduce themselves. They all did so - there were teachers from the U.S, students from Britain, tourists from Holland, Canada, Brazil and Ireland, amongst others. We all told our stories, and the ice had been broken - we all suddenly became like good friends, instead of a bunch of tourists stuck in a bus together - all because Suzanne said we should introduce ourselves. Breaking the ice is that simple.

There was a rest stop, so I could get some food, but at the corner shop, the only thing I could really lay eyes on was a snickers bar. Thus, I was set to travel the Great Wall on a snickers bar. Maybe I had fallen for the 'You're Not You When You're Hungry' slogan. Bollocks. There's no way I was going to climb that Wall if I was not really me. Advertisements work best when your hungry. The logic of the ad campaign is self-fulfilling. (I also noticed I only eat Kit Kats when I'm on my break). Anyway, enough about American confectionary, we're in China here.

The section of the Great Wall we visited, Mutianyu, is not the closest to Beijing, however, it is quite pretty. During the summertime, it was surrounded by thick, lush forest crawling with bugs, much in contrast to my expectations of northern China, which I pictured as an endless wasteland of dull grey and brown earth.  Mutianyu, one of the most well-preserved segments, is divided up by 22 watchtowers, which serve as shady resting points between the 2,200 meter long stretch - which really isn't long, unless it's in Beijing's most blazing heat and you're without a fan, sun protection, footwear and adequate water. I used up about half of my water by the time I reached the wall - the journey up is strenuous if you choose to go by foot instead of Gondola. I sweated so much that I didn't need to go to the toilet all day, despite having drunk over 3 litres. The aim of the tour was to get to the end and make it all the way back by lunchtime, but instead I resigned myself with chatting with fellow travellers. I really grew to appreciate the merits of a good rest and drink of water - ironically, you would have thought Chinese merchants would be capitalising on thirsty travellers like me, but the only water sold was at the very end of the 22 watchtowers. So in other words, if you want water, you had to work for it.

Lunch was at 2 o'clock, so I had another hour or so to get back. It would have been wise for me to take to Toboggan - one of Mutianyu's main attractions, but I didn't, wanting to preserve my cash. I regretted it, as everyone who has taken the Toboggan said it was the perfect way to end the trip. If you ever travel through Mutianyu, be sure to take the Toboggan. At the time it costed 200 yuan. For me, I thought I needed the exercise and ran all the way down to the restaurant, where I could finally have a massive, 3 course lunch with plenty of Tsingtao beer. The snickers bar prevented me from dying, but that, along with a 4 hour journey across the Mutianyu Great Wall, helped me appreciate a well earned meal.

Nursing the cuts on my feet from those pesky slippers