In this world there are certain places that I think are monumental and must be seen. Yes, there are a thousand places to see. But for me, I can think of a handful of iconic trips that are a necessity. These include, but are not limited to Stone Henge, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Acropolis, the Pyramids of Giza, The Taj Mahal, The Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu, Tikal, Chichenitza, Angkor Wat, Ngrongoro Crater, and of course The Great Wall. I’ve knocked a few off of this list and the one’s that I’ve seen have been awesome- literally make you speechless with awe. Some could even say they are totes amaze balls… what have you. But half of the fun of seeing these places with your own eyes is the approach. We all know what they look like, but we don’t think about the journey to get to them when we search google images. And when you catch a first glimpse of the eiffel tower in the distance or a peek of the Taj Mahal through an arched doorway, you never forget that single moment.
8:00 AM this morning I boarded a bus from Beijing to the Great Wall. Everyone knows the Great Wall isn’t just plopped down in the middle of a field. So I began my morning with no idea what was in store. I couldn’t see any mountains in the yellow polluted fog of Beijing, so I knew I had to make quite a journey. Granted, you can’t see a quarter mile down the road because of the pollution, so who knew how close they were. Side note: I never go anywhere without my raincoat because it always looks like a tornado is brewing in Beijing’s mirky sky. I left my hostel with my raincoat and a piece of paper in hand that said in Chinese “Please take me to Xizhazi bus stop.” So there was no confusion. I felt like a kindergardener. I might as well have taped it to my forehead… But you’ve got to splurge on rosetta stone or play the game of tourist.
But I didn’t want to play tourist. I took a bus to the middle of nowhere. My sources told me that I needed to hire a cab from the bus stop to take me to some remote village an hour away and then hike 30 minutes to the wall. This way I would avoid the touristy spots and would get to see some of the unrestored sections of the wall. The bus blew down the interstate and I was wondering if the driver was going to yell at me to get off when we reached my stop. I showed him my paper. Wouldn’t he remember?! I didn’t know. We made our first stop. I started looking around a little frantic for signs that might have Chinese figures on them similar to my permission slips. Missed the first stop. uh oh…
We stopped again about a mile down the road. The doors flew open and next thing I knew, this scrappy little chinese guy was telling me in awful english that this was my stop. Where the hell did he come from and how does he know?! I went to the bus driver and handed him the permission slip. He handed it back and pointed to the ground. I got off the bus. Scrappy Doo was following me around while I was trying to figure out why the bus dropped me off in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing around but a bunch of taxi cabs. Okay I guess this was it.
First rule: Never trust anyone who speaks perfect english and approaches you. All these men were watching me walk around looking for a street sign with S.D. at my heels. I told him the village I wanted to go to and he told me “to the wall? I can take you there.” I replied, “Yes, the wall, but at THIS village!” He offered me a ridiculous price. I bargained with him, despite his bullshit about “Times are hard. Price has changed! I have to take you and come ALL THE WAY BACK!” I said, “Yeah that’s usually how cabs work!” I was not happy with his little popeye shuffle following me around the side of the road in the middle of BFE.
Finally as I was walking away from his ridiculous offers, throwing my hands up in the air over my shoulders, he said, “Okay 150CHY.” I rebutted with my original offer of 100 CHY as I kept walking. He said “130!” and I turned around and simply said, “where’s your cab?” He showed me a little black compact car. Who the fuck does this guy think he is? All these government official cabs and he’s just some chump looking to give me a ride? I said, “HA! Are you government cab driver?” He said, “I provide car service!” NO! I walked away thinking about how he would have probably just drove me to a field and shot me dead and took my stuff. Wow I had dodged a bullet… literally. I thought about how I almost lost my little life and I didn’t even get to see Grease 2 yet when he yelled at me, “Okay my frand! 100!” I turned around with a creepy smile and pointed at him and said “Sold!”
After an hour of wondering where he was going to park the car and lead me into the woods like a rat on an episode of the Sopranos, Scrappy dropped me in this tiny ass village next to some farm house. He told me to go strait. I stupidly let him leave me there. I started hiking up the hill and got some reassurance when an old farmer said “Wall!” and pointed to a tiny little path. Seriously?! I hiked through this ridiculously grown up forest in unrivaled humidity. After 30 minutes of following this cow path and sweating my ass off I decided “I need to some music to pump me up.” What did I have on my iPod that is kind of Chinese? I relaxed in the shade and scrolled through my stuff. Nothing Chinese but the Mulan soundtrack. Whatever… okay, sure. Oh wait, I only had the best of disney.
Another hour later I was still hiking through the forest. I had my shirt off and tied around my head like a turban, I now had a makeshift walking stick, my shorts were soaked with sweat, and I was losing hope as Angela Lansbury was singing Beauty & the Beast to me. WTF. I was going to die out here! I looked up at the sky… and not 10 feet from me was a tower. How did I miss this behemoth?! I ran up to it and there was a little wooden latter to climb up onto the wall. Wow! I climbed up and was greeted by a Chinese man selling cold beer. I passed, but I did pay him 5 yuan to take my photo. Not only was I on the wall, but I could see so much of it because I was at the highest point around.
I spent the next three hours hiking some of the most beautiful, breathtaking portions of the unrestored wall entirely alone. I turned off the disney and just hiked. It was so beautiful I didn’t want any music. I just listened to the wind and the birds. It was totally amaze-balls. I could talk about it all day, but the experience will never be translated into words.After three hours, I came onto the restored portions and was surrounded by people. It’s actually illegal to hike from where I did to the restored part, but no one had to know. I watched tourist huff and puff up and down the simple stairs. I thought about my approach and I thought about theirs. I left where they entered. I took the monorail to the bus parking lot and took a direct bus back to Beijing… not before I ate at the Great Wall Subway, skimmed the souvenirs, and soaked up some wifi. The struggle I dealt with to get there made that trip worth while. I could have arranged a personal tour guide from my hostel to take care of everything. Instead, I almost got killed and then killed myself… that’s a bit of an exaggeration… but still. But all that mattered was that when I climbed up that wooden latter, nothing compared to that first glimpse.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber