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Archive for July, 2011

I never imagined hiking the Great Wall of China. Pictures I had seen — the throngs of tourists with cameras, the sea of bodies moving from watch tower to watch tower as the wall darted and rose in the background. But three days ago, I woke early and traveled to Mutianyu, about an hour and a half drive from the Forbidden City in Beijing, where I’d stayed since Tuesday.

We drove through ring road after ring road until we reached a highway I hadn’t traveled on before. In less than 45 minutes, we were passing fertile farm towns where rows of corn stretched wide and the stalks rose high. Willows and poplars lined the road and ushered us past a small river dotted with bridges. Soon we came to a place advertising itself as an “eco village” and one of Beijing’s most beautiful towns. We bounced past once-colorful, now-muted and rusted playgrounds and campgrounds — empty except for a smattering of colorful tables — until we arrived at the busy entrance to Mutianyu.

Tourists have several climbing options: they can take cable cars up to the wall or choose to climb one of the paths, hundreds of steps long, to one of the many watch towers. On the way down, there’s a third option — a toboggan — that looks not unlike a giant twisting slide you would find at Disney World.

I tried to spot the actual wall as I climbed the path, but the trees and the mist obscured the view. Even when I finally ran up the watch tower stairs and swiveled around to see the surrounding land, I could barely make out the rest of the structure in the distance. Visibility was more or less limited to one watch tower ahead of my position. At 9:00 AM on a Friday morning, most other tourists were still on their way to the wall, and with the heavy fog, I could almost imagine I alone kept watch in the towers.

The Great Wall in the mist.

Watch tower.

In less than a half hour, though, the visibility improved and hundreds more climbers poured into the towers and onto the wall. I overhead conversations in Chinese, Japanese, English, French, Spanish, and Hebrew as people from all over the world walked along this magnificent granite structure, originally built by the Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577) and later rebuilt and reinforced by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Better visibility.

China is, at once, everything I expected and nothing I imagined. Every which way I look, I find something that fascinates, that spurs my imagination, or that baffles me. In Beijing, at all hours of the day, there are people playing cards on the sidewalk, dancing or practicing tai chi in the parks, or men in public spaces, carefully honing their technique with a giant whip (I filed that under the hybrid “baffling/fascinating” category). And each day, before tucking into bed, I observe the city one last time from the top of my hotel, taking in the tiled roofs and pagodas around me. Until 10 PM, that is, when the lights illuminating the historic buildings of Beijing turn off all at once, snuffed out by some invisible worker.

Weather: Now in Delhi, India where it’s hot, humid, and gray.

Mood:

Anna: 8 out of 10 on my first day in India!

Hannah: Hopefully happy and staying cool after her magnificent travels.

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100 Percent Hot*

It’s pouring rain outside of my window and I finally feel like I’ve come home.

I was in Europe for two months. Two months always goes faster than you think it will: I could swear it was only a few weeks ago that I packed up my bags and walked through security at Logan Airport. But when I left the blossoms had just come out on the trees and it was still cold enough to wear sweaters in the morning.

Apparently a lot changed in my absence, because on Wednesday I stepped out of the airconditioning and found myself in the middle of a heat wave. The temperature peaked at 98 this week, according to my household thermometer. (That’s 36 in celsius!) For the last two days all I’ve done is sit on the couch in a stupor, reading Gary Shteyngart or staring off into space. I don’t know whether it was the heat wave or the jet lag that did me in, but I’ve hardly been able to move, never mind speak in complete sentences or write coherent statements. The Emotional Calendar has all kinds of tips for managing jet leg, but I was too hot and tired to do any of them. “I should have stayed in Barcelona,” I moaned several times a day.

Then this morning I woke up at 5:30 (that’s 11:30 Barcelona time!), just in time to hear the first drops of rain against the windows. Minutes later we were in the midst of a full-fledged thunder storm. Lightning flashed, water poured in through the wide-open windows (I took a break from writing this to run around shutting them) and the temperature dropped to 70 degrees. Finally, I’m glad to be home.

Weather: 70 degrees and raining
Mood:
Hannah: 8 out of 10.
Anna: in Beijing!

*Image courtesy of weather.com

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Sunset at Finnisterre

Sunset at the end of the world

The other day I walked to the end of the world, and I watched the sun set in the Atlantic from the most Western point in Spain. According to the Romans, this was the end of the world; each time the sun fell beyond the horizon there was doubt as to whether it would rise again. According to older traditions, a boat that sets out from this point will arrive eventually in paradise. Not to be too symbolic about the whole thing, but we now know that if I were to set out in a boat and sail west from Finnisterre, I would arrive, eventually, in Boston.

I walked about 790km, or 36 days, to make it to the end of the world. I walked through Basque country, where I could see my breath in the morning and where the fields of wheat rolled towards red clay towns nestled in the valleys. I walked across the meseta, which is utterly flat farmland that shimmers in the sun. I passed through Rioja, famous for its wine, and through Burgos and Leon, with the most beautiful gothic cathedral I have ever seen. Near the end I crossed a windy mountain pass and entered Galicia, where they speak Galician, a derivative of Portuguese. In Galicia the houses are made of slate and the hills are covered with oak forests that drip with moss: tradition says Galicia, which was once Celtic, is the home of witches.

One super-hot 40 degree day I walked 40km and ended up sleeping in a cow field on a hill surrounded by eucalyptus trees; the next day I got up early and walked to Santiago de Compostela. According to Catholic tradition, the Camino de Santiago ends there, and it was an ending of sorts as I reunited with friends I had made along the way. But the camino predates the Catholic church and so I kept on walking until I reached the ocean, which to me felt like a more fitting ending to a long road.

On the camino you follow yellow arrows, or scallop shells, which show you which way to go. It was a running joke among my companions that we would be totally lost without these symbols to guide us. And it’s true that for the three days I spent in Finnisterre, I didn’t know what to do without anywhere to go. I slept on the beach, I went swimming, I collected shells, watched the sun set, hoped (liked the Romans) that it would rise again. To my surprise, every day, with or without yellow arrows, it did.

Basque Country, Northeast Spain

 

The meseta, outside Leon

Approaching Galicia, northwest Spain

Weather: cool and sunny, London!

Mood: Hannah, 7 out of 10, a bit groggy after a long weekend.

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