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June 29, 2017

I was surprised I could fall asleep at all for my first night in a new time zone across the dateline, but an early morning flight and little sleep on the plane earned me six hours or so before I awoke at 4:30am.  I suppose I could have enjoyed a far less busy street at this forsaken hour, but instead I just had some coffee, eventually ordered room service since none of the coffee shops opened until 7am, and tried to entertain myself the best I could.  I found a note in my hotel that “in accordance to regulations in China, the following websites are not accessible including, but not limited to: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Google, the New York Times, and Bloomberg.”

Fortunately, today I will be out of the city at the Great Wall.  I am very excited to see the beautiful countryside, and my guide is taking me to a less touristy area, so climbing the wall should be incredible!  I hope there will be less smog in country too.  After my shower last night, I used a face wipe on my make-up free face which turned brown!

The Great Wall snakes over deserts, hills and plains for several thousand miles.  Originally, the wall was a series of separate ramparts constructed by different states.  The Qin Dynasty used hundreds of thousands of workers to connect the sections into the Great Wall during 221-210 BC.  The length of the wall at this time is unknown and most of these sections have eroded over time.  Other dynasties repaired, rebuilt or expanded sections of the Great Wall, but it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century when the concept of the Great Wall was revived.  The wall, however, proved ineffective as it was breached by the Mongols in the 13th Century and the Manchus in the 17th Century.  Today, the Great Wall is a UNSESCO World Heritage Site with only a small portion of the wall restored.

Jason, my guide, and a driver picked me up at 8:30am for our drive out to the Great Wall.  It took about 1.5 hours to cover the 56 miles to Mutianyu.  Once we got out of the city, we passed several fruit-picking farms where city dwellers go on vacation to stay the weekend and pick fruit.  Upon arriving at the Great Wall, I was shocked to see a giant parking garage at the entrance.  We walked up the stairs to the main entry station and reviewed the map. I was humored to see a charging station for phones!

We planned on taking the shuttle bus to our starting point at tower fourteen via the cable car ride.  From there we planned to head west on the restored section to tower twenty before we proceeded on the crumbling portion of the wall to Ox Horn Edge, the highest point at tower twenty-nine.  The Ox Horn Edge is U shaped and connects the Mutianya Great Wall to the Jiankou Great Wall.  We planned to follow the U down a portion of the Jiankou Great Wall until we reached a short cut across the forest where we would rejoin the Mutianya Great Wall below the steepest section before returning all the way to tower six where a chairlift or toboggan descended to the shuttle bus.  I have no idea the length of this route, though according to my Fitbit, I ended up walking about 16,000 steps (or around 6+ miles) in four hours.

After purchasing the tickets, we took a short shuttle bus ride and then climbed the hill to the gondola.  The enclosed sweatbox transported us to tower fourteen perched on the thirty foot high wall that undulated with the terrain.  I expected this area of the wall to be packed with tourists, especially given we arrived late morning, but to my pleasant surprise there was a limited number.

We began our walk to the west up and down uneven stairs that were easiest to maneuver by zig-zagging back and forth. The farther we got away from tower fourteen, the less we had to weave around people on the twelve-foot wide path.  The watch towers were spaced roughly 300 feet apart, though they were not equidistant.  In the mountainous terrain, the towers were farther apart than in the flatland areas. Each tower we reached provided a little shade and a slightly cooler temperature in which we took small breaks from the blistering heat.

For those who hike this section of the wall, most walk to tower twenty where the pathway is blocked by its back wall.  We, however, hopped over the short ledge and continued on the stone past a few vendors to “the peak” on the wall according to the sign.  At this peak, visitors tied prayer flags to the surrounding trees.  The red flags featured different wishes including but not limited to marriage and health.

Just after the sign, the wall turned from a 12-foot wide nice, undulating walkway to a narrow path with broken stones and trees growing from it.  The brick side wall many times disappeared.  This was my favorite section.  It was so rugged compared to the restored portion.  At one point, we reached a very steep grade where the loose stone was extremely slick.  It was slicker than walking on scree.  When possible, I found dirt and grass patches for better footing while I placed hand over hand on the brick wall to pull myself along.

It was fun to hold the camera level and then aim at the side of the wall to show the angle.  The steep grade was similar to that of a 14er.  About the only two differences between the eroding section of the Great Wall, and a 14,000-foot mountain was today’s weather and the altitude. The elevation at Ox Horn is only 3,000 feet high or so and on this summer day there was certainly no need for a jacket, hat or gloves used on the summit of a 14er.  Upon raising my hands in joy for a photo after reaching the highest point on the Great Wall, it was clear I was not wearing Sure Deodorant (”Raise your hands when you’re Sure”).  I stood a sweaty mess beneath a blanket of humidity as I took in the panoramic view of the forested mountaintops and majesty of the Great Wall.

From the top, instead of turning around we continued forward along the portion of the U that descended toward the valley at an easier grade.  Soon we reached a path in the forest which we cut across back to the wall after eliminating the steep and somewhat dangerous portion of the wall which is closed during rain.  The path provided some welcome shade!

Back on the wall, we retraced our steps up and down the stairs and through the watch towers until we reached tower fourteen.  Here, I had a decision to make.  I could go back down in the gondola, or continue walking to tower six where I could take a chairlift or toboggan to the base.  I think Jason was wishing he didn’t give me a choice.  I would have felt like a quitter had I skipped eight towers.  Plus, in my mind FOMO (fear of missing out) took over as there could have been something different to see.  In fact, the descent provided a slightly nicer view of the surrounding peaks as the smog, which built up over the afternoon seemed to decrease at the lower altitude.

Upon arrival at the chairlift/toboggan area, the line for the toboggan was extremely long.  The wait time coupled with my hunger pangs were enough to encourage a chairlift ride.  Not to mention, the speed on the toboggan is self-controlled and someone once crashed into the back of Jason. I didn’t need to risk injuring myself before riding horses in Mongolia for two weeks, so I picked the safe, boring way down. I was ready for dumplings!

What I found interesting about the Great Wall is that the entry fee, 60 yuan was less than that chairlift and the cable car, both of which were 100 yuan.  They get you coming and going with transportation!  Speaking of transportation, there are so many cars in China that there is a restriction on the days they can be driven based on the license plate number.  For example, a car with a license plate ending in a seven cannot be driven on Tuesday or Friday.  Anyway, we enjoyed excellent dumplings at the Great Wall complex before we drove another 1.5 hours back to Beijing.  Four hours of hiking for three hours of driving was still worth it.

I arrived at the hotel shortly after Page who had just flown in from Florida.  I would have given her a hug, but my clothes were still wet with sweat from the hike…YUCK!  She was hungry, and It didn’t take long for my appetite to kick in so we ventured out to a hotpot restaurant Jason suggested.  We didn’t know the name of the restaurant, only that it was on the 8th floor of the mall across the street from the Apple Store.

I’m not sure how in the world we made it to Haidilou, but it was worth the adventure.  There was a twenty-minute wait on Thursday night.  Seeing as how we were two of about only four gringos in this huge restaurant of several rooms, we knew it would be authentic and good!  Our poor waiter had his work cut out for him.  We picked our broth, meat and veggies from a picture menu.  After that, we donned aprons and for a brief moment plastic gloves that our waiter insisted we wear in order to boil up our food.  He attended to our chop sticks and the broth while directing us to use the bowl with condiments rather than our small plate.

Eventually we finished and enjoyed a nice walk back to the hotel along a pedestrian street past all sorts of shops and tea places.  At the end of the street was a food market that we tried to explore, but it was so packed we just turned around.  The very first stall, however, served fried scorpion, so I feel like I got a good taste of what was available.  This pedestrian street was a stark contrast from the heavily guarded street lined by government buildings which I followed to Tian’an Men Square yesterday.  It was lit up with neon lights like Times Square and loosely guarded with security.  It felt like two different countries just a few blocks away from one another.  ETB

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