Two Days in China

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Gogobot postcard of the Great Wall at Mutianyu

Gogobot postcard of the Great Wall at Mutianyu

Beijing, China.  Something about China makes me want to take pictures of myself.  I just spent three weeks in Indonesia and maybe appeared in a handful of photos.  But China, I was only there on extended layovers – not even two full days – and I couldn’t stop snapping “selfies”.  I was obsessed, essentially addicted to visually documenting my presence in the country.

Arlo at the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Arlo at the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

Perhaps this is because it was so unreal. My mind couldn’t process my being there in the moment, so I wanted some kind of proof that I could go back and look at later on.  My visit to China after all was unintentional, I had never planned a trip there.  My flight to Indonesia was bought on United Mileage Plus frequent flier miles, using a “super saver” award.  On the plus side, this meant I got to travel to the other side of the planet on a small cache of miles, the likes of which would usually only get you as far as Orlando.  On the down side, getting my ticket on the cheap meant multiple stops and long- very long! – layovers.   In fact, both directions required a 13-hour layover in Beijing and a 5 hour layover in Bangkok.

 

 

I had never been to China before and the mere mention of 13-hour layovers started putting ideas in my head right away.  I could leave the airport and go see something, couldn’t I?  I didn’t know if I could actually or, if I could, I didn’t know what was close enough to the airport to safely see and get back in time for my flight.  So, I put out a few questions on gogobot.  Turns out, China only recently began allowing travelers in transit to enter the country on a 72-hour visa.  Unlike the visa for an extended visit, the 72-hour option was granted upon arrival – no need to apply or to visit a consulate.  I was going to be able to enter the country.  Via my gogobot inquiries, I also learned that there were a couple of good options for a quick visit.  Both the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace are accessible by reasonable taxi rides, and a couple sections of the Great Wall are only an hour from the airport.

Due the proximity and the presence of dining possibilities and other nearby attractions, such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City seemed like the best option.  So much so, that I thought I’d just visit this part of the city on both layovers, keep it simple.  A part of me really wanted to see the Great Wall, but the logistics sounded complicated and it would almost certainly be a short visit at the expense of not seeing much of anything else.  Keep it safe, visit the Forbidden City.

So that’s what I did, on my first layover.  I arrived in Beijing in the late afternoon after flying directly over the Arctic in it’s state of perpetual winter night.  This northern route was new for me and an adventure in itself.  I didn’t sleep a wink as my window seat offered mind-blowing views of Greenland’s glacial fields, northern Russia’s rolling tundra, and jagged, snow dusted mountain peaks in a desolate wilderness I can only assume is Mongolia.   I saw the sun rise as we escaped from Arctic latitudes, and then I watched it set again, a few hours later on a congested Beijing freeway.

You know you are in Beijing right away because the air smells like soot and is heavy to breathe.  But beyond this one common stereotype, nothing about China’s capital was how I expected.   The Beijing Capital International Airport is amongst the biggest and most modern aviation facilities I have seen, courtesy of the 2008 Summer Olympics.  The freeways are well-designed, well-maintained and orderly.  And the flagrant Capitalism is almost nauseating.  Every luxury brand, international chain, and western restaurant franchise are prominently on display.  The ride into town is practically one long commercial, giving even Las Vegas a run for their money on excess and overt consumption.

 

BcKIsKKIEAAJ8sQThe circus of commercialism does tone down a bit as you enter the city’s historic center.  Walmart and Cartier outlets are replaced by ancient walls and the dramatic roofs of temples and palaces.  It was night by the time I got to the Forbidden City, so the main gates were closed. I was resigned to observe it from the outside.  I strolled about the historic district, along canals and through impressive squares and parks.  I encountered a few young Chinese men who wanted to practice their English with me (I hear this is a common occurrence here), but did not linger long with them.  Rather, I wanted to replace my missed opportunity to see the palaces with an experience of another kind, a culinary one.

 

Gogobot postcard of my chicken dinner at Da San Yuan.

Gogobot postcard of my chicken dinner at Da San Yuan.

My inquires on gogobot had produced a number of restaurant recommendations, a few of which were directly in the vicinity of where I was walking.  I decided to hunt down one of these and treat myself to a nice dinner.  The restaurant I found was called Da San Yuan and is said to be one of the nicer places to eat in the area of the Forbidden City.  It turned out that, likely due to the hour, I was the only patron there. But it was gorgeous place – massive in size and dressed like the palaces to which it is adjacent.   The staff were friendly and curious about me, giggling and whispering in that way that Asian women will often do.  The menu was impressive, more like an encyclopedia of food, with pictures.  But the prices were what really caught my eye.  The food is incredibly expensive, with some dishes listed at more than $200 US.  I ignored the big ticket items and scanned the menu for something affordable, but also hopefully appetizing.  There were quite a few exotic items that looked and sounded as if they might lie outside even my adventurous palette.  I settled on a chicken dish that sounded somewhat like what you might find in an Americanized Chinese restaurant.  It turned out to be not like American Chinese food at all, but was quite delicious.

Leaving Beijing for the first time, the plan was to return to the Forbidden City during daylight hours and really take the historic sights in.  But a few days before my return, I was struck with the realization that this may be one and only chance in life to see the Great Wall of China.  There was sense of urgency to this desire and it trumped anything else I wanted to see in China.  I had to figure out a way to get there.  So, I tossed another question out on gogobot and learned that my options were basically a packaged airport tour, taking the local bus, or hiring a driver.  The airport tours were complicated because my flight left at 6:30pm, around the time most tours return.  The bus option had multiple connections and transfers, which just seemed like a recipe for disaster in a country where I cannot read the written script.   So, that left hiring my own car.  I wasn’t sure how to do this and even entertained the thought of renting a car directly (which, after seeing the route we drove to get there, I’m glad I didn’t do).

The help desk for 72-hour transit visitors.

The help desk for 72-hour transit visitors.

Luckily, part of the new 72-hour transit Visa program includes help desks at the airport to arrange exactly this type of excursion.  The lovely women at the desk do not speak great English, but they do speak enough to communicate with a zero-Mandarin numbskull like me.  Actually, despite the difficulties with the language, they were extremely gracious and helpful.  They went over every possible option with me and then booked a private driver on my behalf.

Visitors wanting to see the Great Wall from Beijing have two options.  The more popular Badaling area is said to be beautiful, but reportedly burgeoning with tourists and tourist-preying street vendors.  A few of the reports I read made it sound like the crowds were almost unbearable at times and the behavior of the vendors bordering on outright harassment.  I opted for the path less trodden.  The second place to see the wall is called Mutianyu.  Apparently, despite excellent facilities and a gorgeous track of Wall, Mutianyu only gets a fraction of the tourist traffic seen at Badaling.  That was my speed and it turned out to be an excellent decision.

The Wall at Mutianyu.  Arlo Hemphill

The Wall at Mutianyu. Arlo Hemphill

Mutianyu was less than an hour from the airport, nestled in abruptly rising mountains just north of the city.  It does have it’s fair share of hustling vendors, but it is a manageable chaos and some of their crafts for sale are actually quite nice.  To reach the wall itself one must purchase a cable car ticket, and ride up to the top, ski lift style.   This only takes about 5 minutes, but is a lot of fun and affords fantastic vistas of the Wall and surrounding mountains.  Should one be interested, there is also a metal slide (they call it a toboggan) that you can slide back down from the Wall at the end.

Dried fruit for sale at Mutianyu

Dried fruit for sale at Mutianyu

Upon reaching the Wall for the first time, I went into something of a minor state of shock.  I don’t think my mind could process what I was seeing, and I felt both giddy and elated.   This is the Great Wall of China and it is stunningly beautiful.  My mind could not accept that, and so I retreated into my phone for a moment, grasping onto a known reality via a few social media posts.

And then the selfies began.  The day was perfect – sunny, crisp and clear, like northern California when the fog clears.  My first selfie looked great in the direct sun, and “hey, that’s the Great Wall of China behind me!”.  I wanted more, like a kid in a candy shop, I felt that I needed a ridiculous amount of pictures showing me with the Great Wall as a backdrop.   I only posted one on Facebook, the others were for me – so I could look at them, pinch myself and maybe someday really believe I was there. This was an interesting reaction.  I’ve traveled a lot in my life and do not usually respond to major monuments in this manner.  Rather, I too often experience the exact opposite.  Famous sights, when seen in real life, are often anti-climatic.  What’s the big deal?  When are we going to eat?  This was not the case here.

The wilderness beyond the Wall.  Arlo Hemphill.

The wilderness beyond the Wall. Arlo Hemphill.

I spent two hours up on the Wall, and could have spent the entire day. The rolling, serpentine monument beckoned like an addicting drug – follow me, explore me, walk the distance of my spine.  I would have liked to have hiked the allowable extent of wall located there at Mutianyu, but simply did not have time.  So, I had to be content with photographs and soaking it all in.  I did hike what my time allowed for though, punctuated of course by frequent posing for selfies.

I’m on the Great Wall of China!

Here’s some more of my selfies and a ridiculous selfie video celebrating the moment:

 


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