We arrive in Tianjin, the port for Beijing.
As we look out from our cabin we are greeted by a typical Chinese view
We also notice a rust bucket of a ship coming alongside.
On the deck is a small man with a very large megaphone. His accent is so thick it takes a while to understand what he is yelling, but finally we work it out
“Fresh water! We have fresh water! We sell you fresh water! We sell you anything you want”
Welcome to China
We have two days in Beijing and as we have been there before we decide to try something a little different so we have found a small boutique hotel in a tiny working village at the foot of the Great Wall.
This time the driver we have booked tells us his name is Andy. We doubt that this is a coincidence, more likely he changes his name for each booking as a way to ingratiate himself with his customer. What he does when a woman makes the booking I leave to your imagination. But he is slight of build with a slightly effeminate manner. However for a Chinese person he drives quite well.
And if any of you are in doubt about the quality of driving exhibited by the Chinese, you merely have to drive along one of their main roads where you are greeted with huge billboards every few hundred yards giving drivers tips on how to drive safely. They can be enjoyed by foreign tourists too, as for some reason they have an English translation. If the instructions themselves don’t amuse, then the translations will. My favourite is
“Keep space for rear end collision”
It takes three hours to get to our hotel, but it is worth it. The Brickyard Hotel prides itself on its community involvement, working with the local villagers to grow all the produce for their restaurant and make such things as butter, jam, yogurt, flavoured vinegars and spa products. We have arrived just as the cherry and pear trees are in full blossom and the hotel gardens finally arouse the fabulosity meter from its slumber
From our room we can see the “watch towers” of the wall perched on top of the mountains high above us
The Fabulosity Meter is rumbling with anticipation, so we head off to the Great Wall. A charming man at the hotel who goes by the name of Thomas (this is getting silly) tells us we have several options on how to get there. We can take a three mile trek up into the mountains where there is a small gate that allows access to the wall. Thomas pauses, making it quite clear that he views this as the only real option, and as we glance around the small hotel we notice that the other guests are all equipped for such pursuits. I am neither physically nor sartorially equipped for such serious exercise, but I make all the right noises and sound duly enthusiastic while having no intention whatsoever of hiking three miles. Fortunately we are saved from any embarrassment by a couple returning from the wall. They look hot, tired and miserable in their hiking boots and rucksacks (two items, dear reader, that I have never owned and have no intention of owning in the future). They complain to Thomas that they have just walked to this little gate only to find it locked. Thomas looks crestfallen and asks if they had walked all the way back. This does nothing to improve their humour as they point out that there was little option.
“Well” says Thomas, “this is often a problem as the authorities lock the gates at will and don’t inform anyone. But you could have walked on to the next gate” he continues “it is just another mile further along the wall”
The couple turn and walk away
We try and look crestfallen at this unfortunate setback to our plans.
“You mentioned other options” I suggest.
“We have a little shuttle bus that could take you nearer to these small gates” he says.
“Mmmmm” I reply thoughtfully hoping that the expression on my face makes it look as if that is something I am considering, while I am merely biding time as I sense there is more to come.
“Or the shuttle bus can take you to the main entrance which is a few miles down the road and from there you can take a ski lift up to the wall”
Thomas tells us this last option with a sneer of disdain clearly suggesting that no guest of theirs would ever consider this option.
“However would we get back ?” I ask feigning disinterest.
“Well, I could arrange for the shuttle to pick you up after a couple of hours” he says, looking at us long and hard down his little Chinese nose.
I give him one of my most winning smiles.
We last visited the wall fourteen years ago at a different place. It was packed with tourists. This time we are at a quieter spot and there is just a handful of people on the wall. It makes for a spellbinding experience and the Fabulosity Meter is in full cry.
The section of the wall we walk is called the Zhengguantai Pass and was built in 1402.
It was built to protect the land from invading marauders. The wall is 20 metres high which should be deterrent enough, but once on top of the wall, any marauder trying to run along it would collapse from exhaustion.
We are not marauders and we are not running, but we are collapsing from exhaustion. The steps are dauntingly steep and the height of each step is double that of a normal stairway. This is not a place for the elderly or faint of heart and we didn’t think we were either, but the Zhengguantai Pass proves us wrong on both parts.
As we crawl up the stairs virtually on our hands and knees, gasping for breath, we are passed by a young lady whose boyfriend must have told her he was taking her out for a surprise date. She clearly had a completely different day out in mind and got dressed accordingly. But she is game for anything, and in an incredible act of bravery or stupidity (I leave you to decide) is not going to let a pair of 4 inch heels stop her from enjoying the day.
Now dear readers, before we leave the Great Wall, I would like to introduce a new and what I hope will be a recurring theme to my blog. In the past I have had photos of the passenger of the week, which many of you enjoyed, but some felt were a little unkind. So I am going to replace that with “comment of the week”, which I hope will be a little more acceptable to all .
So for the first entry of comment of the week, I offer you the following:
We are walking on the wall behind a young man with a tour guide. At the foot of the wall we can see a building:
The young man points to the building and asks what it is.
“They are toilets” says the guide
“Oh,” says the young man, “for the soldiers?”
As the guide tries to compose a polite reply, the young man continues
“Wasn’t it dangerous building them down there where the enemy could get to them?”
There are two ways to get down from this section of the Great Wall. We can take the ski lift, or we can take a “toboggan”. The toboggan run is like one of those bobsled courses that you see at the winter Olympics where the tobogganers get up to incredible speeds as they careen down the mountain side, face down on a tiny sled. This run is made of stainless steel and winds its way down the mountain for at least a mile.
The toboggans are miniature affairs made for Chinese rather than overweight white people,
but at least I don’t have to lie face down on it.
We hear tour guides telling their customers not to take the toboggan as it is too dangerous. Fortunately we have no one to tell us that. Nor do we have any sort of seat belt. We do however have attendants sitting by the side of the run at regular intervals, yelling at us to slow down. This is the Chinese version of taking safety precautions. But what is the point of doing something like this and not going fast. That at least is Gordon’s view as he shoots down the run at alarming speeds whooping and hollering all the way. I, unfortunately, am in the toboggan in front of him and clearly in his way. He urges me to go faster and faster while the Chinese attendants yell at us to slow down.
The Great Wall is indeed great. The ride down is even greater.