The Wall – Made in China
After getting enough rest yesterday, I managed to be up on time, grab breakfast and meet up with Dillon for my second trip with Beijing Sideways. The weather unfortunately had not cleared up, as my trusted iPad app had been promising me, and the sky remained a flat grey. The thermometer was also stuck around 13 degrees, which I didn’t mind coming from the heat in Dubai. So I got my camera gear in my bag-pack and sat in the sidecar today. The reason was that today we’d be negotiating some sharp turns and the motorcycle needs to be balance in order not to topple to the left (sidecar is on the right.) I somehow fit inside and off we went.
The wall is around a 2 hour drive from central Beijing and there are various ways of getting there. Of course, you have to define where your ‘there’ is. As you might know the wall is only a mere 3,700 kilometres long. There are various points on the wall around Beijing that are popular with the tourists. Of course, with Beijing Sideways you will go to a path less travelled, as promised on their site. We were going to go up to the Lakeside part of the wall, some 75 kilometres north-east of Beijing, where you find very few tourists. There is a reservoir there, with a government guest house which offered very good views of the wall (to the government officials of course) and a small village – of 50,000 people or so, in true Chinese proportions. But before we get there, we were going to join up with 4 other sidecars also heading up to the wall.
- “I am not lying honey, I really was in China.”
Chateaux Laffitte is around 30 kilometres from central Beijing and it takes about 45 minutes to get there. Dillon warned me that there is nothing like it in China. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, till I saw it. I shot it, and whenever I show my friends this picture the question is, “But I thought you went to China?” It is a colossal mish-mash of architecture none of which is Chinese. Coming in from the front you see Roman Columns, as you swing to the back it is French baroque and on the other side of the canal you find British mansions.
The story goes that a real estate mogul, who became a mogul during the recent expansion years, was in France and saw the Château de Maisons-Laffitte just outside of Paris. He liked it so much, he managed to find the blueprints and decided to recreate it brick by brick… just outside of Beijing. He wanted to keep it to himself, but soon realised that the upkeep would drain his wealth (he had already blown US$ 300 million) and so decided to convert it into a hotel. We parked the bike in the backyard, if you can call it that. You see expansive manicured lawns with hedges making intricate designs, roman sculptures, golf carts shuttling players across the bridge. After all, it claims to be ‘a luxury hotel, spa and wine museum in one.’ What I can guarantee you is that it is out of place.
- “If you’re gonna shoot, shoot…”
Before the other bikes started coming in, I noticed two big vans parked at the back entrance. Then I saw people streaming out of the hotel into the laws. Some wearing traditional Chinese robes, others in ill-fitting western costumes. Yes, it was time to bring out my trusted 5D. As I started clicking away, I realised that these were extras for a film and the vans were wardrobe and lighting vans. As you might have guessed by now, the Zhang-Laffitte is a popular site for shooting films that don’t have a big travel budget – especially to Paris. And that’s not all. It’s also quite popular with wedding photographers, whose customers want to have their marriage to be made more memorable in a royal European setting. All in all, something to be seen.
The bikes came in around 30 minutes or so, and we quickly introduced ourselves to each other. It was a couple from Canada and another from England (the husband was American) who had recently moved to Shanghai. After the hellos we got underway.
- The convoy.
As soon as you start leaving the suburbs of Beijing behind you, the air seems to change. The reason of course is leaving industrialisation behind you. The air felt fresher and there was much more green around. As we progressed into the journey the terrain began to change and the hills emerged. It was simply great. It was something I hadn’t done in a while, and something I needed to. It reminded me a bit of the trips I used to make with my friends in India – going to the cooler hill stations in the warm summer months. Just like now, we would sense the air change when we’d hit the foothills of the Himalayas. Same sensation, just on the other side of the Himalayas.
We passed through a couple of villages and I noticed more similarities with India. Both the countries are going through the economic up-turn and it affects everyone. From farmers with mobile phones with GPS to fancy cars parked outside farm house. I personally feel that the urbanisation of villages is the worst thing growth has brought to our nations. Some innocent charm of rural life has been lost in our countries. Although I am certain the villagers feel very differently.
As on the second day, we would get looks from the villagers in the street and laughter from the kids. The convoy isn’t the quietest way to travel through the valley but it sure is fun.
It took us around 1.5 hour from Laffitte to get to our destination – the village Huanghua Chengcun.
Settled? Let’s go walling.
We parked the bikes in this little restaurant where we caught some warm jasmine tea and hot breads. I am not a big fan of flavoured teas, unlike my friend Ashutosh who prefers softer tastes (read: feminine) for his palate. Give me the Punjabi chai any time of the day and I’ll gladly drink it. English breakfast tea, if that isn’t available. Black, one sugar. In my years of travelling I have learnt with many sugary, creamy, cinnamony experiences that keeping it basic and simple is the best. But today was slightly different. As the air had cooled even further when we started gaining altitude, my otherwise tanned knuckles seemed relatively pale. The hot cup of ‘jasmine’ tea felt good in my hands. But it was the bread that tasted brilliant. Hot and fresh and full of flavour.
After resting for about 15 minutes it was time to go see a wonder of the world .
The hike to the wall isn’t very long – around 20 minutes from the restaurant, but it is strenuous. OK so I am not in the best shape of my life, but I do recommend a good pair of hiking boots. The path is rough and broken. Even if you do go to the more touristic spots on the wall, parts of the wall are in disrepair, and the boots will remain a good idea. Coming back to my hike, I think I had to pause a couple of times as my legs began giving way. Too early in the day, if you ask me. For it’s when you get on the wall is when the hike truly begins.
We got the ‘Yellow flower’ gate, a small tunnel like opening in the wall to let traders pass into the valley below. All of us wondered how back in those days traders traversed this tricky mountainous terrain with goods on horses or mules.
- As far as the eye goes, and a bit further than that.
We climbed the wall and I saw the wall stretch as far as my eye could go. Amazement is a word you can use to describe the feeling. Others could be awe, wonder and joy. Joy for having walked the wall. Well, the walk was about to begin after we absorbed the experience of being there.
The wall has been repaired in parts and in some it remains broken. It isn’t an easy climb or descent by any measure. And you should really be careful on rainy/snowy days as it is quite slippery and dangerous. The biggest problem I faced was the uneven step sizes as I began to climb. Whereas one step would be standard size the next would be double or in some cases even three times the size. Think of it as training on the stair-master with incline set to shift between 4 and 7. If you’re not a marathon runner or at least a regular runner, your haunches will hurt a bit.
The climb to the first post was steep but short. We passed through the post and kept moving to the second post which was bigger and had rooms and resting spaces. It would be where we would break for lunch. But the climb was alternated with steps and slopes. I really felt old on this climb. I was tailing way behind, even if I had my bag-pack with the camera and lenses in it. Having said that, Dillon was carrying lunch for all of us, and he seemed quite OK. In my defence, he does this for a living and he is 22 – so it is a bad comparison.
The second post was indeed ‘roomier’ and had a narrow staircase leading to the roof. We all climbed there and tried to absorb the view. It was magnificent. And for the first time we saw the extent of the wall. It simply carries on and on and on. It moves over mountains and looks almost organic when the details begin to blur – curving with the humps and dropping down to the valleys. I got a few good shots, even if the weather wasn’t helping.
Lunch ala Français, Horror stories ala Globe
- This is one of the only two pictures of me in China.
It was time for a well deserved bite. The lunch was simple but delicious and homemade. Well technically wall-made, as we were making the sandwiches right there with many different cheeses, cold cuts and sauces. The rose felt particularly good in the chill. We sat exchanging stories and travel disasters. During the discussions I found that as an Indian, I have had better luck and have a far better propensity to enjoy places than most westerners do.
Allow me to explain. I come from India. I am somewhat used to the chaos, pollution, crowds, general un-organisation, etc. I say somewhat because I am currently living in Dubai, which is far more plastic and clinical in comparison (don’t get me wrong, I am not endorsing Dubai nor am I saying it has soul – which India oozes wherever you might go.) So, when I get to Beijing, the pollution doesn’t really bother me. But for my fellow climbers from Canada, who breathe fresh Rocky air back home, the pollution is a deal breaker, at least from complete enjoyment. I can always find such examples from wherever I have travelled in Africa (Egypt or Morocco) or Asia. Europe is more refined travelling in comparison.
I also have a philosophy of trying to find and learn something good from every country, which really helps to enjoy the place. I guess it is applicable to everything in life but I will not try to Dr. Phil you right now.
Whenever my western or western-oriented friends want to head to India, I need to set their expectations right. When I say right, I mean down-grade them. I warn them of everything I can, and then send them off. They often come back saying, “It was nothing like that.” And I am happy. On the other hand, Michael, who was one of the wall hikers from Canada visited India and did the whole golden triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) and the thing he mentioned was the insane pollution in Agra. I mean, I am Indian and I have read and heard about the Taj Mahal since I was a child. And Delhi itself is a fairly well endowed city when it comes to Mughal architecture. So when I was on my way to Agra, I didn’t expect to be wowed or anything close. But once I got there, I was simply blown away. It got me. I loved it. But what Michael remembered was the pollution. See my point? Complete enjoyment versus choking.
We finished our lunch and Dillon and Steffan (the second guide) cleaned up the environs responsibly leaving the place as it was. We had another upward hike before we would start descending down to the valley. I had no clue that I would get the express service shortly.
After getting to the top of the peak on the wall, we looked forward to the descent. “Easy on the legs,” I thought. Rookie mistake. The descent is always trickier. And the descent on some parts of the wall is steep and a slope. Steps would be fine, but slopes you have to be particularly careful of.
- On the way down.
While walking down, Dillon suggested we do a ‘leaning picture’ as a memory. Basically you’re at an angle while descending so if you lean slightly back you get a greatly distorted picture. “Good idea,” I said. Almost famous-last-words. I had my bag-pack on my back as I leaned backwards to get the pose for the photograph.
- “Wow! Just like MJ in Smooth Criminal!”
Click. Done. As I straightened up, my bag-pack prodded me slightly and I began to move. The ground was slippery and had very little grip. I began to move faster, even as I tried to stop. I began to run, now really not being able to stop. Before I knew it, I was hurtling downwards, out of control. I think I tried to stop with sheer will for around a 100 metres, after which I yelled, “GOD DANG IT, I CAN’T STOP!!!” The rest of the hikers were way ahead of me and Dillon, and there was little anyone could have done. I began looking to the sides of the wall to somehow stop. Moving images of me falling on my face and rolling off the wall were flashing before my eyes. I thought I’d jam my hand in the stone rails on the side, but for around 100 metres there was no stone rail. Finally, I did do that and luckily fell to the ground arse first. Skid, skid, skid, stop.
- I started at the green. Skidded to a stop at the red.
I grazed my hands and bloodied my arse (I found out later), but that was great news considering I could have a been a small headline on page 5 of the China Post the next morning. I got up as my worried wall-walkers gingerly rushed over. I ensured them of my well-being as they informed me, “You fell rather graciously.” The rest of the walk down was quite un-eventful, minus the fireworks that went off in the valley just as we started getting off the wall. “Arranged by Beijing Sideways?” I joked to Dillon. Around 5 pm, we got to the other side of the mountain to another restaurant where we enjoyed Baiju – a locally brewed spirit and beers. More stories and I spun my Spinner360 to take a panoramic photo of the group around the table.
At dusk, it was time for me to head back to the city but the rest of the gang would stay over at the wall for the night as part of a different package. I said my goodbyes and Dillon and I started making our way back. The wind was super cold on the way back and I thought this would be a great trip to make during Autumn or Spring when you can be in a t-shirt and don’t have to cover yourself up with layers. After a 2-hour ride, Dillon dropped me off at the hotel. It had been a great experience and I had to thank him for it.
Tomorrow, last day in Beijing.