Friday, July 13, 2007

Day 95-100: The perfect End

I left Chengdu for Beijing well-rested, ready for new impressions and experiences, but slightly concerned about flying with the bicycle domestically. However, no issues surfaced, although I was surprised not to arrive at Beijing’s international airport. Instead, the aircraft landed at an unusually small airfield, apparently in the vicinity of the larger airport. Immediately after I stepped off the plane, I spotted my bag and bicycle on the conveyer belt only meters from the aircraft. I grabbed my belongings and approached two other western travelers in hope of sharing a taxi to Beijing. An hour and a half later and plenty of negotiations, we were all dropped off in a narrow alley of crowding restaurants and hotels near the Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. As I checked in at the Far East hotel, I ran into Harel, a quiet Israeli gentleman I had met briefly in Lijiang. Although its exceptional size, China seems smaller when traveling, and I have often met the same people in various locations throughout the Yunnan and Sichuan province, but to reunite after almost a month in one of the largest cities of the world is very rare and almost frightening. We were placed in the same dormitory with four other backpackers in a nicely air-conditioned room for an astonishing 60 Yuan (6 Euros - more than double than any other dormitories I had stayed), and headed out for dinner. On our way we ran into another Swede, Carina, who was in China for her second time to explore more of the country. Together we went out for our evening meal to celebrate our first day in Beijing and share plans and ideas.


Beijing is an overwhelmingly large city where you can spend weeks sightseeing and touring in and around the capital. Its population of over 15 million people does not even begin to describe how huge it appears when walking the streets among thousands of other tourists. As a result, I felt a bit stressed over what parts to visit and explore. After consulting Carina, Harel and other travelers in Chengdu, I decided to focus on the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and a cycle tour around the metropolis, prioritizing the Great Wall since I had seen a great number of temples, monasteries and parks throughout Yunnan and Sichuan provinces already. Also, the Great Wall is probably one of the most famous, celebrated and spectacular sites of the world. In point of fact, the 5000-kilometer wall is visible from the moon, which speaks for itself. With all that being planned, I had a hefty schedule to live up to, thus early the next day I woke to rush out into the street, heading for the Forbidden City on my bicycle. Before I entered the holy site, I wandered around the adjoining Tiananmen Square. The Square is full of walking tourists, taking pictures and buying souvenirs. Amazingly, it is large enough to house them all, hence it never feels cramped. As a matter of fact, it is the largest public square in the world, making ‘Stortorget’ (eng. translation: Big Square) in my hometown appear minuscule. In every direction of the Square there are other famous sites – to the north the ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’, which is the entrance to the Forbidden City, to the east – ‘Museum of Chinese History’, to the west – ‘The Great Hall of the People’. In the middle of the Square stands the ‘Monument to the People’s of Heroes’, surrounded by red and gold Chinese flags and guarding soldiers. Not surprisingly or unintentionally, it felt extraordinary communistic and propagandist. Nevertheless, the Tiananmen Square was impressive. After an hour, I crossed over the square to the north and entered the Forbidden City, once home to two dynasties of emperors and the largest and best-preserved groups of ancient buildings in China. The site is not so forbidden anymore as thousands of tourists crowd it everyday. Just to buy the ticket I spend half and hour queuing and later pushed my way through packs of Chinese tourists in matching outfits of different colors. There was the orange team, the blue team and it seemed as if the entire spectrum of colors were present. Just as I left a crowd of orange dressed children fascinated by me and my camera, I ran into a student from Beijing University. He took me to the gallery of the school and presented some remarkable art work. It way have been part of a huge tourist scam, but I enjoyed the gallery and his engagement, as well as his fascinating work, thus bought two traditional Chinese paintings from him. I continued to fight my way through the swarm of tourists for two more hours, having walked through most of the site. There were so many temples of various sizes and purposes that I forgot the name of most of them as I left the area, stopping for some dumplings on my way back to the bicycle. The Forbidden City, named so because it was off limits for 500 years, certainly is an impressive site, but the current restorations for the Olympics and great number of tourists made it a less astounding experience for me. Half the day had passed but I had yet another large site to conquer – the Summer Palace of Beijing. This immense park is located about 20 kilometers north of the city-center and is dotted with palace temples, gardens, pavilions and bridges around the Kunming Lake. Not having notably cycled for a few days since I pedaled to the Panda Breeding Base in Chengdu, I pushed on with full force and arrived quickly at the park in the early afternoon. I spent two hours in the Summer Palace, walking around temples, crossing bridges and finally taking a boat across the mirrored, clear lake. Unfortunately, clouds were hanging low over the park, resulting in small showers and obscured views. Just when I left the park, the clouds had become too heavy and released rain with full power. Wet and exhausted, I arrived at the hotel just before supper, and made plans for the evening with Harel and Carina.
You can visit the Great Wall of China at many different locations. It stretches east-west, 5000 kilometers from its speckled remains in Liaoning province to the Gobi desert. Simply summarized, the closer you are to Beijing, the more tourists you will encounter, and the more restored the Wall might be. As a result, I wanted to get as far as I possible could from Beijing in order to visit the Wall in solitude, and be able to witness parts of the Wall unrestored. I had heard of the possibility to camp in one of the many towers consistently positioned every few hundred meter on the Wall. The idea quickly appealed to me and just as swiftly I convinced Harel to join me. With our sleeping bags and my one-person tent we headed for Jinshanling, about 110 kilometers north of Beijing to hike the Great Wall for 10 kilometers to Simatai, where we would climb the challenging last way up an extremely steep section of the Wall as far as tourist are allowed. On the way we planned to find an appropriate tower to camp in. After a subway ride, bus trip and an expensive taxi fare, we were finally in Jinshanling in the early afternoon, starting our hike towards Simatai. Before we could climb up on the Wall and get on our way, we had a few hundred meters to walk. Tensely, I paced the last meters up on the Wall, curious of what I was about to witness. Once there, the beauty and magnitude of it took me by surprise. Although I had seen several pictures of it and its colossal scale and length, I was still in chock of how enormous it appeared as it twisted its way over the mountain tops. The fact that human slaves had built this Wall with their bare hands was an unattainable thought. Amazed, we continued to walk east towards Simatai, up and down the Wall, always on the top of the mountain chain. The surrounding environment of layers of mountain peaks also stroke both me and Harel as exceptionally stunning. Clouds were softly floating between the mountains below us or creating a mystic, dramatic light above us. In front, the Wall swirled its way under our feet through the spectacular landscape. We walked slowly, stopping to take pictures, too often or too seldom, we could not tell. It all was too beautiful. After three hours the drizzling rain turned into a heavy downpour and we decided to stop for the day in the third tower from the tallest peak we had crossed during our 3-hour walk. We figured we were close to Simatai and would easily walk there the next morning after sunrise. The main reason I had desired to camp was to watch the sun set in the west behind the Wall, and rise over the mountains in the morning to the east. Unfortunately, as the rain continued to pour down and the wind grew stronger and stronger, my hope of seeing the sunset completely diminished. We settled down in the tower, Harel putting up his hammock, me pinching up my small tent, prepared our dinner of bananas, cookies and beer and gradually made ourselves comfortable. As we were sitting chewing on Chinese Oreo cookies, I saw an orange spot of light emerging on the stone wall behind Harel. Can it be true? I yelled out something incomprehensible, jumped up to run to get my camera, scaring Harel almost to death. The clouds had mysteriously cleared at the horizon, behind the Wall where the sun was slowly setting. The golden rays were so strong they filled the sky with a delightful orange color, leaving the Great Wall as a silhouette in the foreground. Not only did we get to experience the sunset over the Great Wall, but I also witnessed the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen. Very satisfied and excited over our mutual experience we sat and talked until the sun had disappeared completely, only leaving room for darkness. Shortly we were both asleep. We woke up the next day to an even more stunning sunrise with soft clouds lingering in the valleys of the mountains. Again, the sun was casting golden rays, illuminating the sky in orange hues, the Wall barely visible in the morning hazy mist. The landscape took a dreamlike appearance I had never before experienced of endless layers of golden mountain peaks with translucent clouds hovering in between. Again, me and Hajal stood startled, orangey illuminated, and amazed by the beauty of nature and the Great Wall. As lightness emerged, we walk towards Simatai for about an hour until we reached a guesthouse which served us a very essential nutritious meal before we were about to tackled the steep climb of the Great Wall of Simatai. By now I had cycled over 3500 kilometer and completed few treks, thus, frankly, the climb was quite easy, although I had heard stories that told otherwise. At the top, where visitors where not allowed to proceed, we could see the Wall stretch as far as the eye could see. Now the day had fully arrived and the sky was clear and vivid blue with no clouds to obscure the view. Again, we took a few moments to try to grasp the magnitude of building the Wall, an undertaking which took 2000 years to complete, before we headed back down and walked the last kilometers to Simatai. The way back to Beijing was as complicated and tedious as our way to Jinshanling, but will not interfere with the memories of hiking the Great Wall – an experience I will never forget.
Both me and Harel agreed that a hike of that enormity deserved unrestricted celebrations, thus we met up with friends to share some Chinese rice liquor and beer. A new friend that I had met in Chengdu, Tim, joined us for the party. Tim added greatly to the celebrations with his stories of life in the state of Lousiana in the U.S. and surviving Hurricane Katrina, as well running a few businesses, practicing a rare kind of martial art, speaking several languages, and traveling, all while smiling and spreading positive energy around him. This 23-year old man had enough stories to fill the entire evening with laughter and excitement. Tim is a charming and intellectual character that you do not meet often in life. Be prepared, though, to listen more than speaking. My last day of my journey consisted of treating a hangover, shopping, packing and again, dissembling the bicycle for the plane ride. The day was quickly over and at the end of it I was sitting with ten other travelers, some older friends, some new acquaintances, around a big wooden table in a typical Chinese courtyard with red lanterns lighting up the patio, drinking local beer for 2 Yuan (0,2 Euros) a bottle, trying to grasp that my journey was over. People were singing, playing guitar, making jokes, sharing travel stories and laughing as if time stood still. As the evening progressed I thought more and more about my experiences over the last 100 days. It seemed as if I had been traveling for an eternity and my experiences felt infinite. Everyday I had been presented new experiences that would last in my memories for years to come, some as long as I will live. I felt as if the last 100 days had extended my life with 100 months, having encountered countless unique and new situations. From every experience I learned something valuable, something new about the world that would broaden my knowledge and perspective of life. I realized how easy it is to get trapped in the routine of life and lock yourself to one way of thinking, forgetting that the world is greater than your backyard. Nevertheless, life is also about routine and familiarity, which leads to close friends, relationships and family. With that thought I retired to bed, not only extremely pleased with my travels, but excited to get home to family, friends and my girlfriend.

SLIDESHOW BEIJING & THE GREAT WALL

7 comments:

  1. My husband pointed your blog link in the DIET AND NUTRITION magazine. Congrats on finishing your hard journey, posting great China pics, and having your blog link in a popular magazine.

    :D

    JJ

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  2. I meant "pointed to your blog" in the post above.

    My husband dreams of traveling like you do one day.

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  3. Thanks. I appreciate that. You must eat well in order to handle the mountains... Deams may become reality if you let it!

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  4. wow ! excelent.. just like everybody's wish. But yours came true.. I just wonder how you people can teke off for so long and still retain your job when you got back ? I think you are a very brave person and a hero in my opinion, cos you travel alone and sleep alone in the tower of Great Wall of China ! Can I like your blog to mine ? I want to remember yours cos one day, I wish I will travel to Vietnam as well, but definately not on a bicycle...

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  5. congratulations on completing your amazing journey - i'm currently in the middle of training... setting off at the end of June to cycle around Europe - although I have the luxury of no timeframe at all. Your write-up is excellent and you have given me lots of food for thought! take care

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  6. nice blog.
    http://www.hosurlive.com

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    ReplyDelete