Here I am in Beijing, and it’s hot! We arrived late Monday afternoon and the first thing I did was to book a tour, The Forbidden City and all the main attractions in Beijing, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when I discover that I am in fact going to the Great Wall at 7 am! Language is a problem here, even in international hotels…
When you are a single traveller, a tour’s success largely depends on the group dynamic, as well as the charm of the guide. I am delighted to meet at the second stop – of seven which took a full two and half hours before we could get on the road to Mutianyu, our chosen Wall segment – another singleton, Syd, originally from New York but living in Berlin for 20 years. She is here to give a motivational talk at the Beijing Book Fair. As a coach, she has a wonderful way with people, introducing herself to our fellow travellers, and soon we are all laughing and joking, despite one couple keeping us waiting for half an hour as they get stuck in a lift on the 49th floor of the Hyatt.
That’s Eli and Sarah – shh, don’t tell anyone, he’s from Israel – living in Dubai with his Filipina girlfriend, who seem to enjoy both verbal and limited amounts of physical abuse, punctuated by roars of laughter; then there’s a young Italian couple from south Tyrol; a taciturn Argentine pair; an Indonesian family living in San Francisco, with a gorgeous little girl; another Indonesian youth visiting a friend in Beijing; an elderly lone Londoner, travelling China by train (we share bad knees); a Chinese Canadian banker; a ruddy-faced American who joins the bus at 9 am carrying the first of many beers – with him a beautiful Uzbek woman (they are from Tashkent); and our fabulous tour guide, Chen, who is from Inner Mongolia. He has a brother and a sister, because minorities were always allowed more than one child. In fact his sister is adopted, something easily done in China it seems. His parents are one of 10 and seven respectively! He is the only one to escape his home town, and his parents are very proud of him. His English is excellent: he is about to take a tour to Liverpool and Dublin, and thence to Scandinavia!
We pass the time by learning Chinese characters, and some Chinese history. How no-one likes the Shanghai people – they are too short! And, most fascinatingly, how Chairman Mao, despite being the Father of China, was really not a good man – the Cultural revolution was ‘very bad’; Deng, his successor – only 1.5 m tall however, but from Szechuan and ‘smart – was really the architect of modern China’s success.
We are warned that if we visit Xian, home of the terracotta army, which is on the list, along with countless other beautiful places – we must beware, it’s a city of pickpockets and thieves – whether it’s motorbikes, cycles, wallets or phones: ‘like magic, it’s gone!’ They even cut your rucksack and replace your possessions with stones.
All the while Mr Wu our driver clicks anxiously at his worry beads in the rush-hour traffic. Soon we are speeding through eucalyptus-lined countryside and fields – of apple and cherry trees, soft fruits and newly planted vegetables. This is the area so lovingly described in Country Driving: A China Road Trip, one of the best travel books on China (thanks Annita). The writer, Peter Hessler hires cars to explore China, some feat in the early 2000s, when there were few roads and cars had only recently been introduced. Once you read the book, you will never fail to buckle up in China! He and a friend rent a house in an unspoiled village by the Wall, and it seems we are re-tracing his steps, even down to our lunch stop. But I digress…
We are lucky; not only is the sky blue, but it is also breezy and not too hot and, best of all, uncrowded. A rarity in China. Forewarned again from buying from the vendors who substitute your real money for counterfeit notes, we climb up and into bubble lift: we are in 56, the very same car that Michelle Obama rode only a few weeks ago; funnily enough on the descent we are in Bill Clinton!
Soon we are on the ramparts of the wall itself, which is just like the picture books and extends as far as the eye can see in both directions, for over 8500 kms. It is now widely accepted as myth that you can see it from outer space, but it is nevertheless a staggering monument to 2000 years of trying to keep the enemy at bay – mostly the war-faring and nomadic Mongols, who saw the domesticated Han Chinese as easy pickings.
We walk for 30 minutes along the top, climbing up into the guardhouses and admiring the stunning view. The leg holds up remarkably well, despite the almost vertical smooth, slippy stones, which have me hanging on to the wall itself to keep a purchase. I had no idea it would be so windy and it plays havoc with my favourite dress, which billows up and away, Marilyn Monroe-style, to much hilarity – captured here in some of these photos! We pose with our new chums to capture these special memories – in Mandarin we say ‘Chee-urz’, it means aubergine!
As we descend, the sky grows black and there is a cloudburst. Sitting in the large but rustic restaurant, watching the rain, we tuck into Szechuan chicken, crispy pork, unctuous and sticky aubergine, and assorted vegetables. Peter Hessler would not recognise the place!
Our final stop – apart from a quick squizz at the notorious Olympic bird’s nest – is for a tea ceremony; we come out laden with bundles of pu-er tea. Not only is it organic, but it also has no tannin and reduces toxins from the body. As green tea should only be drunk in in the morning (if at all) by people, like me, with cold Yin, pu-er is the perfect post-prandial tipple. Of course I drink green tea for its anti-cancer properties – but try to limit it to before lunch, when I switch to oolong, fresh ginger or Darjeeling, but don’t tell Prof Ang!