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.

A few photos of Beijing

Despite the fact that my photography skills are far from amazing, I just wanted to put up a handful of pictures of Beijing from the past few months. These are likely to be a collection of places or landmarks you may recognise, but I’ll put in a small description as well in case you’re not familiar with them. (The purpose of this post is also just to get myself into the habit of blogging, so that I start to do it regularly and don’t fail miserably!)

Welcome to Beijing! This is the view from the window of our apartment. This level of smog is not unusual in Beijing; it has even been worse! Compare it to the next photo, taken on a clearer day...

That's a little better! The skyscrapers in Beijing seem to stretch for as far as the eye can see, and in between are scrubby worksites, presumably where future skyscrapers will stand.

Another view from our window, looking in the direction towards the Olympic Village.

The main intersection of Wudaokou (五道口 - literally "five-road intersection"), the area in which we live. Besides the subway station, it boasts a fair number of foreigner-friendly bars and restaurants, the odd skanky nightclub (like the infamous Propaganda) and a shopping centre. The area is popular with students (due to its proximity to Peking University, Tsinghua University and BLCU), so it is not uncommon to run into other foreigners here.

A view down Chengfu Road (成府路) from Wudaokou. We cycle down here every morning to get to class at university. Note the bus stop situated slap bang in the middle of the cycle lane on the left-hand side!
The Summer Palace (颐和园 Yíhéyuán) is in the far northwest of Beijing, not far from our apartment and the university campus. It’s a great place to come to escape the heat on a warm summer’s day, if you can bear the crowds. It was constructed by the Qing emperors, and is comprised of Longevity Hill (万寿山 Wànshòu Shān) overlooking Kunming Lake (昆明湖 Kūnmíng Hú)

Onto another lake - this is Weiming Lake (未名湖 Wèimíng Hú - literally "no-name lake"). Situated on the campus of Peking University (北京大学 Běijīng Dàxué), it is a popular tourist site in itself.

Further towards the centre of the city, the Beijing National Stadium (a.k.a. the "Bird's Nest" (鸟巢 Niǎocháo) was the central focus of Beijing's Olympic Games in 2008, and therefore attracts hoards of domestic Chinese tourists. And by the looks of it, Minney Mouse as well, apparently.

The stadium is illuminated with warm reds, oranges and yellows as dusk falls.

The Beijing authorities have been preserving certain traditional alleyways, otherwise known as hútóngs (胡同), where Beijing residents would traditionally reside. This is an example of one such hutong.

The National Centre for the Performing Arts (国家大剧院 Guó jiā dà jù yuàn) is situated right in the middle of the city, right next to Tian'anmen, and is, in a word, huge. I'm not sure how it compares to the Bird's Nest stadium, but it's pretty big.

Living in Beijing, it doesn't take long to realise that China is full of superlatives, and is proud to think it is full of the biggest of everything. The sheer size of Tian'anmen Square is one reason why it's so imposing (it is among the biggest city squares in the world). This picture is of the Forbidden City, on the northern edge of the square. On a rainy day like this one, it can be an especially dreary place.

The Temple of Heaven (天坛 Tiāntán) was constructed under the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. We've been here a good few times, simply because it's so nice. This photo is of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿 Qíniándiàn).

Some aspects of life in Beijing are not as comfortable as those in the UK, but as I look back over photos from China (and the memories attached to going to some of these places), I have a real sense of excitement to get back there, see more places, and get to know more people. It was in fact my New Year’s resolution to make more Chinese friends, as it is easy to slip into the trap of not leaving the bubble of Wudaokou, and therefore staying among groups of Western expats.

The challenge now is the packing – I’m on a tighter baggage allowance this time round and, after having dug out my old PS2, I don’t think I’m going to be able to leave the UK without it. So I’ll be heading back on Monday, having a quick stopover in Beijing for one night, before rushing off on a night train up to Harbin. Hopefully I’ll be able to get Internet up there, so in the cold, cold evenings I’ll keep a record of what I’m up to on here.