The Great Wall of China was the perfect monument to wrap up my tour of China. Gigantic, well-made, lots of shopping options throughout the entire process of my visit. A thoroughly-representative example of my experience in China. And a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving. This, of course, makes me remember my last Thanksgiving…though that is another story! All I will say here is that I hope that the Pepple family is well, and that I thought of you while visiting the Great Wall!
I woke up this morning at 7:45 – early for me, but these past few days have involved early starts. I believe that a combination of 4 or 5 lattes a day with a sort of Christmas Morning feeling are making for early starts whether I want them or not. I walked into the lobby of the Forbidden City Hotel (aka F.C. “Hostel” on the business cards) and ordered two breakfasts. Although I did not need that much food, it is not possible to simply turn off the high metabolism that I develop when touring, backpacking etc. I am hungry all the time. Especially when, on rare occasions, options might include fried eggs, bacon, or french toast as they did at the Forbidden City Hotel – an amazing find at 50Yuan/night (maybe $7.35 U.S.) being located right next to the Forbidden City. They get you by selling you breakfast though.
After my meal, it was time to visit the Great Wall of China. I was happy about this. Feeling peaceful, and not quite able to believe that it was happening. The Great Wall was, together with The Great Pyramids one of the most exciting sites that I have wanted to visit during this trip. Perhaps during my life.
In Beijing, a tourist has various options for how to actually get to the wall. I could have done it in the most pure style, of course, which would have been to ride my bike up there. But at this point, I could not even conceive of doing such a thing. When you arrive in a massive city with your bicycle, sometimes the thought of pedaling your bicycle out through that city to a giant tourist trap suddenly seems less romantic than it did two years ago when everything had been envisioned in fantasy form. That is fine though – I was perfectly happy with reality. And in fact, I welcomed the chance to go on an adventure with Beijing’s public transportation system(s). And an adventure it was!
I knew that I needed to get to the Deshengmen Gate a few miles NE of the Forbidden City in order to take bus 919. My plan (a lame plan) was to walk in that direction, and maybe flag down a tuk tuk if possible or a taxi and get a ride if it were reasonable. A Taxi was 50 Yuan…that seemed high at the time. I kept walking. I knew it was only 3 or 4 miles if I walked the whole way. A little while later I arrived at a bus stop. I waited for 10 mins. or so and then boarded bus 60 – I did not know its route, but I had maps saved on my iPod, so I could roughly follow the bus’s progress as it moved along. 1 Yuan for the bus ride. I got off 15 minutes later when (I thought) the bus had begun to move a couple of blocks too far North. ***35mins. after departure from the F.C. Hotel***
At this point I was feeling good about myself. I backtracked from the bus stop to what I thought was the street on which I might find bus 919 to the Great Wall, and began to walk East. If my directions (or my sense of direction?) were right, I would be at Deshengmen Gate in a few blocks. I spotted a tourist center on my right, so out of habit I went in to pick up the free map that Tourist Centers offer. A short convo with the receptionist revealed that I was a 30 minute walk and many many blocks south of Deshengmen Gate. Fortunately he outlined a new bus itinerary. I hopped on a Trolley (#111) of which Beijing seems to have 1 or 2, but will hopefully build lots more. These are just busses, but with poles sticking up on back that connect them to electrical cables that allow them to run off of power from the grid and reduce pollution in the city of which there is an impressive amount.
I connected onto one more bus, which rolled around a bit more, until I was satisfied that I was lost. Or at least thoroughly off route. I noticed that I was next to a Wu Mart. I spotted two of those during my adventure…imitation Wal-Mart? Perhaps. Or perhaps Wal-Mart is the imitation…more investigation will be necessary. Unfortunately I did not have time to enter Wu Mart. I wish that I had. I will be thinking about it until I my return to Beijing.
I got off of the bus (now number 22…I had been enjoying watching some of the flat screen TVs in the busses) and got right into the Taxi cab that was parked in front of the bus stop where I got off. I said “Nih-how” to the woman in the driver’s seat, and then pointed to the Deshengmen gate on my tourist center map and said “Deshengmen Gate?” And she said some things and started driving. We were on good terms though. I looked up “Great Wall” in my iPod’s Chinese dictionary, and, not finding it, simply showed the driver the word for “Wall” and the number 919 (the bus number that I needed) when she started asking me questions about our route. Understanding flashed across her features immediately, and she continued speaking to me as she drove around, honking at other cars and things. She started the meter at 10Yuan – $1.50 or so – and it wound up running to about $2.50U.S. I tipped her $1.50, and then took a minute to confirm that we were, in fact, at Deshengmen Gate: site of the famous 919 buses to the Great Wall. She pointed emphatically over at a stone building across the street, and looked at it with wide eyes as she spoke, and showed me some incomprehensible characters that she had written down on the receipt for emphasis. I felt reassured and walked across the street in search of bus 919. ***2.5 hours and 28 Yuan invested in the journey to the Great Wall up to this point.***
I found 919 in about 15 seconds – the wrong 919 as it turns out, but the correct one was right across the street – and got on board. I picked up a sweet potato from a vendor right outside before embarking. It did not occur to me until hours later that this might also be appropriate food for Thanksgiving. Sweet Potatoes were one of my best discoveries in China, I just wish that I had discovered them before meeting up with my friend George who let me know about them. The bus had one other westerner on it that I could recognize, and became full, after a few stops, with Beijing locals who were using 919 to make their way to various huge apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city. It actually carries virtually no Great Wall traffic at all – I was one of only four or five people who got off the bus at the Great Wall.
I slept for about 35 minutes of the 50 minute ride (I think that’s how long it was…). When I awoke, we were in craggy green hills, and remarkably, the grey, cloudy, dark, haze was gone. In its place was clear, pale, soft yellow light. We had climbed out of Beijing’s smog and humidity. It felt almost like sunset, though it was just after 1. 1:30 p.m. is late afternoon in northern China this late in the year. I caught a glimpse of the Wall and it was big. Yep…that was the Great Wall. Looking like one of hundreds of walls that I had made when I used to play the computer game Age of Empires II. But this wall was outside the bus, actually on the hills in real life, rolling by along the landscape. I think that it was more impressive to drive past it in a bus. There were tunnels, road grit, guard rails, highway crew walking by in orange safety vests, tractor trailer rigs passing our bus on the left, big green signs, the forest rolling by on the right, the hills, and the Great Wall of China out in the distance on the right. It was another part of that scene. A part of the landscape. If it were not so famous, you would just look out and think, “hmm…I wonder what the deal is with that wall…” And if you could drive along its length, you might be wondering, a couple thousand miles later how long this wall would go. The answer is complicated. In actual net distance from east to west, it seems that the answer might be approximately 1,250-1,400 miles. However, if you were to figure out how much actual wall there is, then the answer is different. There might be more like 5,500 miles – or at least there were at one point. Sections of the wall erode away or get taken down in order to be used in construction for houses, etc. Although much remains, much is gone and continuing to go. Check out this map to see how big the Great Wall of China is when you place it in the United States – roughly.
Once I got there, I asked someone how far I had to walk in order to get up to the wall. The answer was, “that way…5 minutes.” I could not believe I was that close…
The nearest manifestation of the Great Wall to Beijing is in Badaling – a sort of tourist outpost that has been set up with shopping, an informational movie theater, tourist info centers, etc. in order to support a very well-maintained section of the wall (at least five miles or so that I saw, I do not know how far it goes in such a pristine state. It gets visited by millions of tourists, including Barack Obama just a few days ago. It is not possible for me to describe, in any way that would give you an appropriate idea, how big all of it is. The Great Wall dwarfs the Pyramids. You stand on it and walk around, and you walk, at length, from guard tower to tower, each one of which is a massive structure in itself. But you look at this wall stretching to the horizons on either side of you, winding through hazy, craggy mountains for miles before it gets there. The approaches that are involved to even get onto the wall itself are large in a classic Chinese sense…wide, calm streets with formidable restaurants and businesses lining their edges: Starbucks, KFC and various Supermarkets and souvenir stores. All of it is done in sort of a uniform, tasteful style that makes it look “wall like” with granite facades, a log here and there. It is all solid.
By the time I actually got up onto the wall, I was pretty much satisfied already. But of course, I spent a couple of hours up there, and took pictures, and just hung out, looking around. In addition to there being the Wall, there are also just really nice mountains. Badaling is a good area.
I walked down around 4p.m., picked up another cup of coffee at Starbucks, and then got back on bus 919. It was a good ride back to the city. I spent a bit of time examining my map en route to Beijing, and noticed that Deshengmen Gate was actually quite close to a subway station. A fact that had escaped my notice when I originally made my way to the Gate to go out to Badaling. Upon noticing this, I felt a wave of excitement wash over me, and knew at once that my route back to the Forbidden City Hotel must involve trains. It was…the only way.
After a few minutes of map examination to confirm everything, I was off on foot once again in search…this time of a subway station. 15 minutes of walking and asking around had located it. Subway stations are similar to most public things in China in the sense that they are not flamboyantly advertised. It was slightly difficult to spot the station from across the street, with only one discreetly lit white sign leading into an escalator, leading into the most incredible underground world you could possibly imagine. Once I entered the subterranean world of Beijing…Whoa. I did not want to go back up. I would probably still be down there if I did not have to eat, sleep, etc.
The Beijing Subway System is definitely the most awesome Subway system I have ever seen. More lines, more stations, and more trains are only the foundation of that awesomeness. Upon that foundation, they have added features like light up maps in the trains so that your current location is color coded with flashing lights and you know where you are at all times. That is fun to look at if you are not more distracted by watching one of the half-dozen or so LCD TV screens that are in each cabin. Or by watching anime on the iPhone of the guy standing next to you. Various bright green and red light up arrows point in various directions no matter where you are…these did not help me, but they look cool. Entrance to the subway is controlled by magnetic keycards – similar to the cards used to get into hotels. You keep the piece of plastic for the duration of your ride. You must insert the card into a machine in order to escape from the subway. I really had to pee when I was trying to figure this out, but fortunately some security guards taught me how it works right when I needed it most. I burst out of the subway and up to freedom to find one of Beijing’s 20,000,000 or so public toilets within 30 seconds – not one second too soon. Naturally, they have escalators all over the place in the subway. But Beijing is the first ever subway system that I have used to feature flat moving walkways…airport style. They also have tons of video cameras all over the place…the big white rectangular ones like in Goldeneye. It makes it all feel important. If I’d had a cell phone, I might have called the customer service hotline that was advertised all over the place in the cabins. The busier transfer line stations (I rode 3 lines…sort of by accident, but it was actually a fairly efficient route) have plexiglass walls up to ensure that it is physically impossible for anybody to fall in front of or to get pushed in front of an arriving train. Once a train stops and opens its doors, sliding plexiglass doors open in sync with the train. Good idea. I found myself on the subway at 6p.m. on a Thursday evening, so it was one of the busiest times of the week for the Subway. Trains were packed, but moving fast, crowds moving fast, a good system it seems. Huge.
By the time I got home, I had, sort of by accident, used various busses, a taxi, and 3 different lines of the subway system here during my 8 hour journey out and back to visit the Great Wall of China. I plan to ride the subway to Beijing’s Airport tomorrow. I discovered that there is also a line that runs all the way out to there. Hopefully I will be able to get onto the train with my bike. I will jump off that bridge when I come to it. It was a great Thanksgiving. I will write more from Tokyo – will be there tomorrow afternoon. And you know what that means…I will be on Facebook and Twitter tomorrow afternoon after having been unable to access them for about a month while traveling in China. Oh yeah… Thanks for reading. If you have not seen it already, please check out the article about Seize The World in the Coloradan magazine – view it online here.