Thursday, December 22, 2005

Beijing: 3 - The Great Wall

Well, it's pretty impressive.

Andrew was waiting for me at 9:00 am and we launched into the crazy Beijing traffic for the 90km (58mile) drive to the 2+km restored section of the Wall at Mutianyu. [Apparently, large sections of the wall lie in ruins. The areas frequented by tourists have been restored by the Chinese government.] "Mutianyu is much better than Badaling." [the closest section of the Wall from Beijing] "Fewer tourists and no pollution." Well, no pollution is great. The city in the morning is draped in a layer of brown-grey. Beijing has the unpleasant distinction of being the most polluted capital on the world.

The countryside around Beijing is flat and brown, dotted with concrete-filled towns, and leafless trees. Traffic culture is most decidedly not like India. People actually observe lane discipline, though overtaking from the shoulder on the right is quite acceptable. There is less vehicular diversity -- tons of cars and trucks and buses, bicycles, rickshaws, large three-wheeled behemoths (akin to north-Indian "tempos") belching noxious fumes galore. No cows, or ox-carts. I did see a few mule-carts though. The roads are in excellent shape and quite clean. And most distinct: no sign of the abject poverty that is so glaringly visible on India's roadsides -- shanties, dwellings propped up by wire and corrugated cardboard and plastic, and mounds of trash everywhere.

If the number of cars is any indication, then, all that talk about China being a huge gas guzzler is quite true. Gas is relatively cheap, 4.26 yuan per litre, which comes to about $2/gallon, and Sinopec gas stations are strung out at practically every kilometer.

An hour and a half later we're going through downtown Huairou, a miniature version of Beijing -- crowded streets, busy store-fronts, a large electronic store with a huge iPod billboard, large high-rises (with many more under construction. "It cost 4800 yuan/sq.m to buy an apartment here!"), a McDonalds, a KFC. Busy, consumerist, modern China.

A little out of town, and suddenly the mountains appear, rounded limestone formations, with granite peaks behind them. The road rises and starts winding, and a few villages fly by, and then, round a curve, up on the range, you see it, like a snake perched on the ridge. Soon we're at the parking lot at the foot of the range. A few buses and cars are disgorging the "few tourists" ("Oh, in peak season there would be 3000-5000/day!"). One has a choice of walking up to the wall, taking a "closed cable car" or a "toboggan slide." Not really sure what the last was, and not wanting to find out, I shelled out 50 yuan for the cable car ride up to the Wall.

The cable car station is a steep hike up from the parking lot, the path lined with souvenir shops peddling kitsch. An intriguing sign warns "Department of Propaganda: Please no start fire" and up ahead there is a large two-humped dromedary ambling up the hillside. It gives me a baleful look as I take a couple of pictures.

The ride up is spectacular, with the valley below shrouded in haze, and the sections of the Wall stretching out on either side. And on the Wall itself, the first thing one notices is how quiet it is. Barely a whisper of a wind (a huge relief from yesterday. It's definitely warmer, a high of 4C today. Compared to yesterday, that's a heat wave. Yes, Papa, I'm adequately bundled up! :)), and the occasional chatter of tourists. But, at points, one could stand there and imagine being completely alone, not a soul in sight, not a sound to disturb the tranquility, apart from one's own breathing.

The scenery is spectacular, of course. Apparently the time to be here is autumn, when the trees lining the wall glow orange and yellow. Still, it's quite beautiful as it is. I spend an hour and a half just wandering around, taking it all in.

What on earth would prompt a civilization to build this? What were they guarding against? As a defense mechanism, historically, the Wall was apparently a failure. Gengis Khan is reported to have said that a wall is only as good as its sentries. One can only imagine something resembling the Siege of Helms-Deep (Lord of the Rings for the clueless) happening here. Regardless, the whole thing is quite breathtaking, and deserves its status as one of the wonders of the world.

Though, my Lonely Planet guide bluntly says so, it's a myth that it's visible from space. Not that any of us is likely to be able to verify that ... :)

On the way down, I'm assaulted by the proprietors of souvenir stalls (Bill, not quite as aggressive as in Agra, but close!). "T-shirt! One dolla! Three for one dolla!" they cry. I try not to laugh, because all I can think of is that episode of South Park where Cartman thinks he's a Vietnamese prostitute named Ming-Lee and does the rounds going "5 dolla, 5 dolla!" :)
I astutely ignore them, and instead, pick up some souvenirs at a fixed-price shop near the parking lot. I absolutely loathe bargaining!

Lunch was at a little restaurant in Huairou, a pork and beans dish in a delicious sauce, with rice and soup. [Note to self: Trying to meat off the bone with chopsticks is mighty tricky!]Andrew thumbs through my phrase book and points to "gongbao jiding" (diced chicken with hot peppers) - "very popular dish. No one eats now, because chicken has flu!" Indeed! I've avoided ordering chicken so far. Rather irrational, for sure, but, hey.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gashwin,

Did you acquire your bronze medallion indicating that you visited the Great Wall? Quite common in the office for those visited there on business.

Hope all the travel is not fatiguing you. With the jet lag, the running around Asia and the cold weather, remember to stay healthy. And no unnecessary risks (like chicken). The last thing we need to do is quarantine you for bird flu.

So if you acquire a cold or flu in China, don’t eat any chicken soup!

Love the pictures!

Sincerely,

Dogwood