Jinshanling Great Wall

Ask the majority of foreign tourists who come to Beijing to share their opinions of the Great Wall, and their description might not be befitting of a UNESCO World Heritage Site or one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Crowds, hawkers, huge chain restaurants, slides and immaculately precise, modern brickwork seem to be the first few responses that I’ve heard from those who have visited the Wall (most probably the most tourist-orientated site, Badaling (八达岭Bādálĭng)). There is accordingly a section in my Lonely Planet guidebook entitled Badaling Blues, in which the writer’s experience of the Great Wall is described as little more than an opportunity to be conned out of time, money and energy. Last term Peking University had organised an excursion to the Mutianyu (慕田峪 Mùtiányù) section of the Great Wall, which was not too dissimilar from what I had heard of Badaling; I therefore fitted into the “I’ve been disappointed by the Wall” camp.

And then we set off for Jinshanling (金山岭 Jīnshānlĭng). It was simply amazing. I definitely understand what keeps the crowds from flocking here, though; the distance and the practicalities of getting here are something of a headache, and would be even more so for non-Chinese speakers. It involved a subway ride, a bus ride to another city called Miyun (密云 Mìyún), and then a minibus ride for a further hour and a half up into the rugged mountains.

But before we clapped eyes upon the wall, we discovered exactly how determined some minibus drivers were to take us to Jinshanling. From the moment we got off the Beijing Subway at Dongzhimen Station, a middle-aged lady accosted us and, in her high-pitched, nasal voice (which grew to be aggravating), directed us through the bus station, came on the bus with us, sat in front of us and instructed us to get off at the first stop in Miyun (instead of staying on until the final stop, which was supposedly the central bus station). We assumed that at the central bus station there would be multiple options of minibuses with whom we could bargain on price, and so we were relieved when our new best friend got off the bus before us. But alas, when we finally disembarked, she had followed us there. My hat goes off to her perseverance; despite our persistent snubbing and ignoring of her, she followed us along a street, into a convenience shop, and back to the bus station for second attempt to find another minibus. Seeing very few alternatives and reluctantly accepting her price slightly higher than we had expected, we eventually resigned. We climbed into her minibus and started the journey up into the mountains. We arrived at a small car park, agreed our meeting time for our driver to come and collect us late afternoon, and commenced the climb.

And then we realised why all this hassle was worth it. At this time of year, the mountains are parched to a harsh brown, which added to the inhospitable yet stunning nature of this landscape. It must have been a god-forsaken place to be stationed here in winter during the Wall’s functional years, and even more so for the army conscripted for the Wall’s construction back in the 16th century (during the Ming Dynasty). Climbing up a narrow path which wound its way up towards a ridge, the views spoiled us for choice: behind us the mountains extended for inconceivable distances, like layered pieces of ripped paper, the colours gradually fading towards the horizon; or alternatively, we could crane our necks up ahead, to the watchtowers, gazing over the surrounding valleys, standing exposed to the northern winds and northern invaders.

It must have been a fair while that we had been walking until we finally reached the mountain ridge on which the Wall stands. Perhaps we could have moved faster without the frequent stops to gaze around at the landscape in amazement. We climbed a metal flight of stairs onto the Great Wall itself, and immediately the views struck us, in a way that none of us had imagined possible. Looking west, the Wall (less than 10 meters in width) snaked in every direction over the mountain ridge, up steep cliffs, down sheer precipices, until only the horizon prevented us from tracing its route further. We ran into a mere five or six French tourists who were on their way down, and a man half-heartedly selling drinks, indifferent to our arrival. The handful of other tourists left, the vendor wandered into a nearby watchtower, and the view was entirely ours. The scrubby brown grass on the mountain slopes and the brickwork of the Wall starkly clashed with the deep blue sky, with not a cloud in sight. The air was totally clear, and dead silent.

We attempted to head east towards Simatai (司马台 Sīmătái), walking along the Wall’s un-made-up and uneven walkway, having to climb down through the scrub to bypass the derelict watchtowers and being careful not to fall off the sheer drops to either side due to the crumbling walls. After a few watchtowers, we were stopped by a man whose job it was to stand up here alone all day, just in case anyone were to try to continue on to Simatai, which was closed for renovation works. I asked myself why anybody would bother to restore this isolated section of the Wall, given the fact that I could count on one hand the number of tourists we had crossed so far. The view from this point was equally as stunning as when we had arrived, the Wall determinedly winding upwards, mounting sheer cliff faces, before it veered off along the jagged ridge into the distance.

With no other option, we returned along the same route, climbing up the slopes which we had previously descended. We continued in the other direction, west, snaking further along the mountaintops. We met one more hawker and a Chinese family, but apart from that, it was entirely ours. The exhausting climbs and descents continued, and then the wall’s walkway changed from a dilapidated track into a nicely flat and smooth paved surface. UNESCO or other benefactors must be the sole source of money for this renovation in such a remote location, as tourist revenue must be insignificantly small. Of course money has to be invested to preserve the Great Wall, yet it must be a delicate balance to keep it from losing all authentic appeal, while at the same time preventing the structure from falling entirely into disrepair.

It simply wasn’t the same place as Mutianyu or Badaling. It’s a total to cliché to claim that we visited the “real” Great Wall, but I see no other way to describe it – the reason authorities prevent Jinshanling from dereliction is surely to protect heritage for its cultural value, rather than to keep a grip on tourist revenue. Yet as a whole, the appeal of the Great Wall is surprisingly hard to boil down to one factor. Maybe it lies in the wonder that such a magnificent structure stands in such a hostile location. Perhaps it’s the vast and visible length of the Wall. Possibly its historical significance. Or it might just be the fact that there’s not a soul there to take away from your experience. Either way, I dare say that it’s just taken the spot of my best memory from my time in China, an accolade that Mutianyu miserably fails at taking.

It is probably a sign that I’m hugely selfish when I say that I’m very glad the majority of tourists only make it to Badaling or Mutianyu – it keeps them away from the awe-inspiringly peaceful yet mighty majesty of Jinshanling.

China’s take on Chamonix

It’s only been about two weeks since I last put things up on here, but in that short space of time lots has happened! The two most noteworthy of these are…

First, skiing.

So I’d never been skiing before, and was among a group of friends who had very varied skiing ability – my Swiss friend has been on the slopes since before she could run, others had been on a good few skiing holidays in the past, and then there was me with zilch. I had been assured that I’d be whizzing down reds or blacks within the day and, although I took this assurance with a slight pinch of salt, I still felt a little complacent that I’d pick it up fairly easily and I was determined to avoid crashes and bruises.

Another question mark was hovering over what a Chinese ski resort included. Nanshan Ski Village (南山滑雪场 Nánshān Huáxuĕ Chănghttp://www.nanshanski.com/index-en.asp) sells itself as one of the best ski resorts in China, and failing that, Beijing’s premier resort (which wouldn’t be hard, as the rest of Beijing is as flat as a pancake). It is a fair hike from the city centre though – around two hours on a coach which conveniently left from Wudaokou and went directly to the resort – and is situated in the same mountains which are home to the Great Wall (unfortunately not within visible distance though). The buildings in the resort were desperately trying to masquerade as alpine chalets but, frankly, failing. Not to complain though, it was really very cheap – I seem to remember that the whole day out, including transport, ski and clothes hire, and entry tickets, cost around 200RMB (£20).

View up the slopes from the draglift

And as for the quality of the resort and the slopes (covered in artificial snow), it even lived up to the expectations held by my Swiss friend. There were a handful of green, blue and red runs, which were seemingly well-maintained and equipped with lifts, and one black slope which was an icy nightmare, according to the skilled skiers in our group. It exceeded our expectations of what a Chinese ski resort might be (as it is easy to imagine the Chinese might not really get it), and although I can’t compare to any European resorts, it seemed to be well run and good fun for people of all levels. It was fairly surprising to see how popular it was; affluent-looking young Chinese seemed to have expensive skis, snowboards and clothing, and they were pretty impressive on the slopes because they probably came to Nanshan fairly regularly. I also didn’t expect there to be so few tourists either. I suppose foreigners who come to China specifically for the skiing haven’t really got their priorities straight, it requires Chinese language skills to find out about it and get there in the first place, and Nanshan resort is very poorly publicised.

My first steps into the skis were clumsy and I have to admit to falling over about five or six times over the course of the day, but once I learned to get a little control and was familiar with the weight of the skis, how to stop and how to turn (sort of), it seemed to pick up and I really did get a nice taste of it. It was definitely a tantalising introduction to skiing and I’d definitely want to ski again in the near future.

So that’s a brief recount of what we did last Friday. Unfortunately the ski season’s finished apparently, now, otherwise I’d definitely be really tempted to take another trip back to Nanshan, given the good times there and the cheap cost.

The skiing was great, but it was frankly blown out of the water by a visit to the Great Wall and Jinshanling which we visited yesterday. More on that in a while…

This week – Jingshan, Beihai and Skiing!

I’ve been back from Harbin for a good week now, and the Beijing weather which we considered to be so cold before is now feeling nice and warm in comparison to last week! The air has been fairly clear of late, although it currently seems to be turning a turn for the more smoggy – the current state of air quality is a common point of conversation among our group, and is usually measured by the visibility of the building which stands around 200/300m from the window of our flat.

So making the most of the free time and nice weather last week, we headed into the city centre to Jingshan Park (景山) and Beihai Park (北海 – meaning “northern sea”). There is a long north-south axis cutting through Beijing (with the Olympic Park at the northern end and the Temple of Heaven park at the south), and Jingshan Park is situated immediately north of the Forbidden City. Beijing being a totally flat city, the views from the top of the artificial hill in the park are amazing (and really, on a clear day, they are amazing, and you really get a sense of the sprawling mass of urban area). The skyscrapers extend as far as the eye can see in every direction, and you get a good idea of the city’s overall layout. The view over the Forbidden City’s roofing is definitely the highlight, though. It was here on this hill that the Chongzhen Emperor hung himself from a tree at the downfall of the Ming Dynasty. Right next to Jingshan Park is Beihai Park, a former imperial palace, with lots of pavilions, a large lake (which gives it the name Beihai) and all sorts of other Chinese things. They’re both pretty nice places, but Jingshan is definitely more impressive with its views – you often forget that the Beijing scenery sometimes does have a certain charm about it at times.

My classmates have now arrived back in China and we’re back into the grind of routine at the university (with 4 exams this week, hence the fact I haven’t got round to writing anything this week). An exciting activity coming up is this Friday: we’re going skiing! Nanshan is a resort to the north of Beijing and claims to be the best resort in China (although, of course, this claim would be held by quite a few resorts). I’ve never been skiing before, so I’ll be taught by some of the others and hopefully it’ll be great. None of us are really sure what a Chinese ski resort is like, but we’ll see.

I’ll keep everything posted up on here in the next week or so, providing the Internet in our flat doesn’t keep on throwing tantrums like it has done this week. Since I have to connect to WordPress with a VPN (which is basically by-passing the Chinese internet censorship, because it doesn’t like blogging), the connection is painfully slow so I’ll at some time get round to putting pictures up on the posts.

Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 3

After a nice big breakfast at a nearby Chinese Muslim restaurant (a cuisine which often involves lots of “pulled noodles” (拉面lāmiàn), meat skewers and naan bread –  just the thing for breakfast!), we grabbed our bags and went off to investigate the “Harbin New Synagogue”. We found out when we arrived there that, like many religious buildings in Harbin, it is no longer operational and has been converted into a museum, so we decided against going in. Nothing much else to say here, apart from it was still a puzzling thought to imagine Judaism in China. We went on to the railway station, and pulled out of Harbin at around 2:00pm that afternoon.

The main attraction which drew us to make a visit to Harbin in the first place was undoubtedly the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, but the city itself is definitely not to be overlooked. From our brief encounter with the city, it seems to strike a nice balance between being a city influenced by Russian culture and, at the same time, not feeling too much like a theme park or a museum. Although the population of the city is largely made up of Han Chinese, people seem to go about their daily lives in an environment which seems essentially non-Chinese. Harbin also feels like a very pleasant and liveable city – its streets are clean and its buildings are not as ugly as other Chinese cities we’ve seen. In a certain way, the midwinter cold enhances the city’s façade as a diluted version of Siberia. I regret not venturing out of the city to enjoy the apparent natural beauty of rural Heilongjiang province, but the charm of the city itself is worth travelling all that distance up to the northeast, even if just for a few short days. Just try to forget about the cold.

Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 2

A fairly slow morning. The brisk morning temperatures from the previous day had convinced us that we deserved a few hours in the morning enjoying the warm of the hostel, as well as spending time catching up on emails. At around 11am, we headed out to grab some food at a small Chinese restaurant, and then ventured down to the river again to set off some firecrackers we had bought at a roadside stall. (Despite the fact that it was a good two weeks since Chinese New Year had been and gone, people are still buying fireworks and setting them off all the time. I’m sitting here writing this in Beijing to the sound of fireworks outside, and it isn’t even dark yet). After the fireworks, we had a go on the ice slides on the river, and headed back in to town.

The Daoliqu Tangge Procession

We went to the central area of Daoliqu (道里区), and while we were wandering fairly aimless down the main drag, Zhongyang Dajie (中央大街), another Russian architectural legacy, we stumbled across processions of elderly people dancing, dressed in red coats and multicoloured belts and headbands and waving pink fans in the air, all set to a cacophonous beat of drums, cymbals and trumpets. The dance was apparently the Yangge (秧歌), or the “Rice Sprout Song”, a traditional form of folk dance especially popular in this area of northern China, and a fusion of ancient farming songs, martial art, acrobatics and traditional opera dances. All the way down the pedestrianised street were groups of dancers, the vast majority of whom seemed to be elderly people. This was the first real impromptu “festival” which I had experienced in China, and it was an impressive atmosphere as so many people got into the spirit of the event.

As darkness fell that evening, we headed out of town to see the real reason we had visited Harbin – the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I had seen photos of the ice-block buildings and sculptures from previous years, which were impressive, but I still was not prepared for the sheer scale of the constructions. As soon as we disembarked from the bus which took us a few miles out of the town centre to the complex, I was immediately taken aback by the glaring and slightly garish colours illuminating the ice buildings, bright greens and blues and reds, against the stark backdrop of the jet black sky. Artificial snow had also been laid down on the ground, just to complete the look. Once inside the complex, we ran around erratically exploring the area with ice-block castles, sculptures and a plethora of random models such as huge Harbin Beer bottles and the famous Buddhist sculptures of the Yungang Caves. There was also a multitude of slides, which we compulsively raced down, and even a zip-wire, which would have been fun but the queue length was somewhat off-putting. It must have been an hour or so that we spent running around like small children, trying to whizz down as many of the slides as possible, with too much excitement to be affected by the sting of the bitter cold.

Some of the buildings in the Ice Festival

We also caught wind of a “European Show” which was being performed in a theatre on the site. Curious as ever of where Chinese people obtain their jumbled impression of Western ways, we went to watch the performance. The opening was a dance piece set to the theme from the French film Amélie. Fair enough. Other skits in the performance were rather confusing though – especially an Arabian dance piece, a samba one, and in particular when the American director took to the stage, spoke in English to a very poor audience reception, picked out a Chinese man at random from the audience (who looked baffled and terrified) and proceeded to guide him through a magic trick involving him doing some sort of rope trick with the American man’s “wife”. The whole show was a confusing insight into a culture which was meant to be my own, which I suppose the Chinese audience must have found even more alien. I just daren’t think of what they made of the provocative burlesque-cum-striptease finale.

The temperature outside had taken a further dip when we emerged after the show, so we made speedy tracks back into town to have a meal. It must have been barely 9:30pm, but many of the restaurants were shut, so we returned to the Russian restaurant we had visited the previous day. I can imagine why the Russians drink vodka to fight the cold weather outside. This was our final night in Harbin, and we returned to the hostel around midnight.

Harbin: Journey to the North. Day 1

Hello from China! I’ve finally arrived back here after a nice break in the UK, and after little more than 24 hours back in Beijing to recover from jetlag, I found myself on a train racing off to Harbin. My three travel companions and I were all slightly intimidated by the foreboding temperatures seeming to hover not far above -20ºC, but were well-prepared as we set off on the night train, wrapped up in countless layers of thermals, coats, scarves, balaclavas and hats.

Harbin is a city deep in the north-eastern corner of China, capital of Heilongjiang province (黑龙江 Hēilóngjiāng – literally “River of the Black Dragon”), and relatively not far from the border of far eastern Russia. Originally founded in 1898 by railway engineers from Russia, many supporters of the czarist state fled across the border to Harbin during the Russian Revolution of 1917; as such, the city has been fairly heavily influenced by Russian culture, evident in the city’s architecture and food. Much of this influence is sure to have been overridden by the influx of Han Chinese people in modern times, but a Russian presence is still very much evident in the city. Today, the city is most renowned for its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节 Hā’ĕrbīn Guójì Bīngxuĕjié), an event which attracts throngs of tourists each year. Including us.

We took an overnight train from Beijing and arrived at Harbin at around 8:30am. Naturally, the first thing that hits you the moment you get off the train is the cold, especially early in the morning. I was wearing two balaclavas which covered my mouth, and soon discovered how quick the moisture from my breath would freeze, and how my eyelashes would often freeze together at these low temperatures. We exited the station, stood for a few minutes waiting for a taxi and then found our way to our hostel, fingers crossed that it had good heating.

On the Songhua River

The Kazy International Youth Hostel is an interesting place, as the building itself is a renovated synagogue. The water in the showers was bracingly cold at times, but in general it was a fairly comfortable place to thaw off from the subzero temperatures outside. We headed out of the hostel and had a walk around the city, first heading down to the Songhua River which, incidentally, did not seem like a river at all, as it was covered in a layer of ice which seemed, to my eye, to be at least 4 feet deep. On the southern bank there were a number of ice-themed attractions set up on the river, such as slides, bumper cars, an ice buggy arena and a curious activity which seemed to allow paying customers to sit on a stool and simply push themselves around the ice using a stick, altogether making the area seem like a huge ice-themed amusement park. Horses and even cars regularly made crossings to the other side of the river, but we did so on foot. It’s not a particularly narrow river either – it must have been at least half a mile in width. Such a huge expanse of pure ice was quite an awe-inspiring sight, and equally unnerving one to see the slight cracks in the ice and imagine the temperature of the water beneath.

We crossed the river, had lunch on the north bank, and investigated the possibility of making the return journey on a cable car. However, as some tourist attractions in China seem to think is reasonable, the price specifically for foreigners is bumped up considerably, and despite the fact that every inch of our faces and heads was swathed in clothing, unfortunately our Chinese accents are not yet sufficiently convincing.

So after another trek across the ice river, we found our way back to the centre of town, and took refuge from the cold with a few shots of vodka in a Russian café. I’ve never been to Russia, but Harbin felt like a living and breathing advertisement for it, and with its Russian-style buildings, cafés, restaurants, bitter cold and the odd sign in Russian, it was a little taste of what I imagined life in Siberia to be. Of course, being inside Chinese borders, the vast majority of the population is comprised of ethnic Han Chinese, but the general feeling of the place made it not too hard to imagine that we had crossed the border. The occurrence of this feeling is strangely common in China, such as in the former German treaty port of Qingdao and the Italian Concession in Tianjin, to name just those which I have visited.

The St Sophia church

The red-brick St Sophia church is arguably the city’s landmark Russian-style building. Its green onion dome is especially impressive when illuminated after dark, and reminded me of pictures I have seen of Russian cities like Irkutsk or Novosibirsk. The romantic impression is somewhat shattered, though, when you enter inside (for a fee). No longer a functional church, it has been transformed into the Harbin Architecture Arts Centre, essentially a museum with black-and-white photographs which document the city’s past lining the walls. It is an interesting look back into history and the foreign influence that has shaped the city’s modern face.