Every visitor to Beijing makes a trip the Great Wall of China and all but a few choose between two sections: Badaling and Mutianyu. The first is the most popular and naturally, the most crowded; the second gets all those visitors who want to avoid the crowds of the first. Since more and more travelers seem to be trying to get off the standard tourist trail a bit, I imagine Mutianyu can get quite crowded too. Unless, of course, you outsmart the crowds like we did and visit during a rainstorm.
In truth, we bought the tickets the day before when it was sunny and we didn’t actually plan to avoid the crowds in such a brilliant and wet fashion. The weather didn’t even seem too bad when we got up to depart, but it was hard to say for sure, since it was still dark out. Yes, for some unknown—and most certainly idiotic—reason, we were up at 6am; and that after going to bed shortly past 5am.
A Swedish guy staying at out hostel had celebrated his birthday the night before and naturally I felt obligated to wish him well. And I did just that—with copious amounts of Baijiu, a liquid formerly used to torture political prisoners, but now sold as a hard liquor. In this instance the owners of the hostel had filled it into a large jar and dumped all manner of dead animals into it.
Now, while I might not be giving the best impression of Baijiu, I have to admit I actually did save a bottle for the next time I find myself in one of those “wake up covered in blood next to a dead body with no memory” situations. Dump my Baijiu into a tub, dilute with water, toss in body, wait ten minutes for it to dissolve. Problem solved.
Anyway, back to the Swedish guy’s birthday. Despite celebrating until after 5, I have to admit, I nevert actually knew the guy’s name. Nor do I remember meeting him. Nor did anyone else I talked to know who he was. In fact, it’s highly likely he didn’t even exist and people really just wanted an excuse to spend all night playing drinking games on a Monday. So thanks for that awesome early morning bus ride on a bumpy and windy road, ‘Sven’. And Happy Birthday.
Anyone who’s been to China will know that I didn’t get a minute of sleep on that bus, since Chinese drivers always seem to fly around curves at that magic speed: too fast to get any rest and just slow enough to not go flying off the road. Most of the time anyway (in my case, thankfully, all of the time).
Once we arrived at the Great Wall, we first had to walk through one of those typical Chinese ‘ancient villages’ where every vestige of the original village has been removed and replaced by a Disney-fied version and every newly-built ‘ancient home’ now houses a souvenir shop. As for the original inhabitants……”who??? Never mind that sir, just check out my collection of ‘I visiting to Great Wall’ t-shirts….”
After the town, we began the climb. Hundreds upon hundreds of steep steps and as I’m dragging my dehydrated body upwards, leaving behind one alcoholic ant colony after another thanks to my trail of baijiu-sweat, I’m being passed by groups of Chinese in their seventies and eighties. Some of them were even nice enough to give me a pat on the back and offer an encouraging, “Hang in there kid, you’ll get there eventually.” Most tried to encourage me some more when they passed by again on their way back down.
After what felt like several hours of climbing, but was likely about twenty minutes, we finally made it……to the base of the wall. That’s right, after surviving my own personal death march, we had only just arrived at the beginning of the actual climb.
At least we were rewarded with one of the funniest bad English signs I’ve ever come across that not only explicitly forbade drunkards per rule number 2, section 3 (cue us looking at each other nervously while loudly proclaiming, “Yeah, damn drunkards….they ruin everything; we’ll definitely keep an eye out for any….”), but apparently also banned visitors with dirty underwear, according to rule number 6.
That’s when the rain started. And not just a light sprinkle, but a downpour that turned the Great Wall into the Great Water Slide in a matter of minutes. I realize that actually kind of sounds like fun, assuming you’re at the top already, but we were at the bottom and now had the fun task of climbing the already steep steps with a stream of water cascading down them.
I swear for every step forward, I slid back two, but that obviously couldn’t have been possible since I did eventually get to the top of one of the hills. The second I arrived, the rain even let up and I could see more than ten meters ahead of me. I noticed a second, much larger hill we could have climbed—and probably should have, since the views were likely much better.
Of course, we were still in the middle of a cloud, so there weren’t really any views period. Besides, climbing a second hill immediately following the first (by which I mean within the same one-month period) would have been absolutely insane.
Before sliding our way back down, I ventured past a “no-entry” sign (any signs in China are purely for decorative purposes and not followed by anyone) and immediately the wall was covered in dense vegetation, offering a glimpse of what most of it outside the tourist-approved sections probably looks like. Once back at the base, we opted to ride the toboggan down because it looked like great fun and we had been looking forward to it during the long climb up.
Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us on, because the brakes apparently stop working in the rain, making the ride too dangerous. Just our luck: we get the ONE person in all of China that’s actually concerned with personal safety…. I won’t even attempt to describe how disappointed we were.
Instead, we took the cable car, despite the Great Wall warning sign I mentioned above. In one of the greatest acting performances ever (Oscar worthy, if I do say so myself), we convinced the guy selling tickets that we were not the much-feared drunkards he had been warned about during his extensive job training. Once we were on our way down, the drunkards came out, though and we proceeded to both ‘somk’ and ‘frohck’ (breaking rule #4 on that sign), bringing the whole system down.