Roma & Natalia - Travelers. Photographers. Storytellers.
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Hiking the Great Wall

We woke up at 5:30 in the morning for the hiking tour to the Great Wall. The hotel front desk calls us a cab and writes down the address in Chinese. This is something we have to do every time, since the cab drivers will not understand any address in English. In 3.5 kilometers we get dropped off in front of a Hutong on the main street. We walk deeper into the traditional Beijing neighborhood along the main street, looking for the hostel where the tour starts. Along the street are all kinds of coffee / tea shops, and small boutiques, although still closed. At the hostel we wait for the bus to come for 20 min; when it arrives it turns out to be less a bus, but a van with seats in it. It barely fits the group of 15 or so backpackers that are on the tour, and we spend the next 3 hours in very close quarters with everyone, mostly passed out sleeping.

Driving out of Beijing on the highway we see for many miles as it’s called in Russian “sleeping neighborhoods”, miles of high rise apartment buildings and nothing else. Beijing real estate prices are experiencing a huge boom, with rich people and speculator demand jacking up the prices to anywhere from $1700-$4000 per square meter.

The drive to the Great Wall is 3 hours and the tour we booked is very different from the typical tourist visit to the great wall. Most tours take you to the closer and very touristy stretch of the Great Wall, the Badaling section, it’s the closest one to Beijing and the most restored. Also most tours include all kinds of side trips to jade factories and souvenir stops intended to have you spend money, and cut into your trip time. We wanted to avoid this. This specific section of the wall is much farther from Beijing, it starts in Jinshanling and ends in Samatai. So the bus drops you off in one section of the wall and you hike for 4 hours and 8 kilometers along the wall to the end section, passing 30 watch towers along the way.

When we arrive at the Jinshanling entrance, we get 3 tickets each for different sections of the wall, and meet our guide who will hike with us along the wall. We are also greeted by a number of locals who offer us to buy anything from hats to gloves to postcards and drinks. We politely refuse and start to walk along a path that leads to the wall. Little did we know that we will see our new local acquaintances again and again.

Once you climb onto the wall, immediately the view is amazing. And it keeps getting better and better as you hike along. Seeing the wall snake along the ridges of the steep hills for miles boggles the imagination and makes you want to keep walking along it. This section of the wall goes through some rugged and steep hills, almost mountains, and it tends to go on the highest ridges from one hill to the next. It’s also more real and not as restored, with parts of it being almost brick rubble. The length of the wall is amazing but the height and as a fortification it’s not very impressive; after all the castles of Europe with their incredibly thick walls and towers able to withstand long sieges the Great Wall on its own does not seem so great.

We start to walk to the left towards Samatai, already a little out of breath in the thin and cold air. Along with our guide we are followed by a couple of the locals we met earlier, or were waiting for us on the wall. They try to strike up a conversation with us in the few English words they know, and the conversation repeats itself over and over for the next 4 hours with different locals. Kind of like this:

Local woman dressed like a milk maid from a collective farm:

Woman: Hello, Hello
Me: nod back
Woman: Where you from, hello
Me: Russia, ruski
Woman: ruski, ruski, you buy nice souvenier
Me: no, no
Woman: looki looki nice view, nice picture here, you buy souvenir
Me: no thanks
Woman: me local farmer, hello hello, you buy souvenir later ok ok
Me: no
Woman: ok, I walk, I show you. Nice picture, look…you want coke?
We ignore her babble and keep briskly walking
Woman: hello, hello..coke, beer, postcard, you buy?
Woman: ok, you buy later

And this way it goes over and over with multiple locals who pop up out as if out of nowhere along the wall or in the watchtowers. We are not sure if the “you buy later” is a threat or a resignation to previous experience, but it sounds like she is sure we will. One character was particularly interesting. Dressed like a soldier from the red army in the 1950, he was squinting on one eye and missing all but 2 front teeth. He followed us for about half an hour trying to get us to buy a coke or a beer. He said he was 72 years old and was a poor farmer from Mongolia. But let me tell you, with his stick, a limp and a smoker’s cough, he kept up with us for a good mile on the steepest stretches. We were trying to outpace him but he kept up, literally heavily breathing down our necks. It was almost like Freddy Krueger, barely walking and still alive ‘chasing’ us all.

For the next 4 hours or so we hike along the wall, going up and down over the hills. Some stretches are in very good condition, others are significantly degraded so the road is more like a pile of bricks. We encounter sections that are fairly steep and require climbing very steep stairs or going down curved slopes that would be killer if iced over. There are still patches of snow and ice from a snowfall two weeks prior in the area.

Close to the end of the hike we discover what seem to be the best views, and the sunlight is perfect for softer afternoon light, so we take our time photographing and of course fall behind the entire group. Eventually our guide comes back for us and starts hurrying us along because the bus is leaving in half an hour. So we make a mad dash over some steep final hills, over a draw bridge up some super steep steps and down a path to the pick up point. Of course it was all a ploy to get us to hurry up, since as we come down all out of breath and knees buckling we see our entire group nonchalantly lounging around and drinking beers at the small restaurant. WE KNEW IT. We could have not rushed like we did and taken more pictures; it’s always a ploy with these tours. Next time we will hire a taxi and spend the whole day there taking photos at our convenience.

The ride back is spent sleeping again. After the tour we walk around the Hutong where the hostel was a bit, walk over to the metro on Ghost Street, and take it to look for a good Peking duck restaurant that we read good reviews about. After walking around for half hour in the dark and cold, we don’t find the first restaurant, and go towards a second one we read about. Somehow we end up in front of Tiananmen Square and realize that the second restaurant is on the shopping street where we walked around on the second day. When we try to go in, a woman at the front entrance stops us and says that the restaurant is full, and if we want we can go to some other restaurant. We are about to leave, but then realize that she might be trying to swindle us and lure us to some other restaurant. So we go inside and see a huge line of people and others sitting down waiting for their number. So she was telling the truth about it being full, but she didn’t work for it. We decide to maybe check out the restaurant later and go to eat at a shechuan restaurant at the mall which turns out to be very good.

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About Roma & Natalia

Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.

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