There is nothing like being thrown in at the deep end.
When booking our round-the-world trip, I had only one condition. That we were to see the Great Wall of China. It was at the top of my bucket list and had been there since before I can remember.
Our flight to Beijing was booked, but I had no idea what I was in for. You see, there is so much more to China than just a wall.
When we arrived in Beijing, back pack in tow, we were more than a little nervous. We had a print out of directions to our hotel for the night and a list of trains that would get us there.
We were managing just fine until we left the station in downtown Beijing. The pure volume of people alone was enough to leave even the most experienced London commuter flustered. We walked up and down the same street three times before a friendly gentleman in a business suit asked us if we needed any help. He pulled out his cell phone, called the hotel and then took us there without even the slightest grumble or huff. Bidding us a farewell, he went on his merry way having done his good deed for the day. It was that moment that I began to notice the differences between China and home.
One thing I distinctly remember alarming me, was the smog. I had heard about the pollution in Beijing, but I was not prepared for the smell and suffocating sensation it had on my lungs. The sky was literally yellow. Knowing that the Great Wall was not overly far from the city had me worried. I had dreamed of crystal blue sky behind the mountains and taking some arty-farty shots to send back to everyone at home flaunting at how ‘cultural’ I was becoming. The dream was slowly disintegrating and it didn’t help when it started to snow. Health and safety are bound to close off the wall in case people fall off, I thought. (Well, that’s what would happen in England anyway!)
We spent a day exploring in the snow heading to various gardens and temples. And to be fair, we were having a great time. Once we got over the initial shock at the hocking and spitting by the locals, we were having a wonderful cultural experience.
One woman approached us holding a camera and smiling. Thinking that she wanted me to take a photo of her, I reached over but was quickly dismissed. After a few moments lost in translation, I realised she wanted to take a photo of US with her husband.. Slightly baffled and surprised, we obliged, holding up our fingers to make the peace sign (which now I think back to could be construed as mildly racist..) as she snapped away. We left feeling what can only be described as a little bit violated.
The morning arrived for us to head to The Great Wall and the first thing I did was head over to the window and check the weather. Still smoggy and grey. I was gutted. I had visions of being on the wall and not being able to see a thing.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and the weather was perfect. It was cold, but we couldn’t have asked for a clearer sky. (Proving how truly awful the pollution must be in Beijing).
Thrilled at my initiative to bring a hat, gloves and scarf, we headed toward the wall ready for a steep climb.
Leading up to the wall, there were a few stalls for people to buy souvenirs or some warmer clothing (for the less prepared). A girl in our group decided to take them up on their offer and buy a pretty pink hat so we left her to haggle and decided to take advantage of the facilities.
The smell was something I could cope with. But the balancing was another matter. I had heard about the squatting toilets but until now, I had only peed in the hotel which had fully functioning western toilets. I tried my hardest to angle in the right direction, but failed miserably. Denim is definitely not the best material to hide this kind of mishap. I had two choices. Either stay in there and wait for it to dry out, or splash water all over myself and pretend I had fought with an ill-mannered tap. I chose the tap.
We left the toilets, less than satisfied, when our friend came bounding up to us with her gorgeous new pink hat. It was her first experience of bartering so we congratulated her and asked her how much she had got the price down. She was thrilled that she had only paid 200 Yuan. For those of you not familiar with the currency conversion of Yuan to the Great British Pound, she had just paid £20 (at least) for a flimsy, polyester hat.
But nothing was going to dampen our spirits. We were on the Great Wall of China! And it was everything I dreamed it would be. The scenery was breath-taking and even to this day, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.