The Great Haul of China

Posted: April 24, 2011 in Photography
Tags: , , , ,

Truly, it was both great and a wall.

Our last day in Beijing, and our most awful misdirection adventure to date. It began with a death o’clock wake-up call in order to catch a train at 7:20. Aiming for Beijing North Railway Station, we managed to get off at the correct subway stop but the (underground) tunnels led us up that glass tube on the left of the photo above instead of to the giant station on the right. Worse still, after we ended up in one of those oval towers, we abjectly refused to believe the multiple station attendants furiously pointing for us to go backwards (“No, you don’t understand – we have a train to catch!”) but – with little alternative – we ended up running back the way we came, only to finally arrive at Beijing North…

…and find out that there was no 7:20 train, and that the earliest we could head out was 9:33. Believe me when I say that this was only funny in retrospect. With the two hours we could have been in bed before us, we decided to go in search of breakfast, only for the lady who worked at the station to shoot us down and tell us there was no food anywhere nearby. Later (after an hour-long power nap in the station), a young guy walked in with his girlfriend, both of them with McDonalds bags in hand. Lindsay opted to ask him where he’d come from, and – despite my protests that it was probably a lost cause since 0.1% of people we’d run into so far actually spoke any English – he replied (perfectly) that there was a shopping centre just around the corner. Why the lady had lied to us an hour earlier I’ll never know.

And so – one McBreakfast later – we were finally on our way. The one benefit of catching the later train? There were three Korean boys sitting on the floor beside us to keep Lindsay entertained for the entire journey. An hour later, we looked out the window and found ourselves face-to-face with…

…the Great Wall of China!

From the station, it was still a bit of a hike to get to the foot of the wall where we could begin our climb, and – based on the hundreds of people doing likewise – we stopped in to buy our return tickets just to make sure we’d get back to the city that day.

Finally, we began our ascent; and in that one moment, every irritation I’d had with the country so far disappeared. All the pushing and shoving and spitting and yelling was forgotten, and watching this wall stretch impossibly far in every direction until it disappeared over the distant mountains, I experienced my first real ‘wow’ moment of the trip.

Of course, I came crashing back to reality when I noticed the billion other tourists who’d be joining us that day. There are quite a few sections of the wall one can visit, but this one at Badaling was built during the Ming Dynasty and was the first to open to tourists in 1957. It’s also where Nixon visited and was the finish site of the cycling course in the 2008 Summer Olympics. From the start of the climb, we had the option of taking the path to the left (behind me) or right. For no especially good reason – and with neither one of them showing any less sign of popularity – we went right.

China has a population of around 1.3 billion. I’m pretty sure at least half of them made it out that day to climb the Great Wall.

Looking back down on the village slash ticket booths where we started. On the far right there, you can see the tourists bottle-necking at the point where the wall splits off into two branches.

Miles to go.

I…don’t understand how that’s possible? (Even more apparent when you realise how far I had to zoom in to get this picture.)

Speaking of zooming in, did you know that the apparent width of the Great Wall from the moon is the same as that of a human hair viewed from two miles away? Most definitely not visible from space, y’all. There have been claims over the years that it’s visible from Earth’s orbit, but they’re all fiercely disputed and most of them turn out to be rivers. My childhood misconceptions? Destroyed.

It remains, however, the longest man-made structure in the world, and if you took all defensive walls built in China over the last 2,000 years, they could circle the entire earth.

For added authenticity: a shitty rollercoaster built halfway up the wall. Actually huge sections of the wall have been restored well beyond the point of authenticity, but even still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the thing.

For some reason, I hadn’t banked on it being quite so much exercise, but some sections are so steep and the stairs so worn that you literally have to grab the handrail to make it up. After a while, we stopped for a breather/snack break. Thankfully we hadn’t had to buy much in the way of supplies since we were still working our way through the absolute wealth of shit people had given us just before we left Akita.

Vandalism: far less offensive in kanji. Far more offensive was the ugly little man who would violently scream at passers-by in Chinese if they got in the way of the shitty pictures he was taken of his family. I felt a little embarrassed for them, and I wondered if they weren’t secretly a little embarrassed, too.

The further we climbed (and believe me when I say that we climbed pretty fucking far), the more the crowds began to thin. Rather impressively, there were still a fair few grannies powering on.

Yes, sir, Mr. Wall, sir!

Omg we found the end of the wall! :O

In actual fact, it splinters at multiple points. Various sections of the wall were built during different dynasties to protect China’s northern boundary. Because it’s discontinuous, however, Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan had no trouble going around it and subsequently conquered most of northern China. Oops. Of course there’s a delightful irony to the fact that the same wall that was once guarded by a million soldiers to defend it from “barbarians” and non-Chinese now welcomes millions of those invaders every single year.

Just as we were taking this, we were approached by a young Chinese girl who asked if she could take a picture; first, of me, and then the both of us. We only visited major cities in China and everywhere we went was a pretty major tourist destination, so I was genuinely surprised at the attention I drew everywhere we went just for being white. My last brush with incidental celebrity before I moved back to the UK.

Some sections require Spiderman-like skill to overcome the sheer stone walls. And/or detours around the outside of the wall. Actually the reason I like this picture is because that section in the middle foreground shows how ridiculously steep the wall became in certain areas.

After reaching the summit of the right-hand path, we were able to see over to the other side and discovered that it actually continued for miles down into the mountains. The wall presented a far steeper descent than ascent, and after our shins started to give out, we stopped for another breather. While we were sitting, we made fun of all the people gripping the handrails on perfectly horizontal sections of the wall, and were shouted at by a primary school teacher leading a field trip after we refused to let the brats use our picnic spot as thoroughfare. Realising, though, that we still had to walk the entire distance back that we’d already come, we soon gave up on our descent and began the return journey.

Taking a sexy break. Looking as good as we do can be exhausting.

(In the background there, you can see the paths that run alongside the main wall to make it easier for people to avoid the crowds on their way back down.)

You’re disgusting. Do me?

On our way down, we passed under this giant sign built for the Olympics. It was already starting to look a little dilapidated.

Great Wall: conquered! My first trip to one of the (New) Seven Wonders of the World, and one of four that I’m actually interested in seeing. (I could probably skip Chichen Itza and the Taj Mahal, and severely question Christ the Redeemer’s inclusion in the first place.)

Having made the return journey in less than half the time it took us to climb the wall in the first place, we had rather a lot of time on our hands before our train was due to arrive. We decided to spend it exploring the village at the foot of the mountain; first leaving a hotel after they tried to charge us the equivalent of £5 for a can of juice (though not before I’d flooded their toilet) and then having a little old lady in a convenience store try to rip us off by not giving me my change back. After I pointed out that she still owed me 10元 from the 20 I’d given her, she magically doubled the price of what I’d actually bought, but – after I point-blank refused to leave her shop, and with other customers still to serve – she eventually conceded that I could, in fact, perform basic maths. We actually ate and drank our purchases right outside, and – whether through guilt or purely because there was no further chance of taking our money – she and her friend later came out to talk with Lindsay and me; even going so far as to share their mandarins with us free of charge. The biggest surprise of all, however, was the fact that they no interest in me whatsoever; and were, instead, barraging Lindsay with all sorts of questions regarding her ethnicity and birthplace. Humility: thy name is Mark.

This trip was sponsored by NAMBLA.

“[30-second spiel in Chinese] [pause] Hey…camel.”

Perhaps our most-quoted encounter for the rest of our travels through China, haha.

And finally; back in Beijing North Station.

That’s actually one of my favourite verses.

So any sensible human being who’d just walked countless miles up and down the Great Wall of China would probably call it a day. Lindsay and I? We braved the bus system for the first time and made our way out to the 798 Art Zone. Second only to the Great Wall, this was definitely my favourite part of Beijing.

It began as the Dashanzi factory complex: an extension of the “Socialist Unification Plan” of military-industrial cooperation between the Soviet Union and the newly formed People’s Republic of China. By the late ’80s, however, the complex had become completely obsolete. It experienced an artistic rebirth in the ’90s, when the contemporary arts community in Beijing was looking for a new home. Avant-garde art was typically frowned upon by the government, and the community had – until that point – existed on the fringes of the city. The factory complex provided cheap, ample workshop space away from downtown and, through word of mouth, more and more artists and designers began to set up shop in the previously abandoned buildings.

Now, the alleyways are lined with galleries, restaurants and studios, with statues and sculptures like this one everywhere you look. The area is described as “post-industrial chic”, and at the artists’ requests, workers renovating the spaces preserved the prominent Maoist slogans on the arches leaving elements of ironic “Mao kitsch” all around. The complex is still under threat of demolition with luxury apartments closing in all around it, but for now it’s a living, thriving hub of the young, hot, creative side of Beijing a world apart from the Facebook-and-Twitter-crushing forces at work in our hotel room.

My new Chinese boyfriend. (You’ll notice that while I don’t tan per se, I do become gradually pinker as the holiday progresses.)

Between our recent trips to Tokyo, Korea and China, I think Lindsay had, by this stage, had enough ‘mo to last a lifetime.

After the insanity of the last three days (and, arguably, three months), this entire area was so exactly what I needed at that point. It’s hard to explain, but I just felt so much lighter the minute we stepped off the street and into the Art Zone. My only regret is that we got there so late, with most of the galleries and shops closing around 6 or 7 at the latest. Still, we were able to spend a lot of time exploring the art displayed just as prominently outside, and amused ourselves by finding reminders of a certain ex-neighbour everywhere we went.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the same store that had an array of Demeter perfumes ranging from bourbon to earthworm to laundromat to funeral home. They were all terribly authentic, though in the case of fragrances like “stable”, one wonders whether that’s necessarily a good thing.

Adorable Communist panda!

Outside one building was a giant birdcage, offering a prize to whoever could take the best picture of it. Those two girls behind Lindsay on the left were taking it pretty seriously with a full-on photoshoot to rival Tyra herself.

Princess ‘Ho-nonoke.

We’re so crazy-lame andIloveit.

By curious coincidence, there was a (free!) live concert happening while we were there, featuring the musical stylings of Danish band, Akiri. They were a little Imogen Heap, a little Björk, a little pacman. “Students run arou-ound, ow-ow-ound. Students run ah-rownd. Ah-ow-ow-owwwnd!” Afterwards, we had dinner (and buckets o’ cocktail) at a little rasta bar near the galleries; the perfect end to our final night in Beijing.

Next up: Shanghai!

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