Agra town, India

Thursday, 5 August 2010

'We're American, we don't do stairs!'

The idea of the Great Wall of China being in any way 'secret' frankly borders on the ridiculous, but this tour of the 'secret wall' organised through the Leo Hostel, Beijing aims for a quieter, less commercialised excursion abroad Ancient China's interesting foreign policy.
We were sold on this and the promise of a decent hike along a 10km stretch of partially restored wall.

We're away from Beijing at 7.30am the start of a 2.5hr journey to our destination. It will be longer if traffic is bad - naturally it is.....never attempt a Gt Wall visit on a weekend, as Taggart would say 'muurder'.
After three jerking, cramped hours aboard transport which had known better days, we arrived slightly north of the hills at Badaling. The onboard TV screen; no discernible braking system but miraculously a working television(!!?)had looped documentaries of the Wall's history along the way. This filled in nicely for the youthful guide whose faltering but reasonable grasp of English was, when projected through an exceptionally tinny microphone, indecipherable.

The first look and mexican soundwave of 'ahhhh's' came at tourist-rammed Badaling. This section, restored in full to it's Ming-era glory, is also one of the most heavily photographed - chances are, if you have a print at home, it was snapped here.
I had wondered prior to our visit whether the Wall might be rendered less extraordinary having seen its image a thousand times before on telly, prints etc. Happily though in it's natural and proper context it is a truly marvellous sight, instantly seductive. Hadrian? Blow it out your arse! The Wall peaks and troughs over steep ridge and rolls deep into valley basin over and over far into the horizon. Perfick.

We were dropped roughly 20 minutes west of this busy patch and mini-buses drove us on to the secret wall proper. Incidentally the narrow winding path we took was being resurfaced for better accessibility, the interest for unrestored gen-you-ine wall evidently being on the up! Another tick box for the domestic tourgroup merry-go-round.

A climb of 70 to 80 steps up awaited our arrival, the effect of which led one of our American compadres to holler up 'we're American, we don't do stairs!!' to all round chortles. Gord bless 'em...
Our group numbered 15 peeps and encompassed a diverse rash of nationalities: Germany, France, Scotland, East London;)the U.S and Canada, a walking western wundergroup.

After the agony of the many steps up, we were dismayed to come upon a whole bunch more. Instead of the rock and rubble we imagined, there were instead reams upon reams of wooden steps which lay over their collapsed stone forebears. Falling off the wall here is an all too real hazard! Some of the steeper sections were largely overgrown with triffid-like weeds and wildbush forcing you onto the precipitous edges. The landing space below? A thorny void. NB: flip flops are a big no-no.

As the morning progressed, and the sun got hot (BLOODY HOT) the group gradually splintered into sprinters, pacers and plodders. One guy shot off solo from the start. Quickly nicknamed 'the mentalist', everybody thought him a German (God knows why? Vorsprung durch technik?). When we did eventually catch him up, he was actually a Yankee living and working in China as no surprise here, another arbitrator of ESL! (Like bloody locusts they are!!!:) Sadly he turned out to be a rare monosyllabic specimen and untempted by ours or anybody elses conversation was off again at a strident pace.

Our position teetered somewhere between the sprinters and pacers, not exactly in the doldrums of fitness but still could do better. The cockney boys caught us up midway and kept us entertained with their culinary adventures at the Donghuamen night-market (see earlier blog - Beijing, breath of fresh air?) They sampled the skewered baby scorpion - 'like crisps' they yell in Mitchell-esque vowels. They have brought a flag, (typical Brits, never the first but always harbouring a union jack). Another girl, hailing from Scotland but working in China teaching grad students, filled us in on the Tibetan's predilectation for all things yak.

Our final push down a steep muddy path adjacent to an particularly unnavigable rubble-strewn patch completed a challenging and exhilarating hike - possibly not as far as 10km mind....

Oh one last unexpected gem..LUNCH. Lunch actually sucked arse but everyone perked up when for reasons still unclear, a fist-fight broke out between our guide and the restaurant owner. No animals were harmed but the owner lost his vest. Ahhh..

'Secret wall' is a grrrreat tour if you want Wall without the usual tat and bustle. A worthwhile extravagance. The day cost us 50 quid tops and included transport, guide and lunch..

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