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Great Wall

Started: 2016-03-12 12:12:23

Submitted: 2016-03-12 15:58:30

Visibility: World-readable

21 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator visits one of the modern wonders of the world, the Great Wall of China

When I considered visiting Beijing, I knew one of the places I had to see was the Great Wall of China. There are a number of places one can visit the Great Wall, in various stages of decay and restoration. The more accessible sites closer to Beijing tend to to be better restored, and have better tourist facilities -- and crowds of tourists. Serious connoisseurs of the Great Wall of China look down on the reconstructed wall at Badaling -- but it was easily accessible by train from Beijing, and I figured that visiting in the middle of winter would reduce the crowds somewhat.

The one thing I couldn't count on was reduced crowds getting across Beijing from my hotel to Beijing Bei [North] Railway Station*. The inner orbital line -- line 2 -- was packed with commuters trying to get into Beijing. I got halfway to the railway station for my 09:02 train, when I realized that I would probably miss my suburban train, so I got off at the next station, walked across the platform, and caught the next metro train in the opposite direction, heading back to Tiananmen Square.

[* Beijing metro's signs would print words that were transliterated from Chinese into English in upper case, and words that were translated in mixed case, so the metro stop at the train station would read either "BEIJING BEI Railway Station" or "BEIJING North Railway Station". The one thing I had trouble with was figuring out where the syllables were when reading the Pinyin transliteration.]

I paid ¥9 to check my bag across the street from Tiananmen Square, then walked across the street to a series of security checks to get into the square, and then enter the queue to see Chairman Mao's mausoleum. The second security check was more thorough than most I'd experienced in China outside of an airport: they actually wanted to check the contents of my pockets, though precisely what sort of dangerous contraband they were trying to guard against was not clear. (I did have to leave my bag, and my real camera, at the bag check, but I did get to bring my mobile phone, so I did at least get to get a close-up picture of the outside of the building.)

Jaeger with Mao's mausoleum
Jaeger with Mao's mausoleum

Snow fell softly out of a gray sky onto Tiananmen Square as I climbed the steps in front of Mao's mausoleum. I skipped the stand selling reused plastic flowers, but my fellow Chinese visitors felt moved to show their respects to their departed Great Helmsman; a bench inside the first room collected flowers, in front of a statue of Mao sitting in front of a mural of the Chinese countryside. I followed the hallways, lined with red carpet and warm wood paneling, into the second room, where the body of Chairman Mao himself lay inside a glass box. His face glowed orange in a spotlight, and a Chinese flag covered his body. A series of attendants waved me on, out of the room, even though there was no one waiting behind me. I left Mao's mummified corpse (or, possibly, the wax dummy that replaced his corpse) behind me and found myself outside, on the steps on the south side of the building, back under the gray sky. The whole thing took less than ten minutes, and was utterly surreal.

Mao's mausoleum
Mao's mausoleum

I caught the metro the rest of the way to Beijing Bei Railway Station and waited for the next train to Badaling. This train was officially a suburban train, so I could use the stored-value transit card I used for the Beijing metro. I picked up a snack in the train station, then queued for the train, and at length boarded the train for the 76-minute ride to Badaling.

Train platform at Beijing Bei Railway Station
Train platform at Beijing Bei Railway Station

The train sped through suburban Beijing before climbing the hills to the north, climbing to about 3000 feet. As we approached our destination I could see a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. I'd seen piles of dirty snow on the frozen ground in Beijing, but this was the first time I saw fresh snow in China.

Snowy street in Badaling
Snowy street in Badaling

By the time I reached the wall, it was just after noon and the gray clouds in Beijing had given way to partly-cloudy skies over Badaling, but a persistent haze hung over the hills, visible only in the distance. In Badaling the wall had been restored to its original condition, with a large gatehouse over the road. I paid ¥35 for admission to the wall and began climbing up the wall.

Jaeger on the Great Wall of China
Jaeger on the Great Wall of China

In Badaling the wall was a tall masonry wall, about ten meters high, with a wide walkway at the top, about five meters wide. The wall clung to the ridges and high ground, riding the hillside like a sinewy many-segmented dragon, with guard houses at irregular intervals. Only in the steepest sections did the paving stones turn into steps; much of the wall would have been treacherous in wet, snowy, or icy conditions. (By the time I made it to the wall, the mid-day sun had melted any lingering snow, and the stone was in general completely dry.)

Great Wall of China sprawls over the hillside
Great Wall of China sprawls over the hillside

Although the wall as I saw it was almost entirely a modern reconstruction, it was still a sight to behold.

Stairs climbing up the Great Wall of China
Stairs climbing up the Great Wall of China

I hiked along the top of the wall for several kilometers to the furthest point I could reach, past a gondola carrying tourists to the wall without any effort on their part, and an alpine slide carrying them back down again. Above the gondola the wall was mobbed, even on a chilly Thursday in January.

Gondola and tourists on the Great Wall of China
Gondola and tourists on the Great Wall of China

As I climbed, the relatively warm sun combined with the physical exertion of the climb to warm me up to the point where I could actually take off some of the outer layers of clothing I wore to keep warm. After four days in a frigid Beijing, with the daily high temperature staying below freezing, it was somewhat novel to be able to take my hat (and scarf, and gloves) off without freezing.

Guard tower on the Great Wall of China viewed from another tower's windows
Guard tower on the Great Wall of China viewed from another tower's windows

Near the end of the tourist-accessible portion of the wall, another section of wall merged, which looked like it had also been restored and prepared for tourism, but it was fenced off, probably for the icy winter season.

Great Wall of China sprawls over the hillside
Great Wall of China sprawls over the hillside

I descended the wall to the road, and climbed up the other side, which had far fewer tourists. This side of the wall was shaded on the north-facing slope, but gave me a great view of the wall on the other side of the hill. From this portion of the wall I could peek over the hill into the valley behind, where the nearest city sat -- the actual destination for the suburban train I rode.

Great Wall of China climbs the hillside above Badaling
Great Wall of China climbs the hillside above Badaling

I headed back to the train station, bought a trinket memorializing my trip to the wall, and caught the crowded afternoon train back to Beijing.

Great Wall of China climbs the hillside
Great Wall of China climbs the hillside
Train on the platform at Beijing Bei Railway Station
Train on the platform at Beijing Bei Railway Station

I returned to Beijing late in the afternoon, after the local tourist sites had closed, but in time for an early supper at Hutong Pizza, in an alleyway in an old neighborhood next to Qianhai Lake. (According to my guidebook the pizza place is something of a local institution, but it's possible they just said that to assuage the guilt of Lonely Planet-reading Americans who would otherwise be worried about eating pizza in Beijing.) Along the way I walked through the winding hutongs surrounding the lake, glancing at all of the shops selling various tourist goods of all descriptions, until I came across a shop selling t-shirts -- which had a shirt showing President Obama in a PLA uniform with a red star on his hat, and the text "Oba Mao".

T-shirt: President Obama as Chairman Mao
T-shirt: President Obama as Chairman Mao

I stood there, transfixed by the spectacle of the image I was seeing, trying to reconcile all of the conflicting thoughts in my mind. I am familiar with the policies of Chairman Mao and the policies of President Obama, and I understand that there is considerable difference between the two of them, despite what some of my countrymen (possibly including some of my relatives) may think. While I stood there, gaping at the shirt, a plump middle-aged woman came out of the shop and said, "Your size!" I allowed that I would like a size medium (though I couldn't envision actually wearing the shirt anywhere, since I couldn't trust that everyone who saw it would recognize that I was wearing it as a joke). I paid more than I should have for the shirt, because I was still incapable of coherent thought while in the presence of the shirt.

The pizza was good, too. After eating I took the metro back to my hotel to plan my last day in Beijing -- which promised to be frigid.

For more photos from my visit to the Great Wall of China, see Photos on 2016-01-21. I took many pictures of the Great Wall, though many of them do look pretty much the same.

We reject kings, presidents, and voting.
We believe in rough consensus and running code.
- Dave Clark, 1992