We left very, very early this morning – 7:45! – to get a head start on the Great Wall. Two hours later we arrived in Jinshanling, which is the starting point for a fabulous walk on the Great Wall.
Walking on The Great Wall: Jinshanling to Simatai
Not everyone wanted to go walking on the wall because it’s a tough walk and was estimated to take 4 hours. So Anne, Laurel, Mel, and Chris stayed behind and would meet us in Simatai at the end of our walk. Grant had to stay behind with them. The rest of us set out for the walk: Jon, Me, John, Robby, Anne, Ken, Ted, and Ivy.
Jinshanling isn’t a big tourist spot, and we were heading in the opposite direction of most other tourists. Despite this, there were about 15 touts at the beginning of the path who wanted us to buy postcards and books. Oddly enough, when we started walking they actually followed us up to the wall! We figured that they would leave us alone once we started trekking, but that turned out not to be true either. They quietly walked next to us for a while. We finally discovered the secret: they had paired one person per couple and would probably hit us up for money in a few hours. We figured they were definitely in for the long haul. So Jon and I firmly told our tout that we didn’t want anything and we wanted her to “go away”. She finally did.
When we caught up to the rest of the group, we told their touts the same thing. But their touts refused to leave until they heard it from the people they were paired with. So once everyone said, “No!” all the touts went back and we were left alone to walk the wall in peace.
It’s beautiful – what can I say? The Wall is over 2000 years old and runs along the tops of the hilltops so that parts of it are incredibly steep. Today was a gorgeous day – barely a cloud in the sky – and it seemed like the 8 of us were the only people in the world. We didn’t see another soul for at least an hour and a half.
I’ve decided that these journals are quite boring without the pictures, so I made a little picture for today. It took a lot of time, so no wisecracks about my artistic abilities (or lack thereof):
Jon and me on the Great Wall
Parts of the wall were crumbling and so this was an pretty difficult climb. I say “climb” because this wasn’t a walk. We had to scamper on all fours in many places in order to get up some very steep and loose steps. More than once, we found spots where the walkway was gone and all that was left was the side wall surrounded by a 10 foot drop. So we had to balance ourselves to walk across this side part. But the views were incredible and we were all energized by the fact that we were walking on the Great Wall.
The Hall of No Return
The wall is split up into many different “towers”, some of which are in great shape, and others which barely have walls remaining. After an hour and half we reached a tower whose entrance was about 4 feet above the wall but the steps to the door had long gone. So Jon built some “steps” out of loose rocks and we all scampered up to get through the tower and onto the rest of the Wall. When we walked through the tower and reached the exit door, we found the same problem on the other side – but this time it was a five foot drop down and the wall declined sharply thereafter. No way were we going to jump, but there appeared to be a side dirt path if we went back the way we came. So we stood around for a few seconds trying to decide what to do. I went to a side window to see if we could get to the ledge of the wall from there. As I leaned out the window, I felt a terrible pain in my right knee and shouted “OW!!!!!!!!”. I turned to find a HUGE hornet fall to the ground which Jon – rushing to my rescue – promptly squashed with his foot. He looked around and said, “They’re all over this place – let’s get out of here!”
So we all rushed to the entry door and scampered out to the safety of the wall below. Everyone was concerned for my sting, so we looked to make sure the stinger was out and I put some “After-Bite” on it to take the sting away. It REALLY stung!! But I guess that’s what hornets do – they sting. This one did it really well. I’m not kidding when I say this hornet was huge. It was at least 3 inches long!
So we found our way to the dirt path and walked around the Hall from Hell and continued down the wall. My knee throbbed, but the walking actually took my mind off it so I learned to ignore it after a while. But it swelled considerably after about an hour.
We passed through another tower that had some Chinese people in it, some of whom were apparently setting up a catered lunch for another group. They had a table, wine glasses, and a nice big cooler. It looked quite nice and we were sad it wasn’t for us. But this meant that we should be meeting some fellow tourists coming from Simatai soon – the usual tourist route. We were sad to have to share the peace of the Wall, but I think we were lucky to have it all to ourselves for this much time. Unfortunately, some of the Chinese people on the tower weren’t helping with the catering – they were touts. And like the touts at the beginning of the walk, they started to walk with us up the wall. We had to do the same as before, and everyone in our group had to say “No!” firmly to get them to go back. At one point, John (from England) stood on a narrow pathway and politely blocked the last one so she couldn’t follow. He was very nice about it, and the woman left with a smile on her face and we continued our trek.
Random Ticket Agents
After two hours, we reached a tower with two men standing in the doorway. They wanted 30 Yuan for tickets to continue further on the Wall. We refused to pay, showing them the tickets we already had. But they shook their heads saying, “Simatai” which is where we were going. We were very ticked off about this and weren’t quite sure what to do.
When Jon and I were on the Red Sea in July, we met a couple who had just finished a trip to Beijing. They told us that, when they had walked the Great Wall, they ran into some guys in a tower who wanted to charge them for climbing the tower. They ended up paying them, but found out later that it was a scam. So we used this as a basis for doubting these two guys, who had “badges” which looked like something we use at business conferences. We also figured that – if there was another charge – Grant would have told us to expect it. Either way, we didn’t like any of it.
To make a long story short, things got a bit nasty and we tried to force our way through. Jon ended up in a shoving match with one of them and yelled, “You want some of this?!?!” which would be an ongoing group joke for the rest of the day. Anyway, we made our way through the tower but they blocked the exit so we couldn’t get out. Not wanting to get nasty again, we stood around and debated paying them just to get out of there. But this only propagates the scam. We then tried to convince them that we had no Yuan, that it was all in the bus and we would pay them when we got to Simatai. They still wouldn’t budge. The problem was finally solved when Robby pretended to use his cell phone – which couldn’t get a signal at all – to “call Grant”. His conversation to no one sounded like this:
“Hi Grant! Hey – we’re in this tower and these guys are saying that we have to pay 30 Yuan to get to Simatai. What should we do?…. You’ll pay them at the bottom? Great, thanks. Cheers!”
So Robby told the guys that our leader would pay in Simatai and – after talking amongst themselves – they finally let us through. We were quite impressed with ourselves for overcoming the scam. Then we looked back at the tower and saw that one of the guys (Jon’s shoving friend) had collected 8 tickets and was going to walk with us to the bottom. So we started to wonder if this was a legit operation after all, but figured we’d find out in Simatai.
Most of the rest of the walk was downhill with stunning scenery. Over one of the last uphill climbs we could see the touristy Simatai in the distance about 30 minutes away. Our ticket buddy was walking a ways in front of us, so at least we knew were going the right way. Before reaching Simatai, we got to a part where the Wall stopped at a river ravine and the only way across was on a suspended bridge which cost 5 Yuan per person. So we didn’t quite know what to do since we’d told the ticket guy we had no money. But he had already crossed the bridge so we each paid the toll clerk and walked across the bridge. The rest of the wall was up some really steep steps until we got to the path to Simatai. Out ticket friend stayed at the bottom and took a boat down the river to Simatai. But we wanted to walk and wondered if he would find us again.
Then we left the wall and walked the 20 minutes into “town”. On the way down, we passed a HUGE group of tourists from Scotland. Some of them were walking up in their kilts, and one guy had a kilt and a huge blue wig on. Crazy Scots!
On the bottom of the hill, we ran into Anne who told us to keep going around the corner and we would end up in the touristy bit. She also told us that Grant had to buy special Simatai tickets for them to get in. Hmmmm….. We rounded a corner and up popped our ticket buddy with a cheerful, “Hello!”. We said “Hello!” back and we all continued on to Simatai. He was surprisingly pleasant considering we put him through a shoving match and an unnecessary 1.5 hour walk down the wall. When we got to the gate at Simatai, the guards were selling the identical tickets and greeting our friend. He looked at us and said, “30 Yuan please” but we felt that we should continue with the story that our money was on the bus since we made him walk the whole way down with us. So we got to the bus, had the driver let us in and we all pretended to get money which we really pulled out of our pockets. We paid him and he smiled and said good-bye. I offered him an Oreo but he smiled and said no and it all ended pleasantly. Ooops.
Lunch in Simatai
Simatai is really a strip mall of tourist-trap stores and restaurants. We had lunch at a restaurant at a place on the end of the mall which our bus driver recommended. Because of his referral we got 50% off all food, but we waited for the rest of the group (Grant, Mel, Anne, Laurel, and Chris) who had taken a cable car up to the top of the wall opposite to where we came from. Our Jinshanling to Simatai climb took us 3.25 hours which was great time so they weren’t expecting us back quite this soon.
Lunch was good, and we got to re-live our stories to the rest of the group – the climb, the hornets, the ticket guys – and we laughed about everything. My hornet sting wasn’t hurting as much anymore, and I was very surprised that it wasn’t so bad.
Bus Ride to Beijing and the Deadly Bathroom Break
At 3:00, we climbed on the bus to go back to Beijing. We were all quite pooped and many people napped. Jon and I sat in the back and listened to our MP3 players and tried to sleep. About 45 minutes outside of Beijing I asked for a bathroom break and the driver pulled into a gas station at which we’d actually stopped on the way to Chengde. I hopped out of the bus and walked quickly to the bathrooms in a side wall near some grass. I didn’t quite realize until it was too late that there were two guard dogs resting in the grass.
The HUGE German Shepard immediately jumped up and started growling and barking at me. I was completely relieved to see that he was chained. But the other dog wasn’t. I don’t know what kind he was but he was as big at the German Shepard. He bounded up to me and bared his teeth and barked like crazy. I stopped walking and stayed in one place. I’ve never been afraid of dogs but this was a bit scary. Slowly, I extended my hand so he could smell it when I realized that he was going to attack. So I quickly pulled my hand back in, froze, and closed my eyes. All I could think was, “OK. He’s going to hurt me, and I don’t want to watch.” Luckily, one of the gas station attendants was sprinting over and yelling to call him off. When I opened my eyes again, he had him by the collar and – although the dog was still trying to lunge at me – he was being led away.
Maybe because I was overtired, maybe because the day was so incredibly intense – I don’t know. But I walked to the bathroom and burst out in tears. I cleaned myself up in time to get back to the bus and tried to put on a good face when everyone asked if I was OK. But I was pretty shaken up by the whole thing.
Traffic was terrible into Beijing, and we didn’t arrive at the hotel until 6:30. This was problematic because most of us had bought tickets to the opera and were supposed to leave at 7:00 so – after getting checked in – we wouldn’t have time to shower.
Jon and I raced through the shower and met the group downstairs. We shared a bus with another Intrepid Group that had just began another tour last night. On our way out of the hotel driveway Jon and I realized that we’d forgotten the camera. When we asked if we could stop to get it – I’m not kidding – half the bus whined. Our guide had arranged for us to get their early to watch the actors put their makeup on, and no one wanted to be late. So we went to the opera with no camera and a little pissed off. It was a fitting end to a day with unbelievable ups and downs. Ironically, the group watched the make-up process for about five minutes, and then spent the remaining 20 minutes sitting around in their seats. So it’s a good thing that we didn’t spend the 3 minutes it would have taken for us to get our camera, right? Bygones.
The Opera was amazing, though. It was a small establishment with tables and chairs for about 50 people. We were kind of worried that it would be a lot of high-pitched screeching (remembering similar events in Zanzibar, India, and Shanghai) , but it was far from it. There were acrobatics, juggling, a small Chinese orchestra, and incredible costumes. Instead of performing one opera – which is what we expected – they performed 3 different “plays” of famous Chinese stories. Even though it was all in Chinese, we caught the gist of the 3 different acts they did.
Name of the Opera The Gist Of It“The Fight At Night at the Inn at the Crossroads” This was a story about a warrior that had been sent to an inn to protect a man traveling through there. The owner of the inn, who also wanted to protect the traveler, thought the warrior was here to harm him. So – in “the dark” – the two fumbled around the hotel room trying to fight each other. The two actors really made you think that they were fighting each other in the dark, and it was quite a funny choreographed fight. “A Stroll in the Garden (Youyuan)” This is the same thing we saw at the Master of the Nets in Suzhuo. But this time, the lady and the maid were better singers and had amazing costumes. It was lovely, but not nearly as entertaining as the previous act.
“The Monkey King Causes Havoc in the Dragon King’s Palace (Noa Longgong)”
This was the best of all of them. The strong and mighty Monkey King went to visit the evil Dragon King to find a weapon worthy of his might. The Dragon King gave him many different choices, most of which the Monkey King played with by juggling, twirling, and tossing the weapons to show how inconsequential they were. When he finally found the weapon of his choice, the Dragon King fought him to get it back. But the Monkey King was too clever, crafty, and strong for the Dragon King.
So it was a busy day for us. When we got back to the hotel, I was exhausted and just wanted to go to sleep. Jon went to Pizza Factory with Mel and Ken for dinner and brought me a meatball sub.