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Great Wall of China, Sept 2019

Yes, I went to Beijing and found no evidence of them being ‘ignorant peasants’ as many people had predicted, everyone was charming. However I almost tripped up with payments, apart from hotels NOBODY accepts credit/debit cards not even Mcdonald’s, only cash or Ali-pay. Many ATMs’ are also for domestic cards only and a few hotels didn’t actually have any cash for me anyway.

The first day I was told to be back at the hotel by three PM for a curfew, as there was to be a rehearsal for China’s 70th Anniversary Military Parade and the hotel was to be in lockdown until 5 AM. All the shops in the area were closed from 2 pm. Thankfully I was tired out by then anyway having walked to and around The Forbidden Palace. I didn’t get to hear of any tanks trundling through that night. The Forbidden City was OK, the self-guided GPS-enabled guide was good, I love history like this, but it was just OK and not a hugely memorable experience for me, unlike the next day…

I had one of the hardest days of my life (well few hours but it seemed an eternity) on the Great Wall.

There are three options, the first two are very busy and require you to accept a hard sell shopping stop both ways, plus a generally reviewed as a crappy meal, both are just an hour away, the second had the bonus of a toboggan ride down. The alternative to these which I chose (Jinshanling), is about three hours from Beijing, has no shops or meals, is a less visited place with unrestored parts and it was to be a proper trek, I wanted something less Disney and as authentic as possible. I was aware it was going to be hard in the heat and was prepared for that, the severity of the terrain however surprised us all on the excursion.

I got a cab to a tube station north of me, as I had read reviews of people unable to board tube trains and missing the bus. I and an ex-pat living in Sydney, boarded a minibus that was already full and I got the last row, so spent much of the ride with my iPod (Katy it’s like a Walkman) trying to not feel sick. It was surprisingly soon that we were among the hills and took just over two hours despite a wee stop at some horrific toilets. They must build in some extra time in their schedules for poor traffic.

It was blinking hot, the sun was very strong and around 35 degrees. We had a 15 min walk uphill to the first guard tower and that was enough for two large Indian fellas to turn back. The guide took us to the second tower, so I assume to see if we were fit enough and then sent us off, it was to be a 6 km and 22 towers walk, and each guard tower was situated atop a hill. The first third was fine once I had gotten into a rhythm, I ended up with the Ozzie-based ex-pat, two vets who had come on the trans-Siberian Express and were emigrating to Australia. We four steadily pulled ahead of a very stylish Italian couple who had bizarrely been on the same train as the vets and had booked the same hostel. There was also the remaining Indian and a stunned Spanish couple who said little and only gasped, I suspect they were unaware of what they let themselves into. The Italian lady had on a pair of tight black jeans, apart from a wet suit, I cannot think of anything less appropriate here.

I surprised myself as I kept up with the other three and we stopped every second castle at the start and generally waited ten mins before the others arrived, then let them have our shady spots and pressed on. Later we stopped at all the towers. The steps at times were massive, almost at knee height and some of the steps leading into the towers were very tight and you had to heave your way in. The last two-thirds were a huge trial and very steep almost like climbing a ladder and every now and again the massive steps. Great as a defensive installation, but not so great for soft western tourists. We were all sweating and the water was stinging my eyes and dripping off my arms, in a photo, the chap in the blue shirt you will see is also drenched. Some of the gradients are so steep and the steps so high it had to be, take two steps then steady yourself, no handrails, so I climbed running my hand along the wall for balance. At points, there were no battlements and that was rather disconcerting with a such long drop and with quite a strong wind at times. Some sections didn’t have steps, just stone slopes and the gradients are so extreme, our shoes slipped. I had to try and get my toes into the cracks to stop slipping back downhill. The downhill sections I found just damn frightening. I had grippy Keen trekking sandals, much better than those few in flip flops, but even these had worked against such slippery and steep stone slabs.

I had a camelback and two bottles of water, most of the others drank three big bottles each. I was surprised only two of us had a hat and the other one was in a wool beanie hat too, so probably contained a rather large volume of sweat by the end. We all lost count of the towers, so it was a surprise when we found ourselves at the last one, after 2 ¼ hours. One chap had a fitness watch on and counted over 10,500 steps during that time. I felt chuffed that I had the stamina to be in the lead group although as we rested in each tower it took a fair old time to get my breath back. Some towers turned out to be ruined roofless shells, others had hawkers trying to sell water, beer, walking sticks (wish I had one for the ice skating sections) and plenty of plastic tourist tat. I am surprised that anyone would want to weigh themselves with a fridge magnet or a gaudy red and gold waiving lucky plastic cat, but they clearly do.

We had ¾ of an hour to wait for the guide and, having cooled myself down with my ‘emperor’s fan’ purchased the previous day at The Forbidden City. I set about eating my picnic of hardboiled egg and baguette swiped from the breakfast buffet, others went for the liquid option of marginally cold beer, I am told a degree colder than tepid (yuck). With a huge sense of achievement and after a group photo, we all walked downhill off the wall. We then had a rude surprise, as there were some more uphill sections to endure, but thankfully nothing as steep, so even with stiff legs this was small-beer for us, this took another half an hour.

Having been on it, I can now appreciate what an incredible feat of engineering it is, not only the length but sheer steepness of the terrain. It must have been a powerful defence, being so very high you would see anyone coming from miles away. This section was never attacked by the Mongols, but it was a defence and battleground against the Japs in the Second World War.

Having gotten to know each other, we had a great ride back. Lots of laughter with one of the vets, the three Indians and the Italian women, so naturally I told them my Shit Zoo joke, and it went down well. It took over three hours thanks to one of the fabled Beijing traffic jams. The others told me about a smashing street their hostel was on (called Nan Luo Gu Xiang), so I stayed on the bus and jumped off with them, said goodbye and had a good wander along, it was smashing a little gem. Many people have warned me the mainland Chinese are ignorant and rude. I found this not to be the case and was shown the utmost respect and was given loads of smiles, many want to say hello. Absolutely none of the shops or restaurants accepted credit cards, it’s only cash or the Alibaba phone paying app (Ali pay) neither of which I had, so I plodded home, to find that even McDonalds are Cash or Ali establishments, I headed here as the hotel’s restaurant was shut on Sunday nights.

A very memorable day,  I hope my hips will be in a cooperative mood tomorrow, thankfully I’ll be sitting down as I fly home.