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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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