Sunday, May 2, 2010
The Great Wall Adventure Part 1
However, the best-laid plans can go awry.
We started off relatively late, around 12:30pm and tried to catch a bus going to Chengde, a city in Hebei Province that borders Beijing, as Jinshanling is along the way.
Two buses going to Chengde flew past us as they were already full so we rushed over to get the next one.
Turns out there was no rush because most of the people had already gotten on the two previous minibuses and so we sat there for over an hour waiting as a group of guys tried to drum up business. Some prospective customers who were interested in going to Chengde were turned off by the price (85RMB/$12.45). The men kept shouting "Chengde" until they were hoarse and it didn't bring much results until finally we headed off, still trying to get more customers along the way and managed to snag about three more.
Then traffic was very heavy -- we were going in the same direction as where the 2010 Beijing Auto Show is being held until today and car fans were rushing to Shunyi to the International Exhibition Center. As a result we crawled along Jingmi road until we finally got onto the highway. By now it was 3:30pm and this was leaving us less time to hike on the wall.
While we were on the road, one of the guys hustling business in a purple shirt, sat across from us and either kept calling his friend or his friend kept calling him, constantly updating each other on where they were. It got very annoying until all of a sudden our bus was pulled to the side of the road and stopped.
The next thing I saw in the window was the guy in the purple shirt and the driver had run across the highway to a coach that had also stopped on the highway -- not even on the right side -- and they switched positions with the coach driver. It was so bizarre not to mention dangerous.
Finally around 5pm we arrived at the Jinshanling Tourist area and rest stop and we got off; the rest of the passengers were given a 15 minute-break before getting back on the bus. We went to the restrooms and then got more water and asked the woman working at the cashier if there were small vans that would take us to the base of the wall at Jinshanling because our friend had told us that was how he got there.
She said there were none and we asked another clerk working at the tourist desk. There are no vans, he confirmed, unless we wanted to walk another 5km to the spot. "You either need to drive there on your own or ask the bus to drop you off there," he said, uncomfortably dressed in a military-like uniform complete with a sash across his chest that said he was from the tourist information desk. We wondered why there weren't any bus lines that specifically went to this area so that it wasn't so difficult for those without cars (the vast majority) to get there.
Nevertheless, it was a bizarre situation to be in, not really knowing where we are and what to do since it was getting late.
We then called Liu Hanqiang, our contact who helped us arrange our farmhouse stay with his father. He eventually came to pick us up in a small van driven by his friend, as he himself only had a motorcycle.
Sitting in the front were two young girls around four or five years old who chatted and sang non-stop amongst themselves making for amusing entertainment. We drove down an unpaved narrow path that winded around a stream and lots of trees and boulders. Finally there was a crudely-paved road and then we saw the small village in sight on a hill and were let off.
We met Liu's father, a farmer with a weather-worn face. My friend affectionately calls him "Super Geezer" as he has no trouble hiking up the hill -- with his hands behind his back -- and doesn't need a drop of water either.
His wife made us a simple meal of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, crushed cucumbers with garlic and vinegar, dense tofu and cucumber julienne, and stir-friend green peppers with mostly fatty pork. Oh yes and peanuts roasted with peppercorns.
The elder Liu insisted on drinking beer with me and luckily brought out two small glasses. Every time he took a sip he wanted us to clink glasses and after two bottles, he probably drank one and a half of them.
Liu's son, a precocious three-year-old, also joined us, and wasn't too shy once we said hello.
Apart from growing corn, Liu senior raised chickens and they would wander around the yard, as free range as you can get. Apparently their kungpao chicken is the best, but I didn't get to sample any this time around.
Even though it was only 8:30pm, we had to try to get some sleep as Liu senior would wake us up at 4am to take us to the highest watch tower in the area.
We settled in a new "wing" of the home that was added two months ago. There was a long bed called a kang, that is heated in the winter by an outdoor fire, with bedding on top. However, the bed was so hard, and the pillows filled with beans that it was practically impossible to fall asleep.
Oh and did I mention there was no running water and an outhouse for a bathroom?
We were kind of roughing it, but the air was clean and quiet setting. Best of all was the amazing scenery of the Great Wall right in front of the house.