The Great Wall of China was a Bucket List destination that, for me, was sufficiently distant that ticking it off would not be without difficulty. That said, it didn’t stop it from actually being on my List.
As I’ve become older (and I hope, just a little wiser!), I’ve gained an increasing interest in history – something that I was at pains to avoid while at school. Not the sort of history that just involves having your head stuck in a book, but the sort that involves visiting the place that is talked about in the book; about experiencing the history alongside its modern inhabitants; about looking, feeling, touching and tasting the history as it envelops you.
I think that being my wife’s proof-reader while she studied ancient Egyptian history only served to reinforce my interest in what I’ll call “travel history”. It was certainly far more interesting than the business degrees that I’ve had to do to keep me in gainful employment!
Right next to The Great Wall on my list was the Forbidden City, so I had a quinella of an opportunity. This was promptly turned into a trifecta by being able to visit Tiananmen Square, made famous by the student who stopped a column of tanks during the much publicised 1989 protests.
I’m also very fortunate in that my job sometimes takes me overseas. When the opportunity to head to Beijing in August 2018 arose, I knew that I had the ideal opportunity to figuratively get my Bucket List marker pen out of the drawer.
Beijing, a city of over 21 million people, wasn’t quite what I expected. Sure, there are some areas that look and feel fairly communist, but it’s also a real mixture of new and old. Some of the architecture, while not along the same lines as Shanghai, is definitely interesting, undoubtedly drawing off feng-shui.
The only direct flight to Beijing from Auckland is currently with Air China. The flight takes 13 hours, although we were slightly delayed, I assume, due to weather en route. I’d booked my flights to arrive on Friday, so that on Saturday and Sunday I could spend some time fulfilling my travel history chores.
Alas, while the weather had been fabulous in the weeks before I travelled, as I got closer to setting off, I could see changing patterns, to the extent that the Saturday and Sunday were now promising thunderstorms, with Friday being the only decent day, given that I’d be working the following Monday to Friday.
With this in mind, I’d been liaising with the concierge staff at the Conrad Hilton in Beijing to try to arrange something for the Friday. This in itself came with a number of risks and difficulties, not the least of which was that I wasn’t scheduled to land until 4.30am on Friday and the tour would set off sometime between 7-8am.
They booked me on a tour that was available and said that they would cancel it if my plane was delayed. Which it was. Fortunately, it wasn’t delayed sufficiently to prevent me from getting to the hotel, showering, changing and heading off!
About the tour
I’d somehow envisaged that I’d be on a bus tour. I suppose that was the intention of the firm that ran them (I used Gray Line tours www.grayline.com) and I opted for their “seat in bus” tour that they called – rather appropriately I thought – “Bucket Life”. This tour would take in Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall.
On the day I went there was only myself, a Canadian lawyer filling in a day after a number of meetings before flying back to New York, and an American teacher living in Tokyo, who had flown in for 3 days of sightseeing. Our guide Liu (who insisted that we just call him Leo as that was easier) therefore didn’t have to shout to make himself heard – not least of all because we were in a car rather than a bus.
So just an hour after getting to the hotel, I was cleaned up and heading off out. My mind and body weren’t entirely sure what time of day it was, but I assumed I’d get wakened up by either of my travelling companions to take photos if I fell asleep!
But that wasn’t to be a problem. Much of the tour would be spent walking. And unless I mastered somnambulism, I’d most certainly be awake! Not to mention hot and dripping with sweat in the humid 34C conditions.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
The first part of the tour was the part I thought would be quick and easy. What I hadn’t realised was that Tiananmen Square was 109 acres with the Forbidden Palace being an additional 180 acres on top of that. Leo told us we’d be walking in this area for the first two hours of the tour (it didn’t say this in the description of the tour, so comfy shoes are a must).
We started the tour along with many other thousands of (mainly) Chinese tourists close to the Mausoleum of the still revered Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist party from 1945 until he died in 1976. The queues of those wanting to see his final resting place were incredible. Leo told us that we were lucky that we were visiting on Friday rather than Saturday, when they’d have been even longer! We were not going to see Mao, so we spent some time looking around the square (which I believe is the largest in the world), taking in the Monument to the People’s Heroes, Parliament (the Great Hall of the People) the National Flag (guarded by Chinese troops stood rigidly to attention in the 34 C heat), and the National Museum before heading down to Tiananmen which Leo told us literally stood for entry to the square if my mind serves me correctly.
We had a few photos within the square before using the underpass to get to the entry to Tiananmen, where we would enter the actual Forbidden City.
We were told that the 80,000 tickets for that day had all been sold out by the previous evening. No tickets meant no entry, so it was lucky that we’d been on the tour and not just turning up as solo tourists (so if you do decide to do this on your own, it’s worth bearing in mind – book your tickets in advance – don’t just turn up).
It felt as though all 80,000 ticket holders were setting off at the same time as us. Each of them seemed to have an umbrella (as protection from the sun rather than rain), and I was to be hit in the head on many occasions as we covered the 180 acres during an incredibly hot and humid day.
We set off through Tiananmen, passing into the Forbidden City through the Meridian Gate, across the bridges over the Golden Water, the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Supreme Harmony – Harmony seems to be an integral part of Chinese culture – the Hall of Middle (you guessed it) Harmony, the bedrooms, and out of the Gate of Heavenly Purity (what? Not Harmony?) via the Imperial Garden. The latter was very small considering the overall size of the site and it was about the only shade afforded during the tour. I guess that as it was only the Emperor and his family who could use the gardens, they didn’t need to be big. Their size and position was also an important part of Feng Shui we were told.
It is impressively large inside with virtually no shade.
It took us the full 2 hours to get through and we were literally soaked in sweat, and in need of a couple of bottles of (cold-ish) water by the end.
From here, we set off to have a traditional Chinese lunch (and an obligatory viewing of a silk quilt making factory (where I bought nothing more than a couple of fridge magnets), but where there seemed to be an expectation that I needed a silk-stuffed duvet to take home, before making our way on to the Great Wall.
The Great Wall
At some 21,000km long, there are plenty of places where you could go to see the Great Wall. The trip I’d chosen was to the Juyongguan section. The booking guide notes that this area literally means “First Pass under the Heavens” and that it was a fortified pass often referred to as the Throat of Beijing. There are many others to choose from, but this one was only around 1.5 hours from Beijing and I neither had the time nor the inclination to sit on transport for any longer than that off the back of a 13-hour flight!
And it was everything I’d expected. On the way, we’d learned that while parts of the wall had been started as long ago as 700BC, most of what we know today as the Great Wall was built around 200BC, predominantly to protect the country from nomadic raids. When used for defence, smoke (during the day) and fire (at night) were used to alert soldiers up and down the wall if raids were being attempted.
I hadn’t anticipated quite how steep some sections of the wall were. They were clearly built on ridge lines to maximise their effectiveness but following contours must have made it exceptionally difficult to build. This area has been well reconstructed, so it’s a good choice for a visit. While it is steep, imposing and stark, it didn’t actually always do the job for which it was intended and in the mid-1600s it was breached by the Qing dynasty who defeated their predecessors, the Mings. But the intention of this isn’t to be a history lesson – just to note that it’s a good section of the wall to visit!
We only had a couple of hours here – long enough to cover a couple of the watch-towers and to get up sufficiently high to take some great photos, showing the extent of the wall in the area. While I consider myself “relatively” fit, I don’t mind admitting that I was sucking in air like the best of them. It’s a steep climb, some of the steps are very large, and if you don’t have a head for heights, looking down could be problematic. That said, it was definitely a worthwhile visit and one that I enjoyed. My legs were definitely a bit stiff the following day though!
A tea ceremony
Our tour finished with a visit to a tea house for a tea ceremony. Not being a huge tea drinker (I like the odd cup of earl grey with milk and sugar – which I suspect would be frowned upon in China), I wasn’t too bothered if we did this piece or not. That said, it was good to see how it is made and to try a number of different teas (slurping was actively encouraged, and it turns out I was a natural at that)! Truth be told, a cold beer ceremony would have gone down exceptionally well after climbing in all that heat!
And from there, it was straight back to the hotel. Well, when I say straight back, we were now in Beijing rush hour, so it wasn’t the quickest of returns.
About the food….
I often think that I like to travel to where I like the food. The food in China didn’t disappoint! I’ve no idea what some of it was but I had Peking Duck (twice) – which is part food and part theatre to be fair – and Hainan Chicken twice. I think that it’s probably more Singaporean than Chinese. I had it once in the hotel (it was raining heavily and I couldn’t be bothered venturing out that night and it was OK. But I also found a local, cheap restaurant where it was fantastic – and with a beer cost me around NZ$8.
A few final points
I had a limited amount of time to do the trip but knew what I wanted to see. Often when travelling, I’ll do my own thing and make my own way, but when time is of the essence, tours really are useful to make sure you see as much as you can in a limited amount of time. While I booked it via the hotel, I could just as easily have done it online. The “Bucket Life” tour did what it said on the tin. I got to see my trifecta of Tiananmen, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall within a day. It cost me CNY560 (so around NZD125) and I thought that was good value for money, especially as it did include lunch. I was expecting to be on a coach full of people for that amount but there were 3 of us plus the driver and guide. You can do it on your own with a driver and guide, but this is much more expensive.
The only other thing I’d say is that if you’re visiting in summer, don’t forget a hat, sun block, sunglasses and water. You’ll also do well to wear comfy trainers (you don’t need any more than that) and I’d have loved a change of t-shirt, given that I was literally dripping with sweat on two separate occasions during the day! Other than that, just enjoy it. If, like me, you’ve just come off a flight and are a bit jet-lagged, the beauty of this trip was that there was so much walking, so you couldn’t possibly fall asleep.
Now, I need to find 3 additional items for my Bucket List (I could have said 4, but a tea ceremony has never actually been on my bucket list!)…….