BEIJING, CHINA – December 2008

A Night in a Chinese Farm House (Thank God for Stupid Peruvian Beanies)

We touched down at Beijing International Airport at around 8pm after our eleven hour flight from Sydney.

Within a very short period we had our luggage in our possession – an achievement we no longer take for granted – and we were safely ensconced within our guide’s car and on our way to a farm house north-west of Beijing.

Wang Ping proved to be an amiable host. Prior to our journey, B had arranged for him to take us on a tour of a seldom visited part of the Great Wall. Part of the deal was that Wang Ping would collect us from the airport and deliver us to a farm house where we would stay the night, allowing us an early start for our six hour hike along the Wall.

The plan sounded exotic and rustic and epic all at once. Indeed, I recall agreeing to it enthusiastically when Huck B first proposed the plan.

What we may have overlooked, however, was the definition of `farm house’…

To describe the place as `Spartan’ would be to do the Spartans a serious injustice.

Arriving a little after midnight – in freezing weather with snow on the ground – we were shown to a room smaller than the average city office. Looking around we both tried to hide the horror we felt when we realised that there was no apparent form of heating in the room. I experienced immediate vivid visions of us both losing our battle to hypothermia during the night.

Welcome to China!

However, my morbid thoughts of our sad demise were interrupted by Wang Ping explaining that our bed was constructed of mud brick which, he enthusiastically assured us, absorbed heat. We would be very snug under our blankets, so he claimed.

I felt compelled to test his theory by placing my palm under the thin blanket. Compared to the blizzard gusting through the small room, the mud bricks, indeed, exhibited some vague properties of heat. I was, however, yet to be convinced.

As it turned out, there was some truth in Wang Ping’s assurances. After a death-defying change into our pyjamas, we each pulled two blankets over our heads and lay as still as possible. It only took us five minutes to cease shivering, however, once this happy state was achieved, we were reasonably warm and comfortable.

At this point I must pause to thank Huckleberry B for the alpaca wool beanies we purchased in Peru in October. They remain the stupidest looking headwear I have ever seen – complete with ear flaps and ridiculous colours – however on that thermally challenging December night in a Chinese farm house north-west of Beijing, our stupid Peruvian alpaca wool beanies were the only thing standing between us and the loss of our ears to frost-bite!

And so we dozed off to sleep, earnestly praying that the call of nature would not awake us during the night and compel a treacherous journey to the outdoor (Chinese-style) toilet lying some twenty dark and frozen metres from the door to our room.  Had such an urgent need arisen, it would have been a difficult decision whether to heed the call and brave the sub-zero temperature outside or to grimly hold on through the night. And the notion of exposing vulnerable – but precious – flesh to the diabolical arctic chill was a harrowing thought, not worthy or even sub-conscious contemplation.

Even the arrival of dawn did not bring significant relief. Whilst pleased to have survived the night, our dismal room remained extremely cold outside the safe haven of our blankets. Even changing into our day clothes compelled strategic thinking in order to minimize our exposure to the chill. I ended up piling my blankets over my chest whilst pulling on my pants and putting my shirt and jumper on over my night-shirt. Even when fully dressed with multiple layers and a heavy winter jacket, the cold fingers of the morning air still found their way through our clothes to chill the flesh below.

Even after saying all of the above, however, our hearts leaped with joy when we looked skywards and saw a crescent moon hovering adjacent to the north tower of the Great Wall on a mountain peak above us. What an awesome sight!  Welcome to China!

Where Tourists Fear to Tread (Doing Humpty Dumpty Proud)

Most visitors to China catch a bus from Beijing to Badaling and elbow their way through the throng to walk on a well preserved section of the Great Wall, together with a million other people. You would have seen this popular section of the Wall during the Olympic coverage. I recall that it may even have featured in a Wham! video during the mid-1980’s.

B and I decided to walk the Wall less trod upon.

The Great Wall of China is over six thousand kilometres long and took over 220 years to build, starting during the 15th century. Wang Ping told us that over 2 million people died during its construction. At its zenith, 1 million Chinese soldiers manned the Wall.

The section of the Wall we hiked lies in a mountainous region north-west of Beijing. Once at the summit, you can see the Wall snaking its way along the ridge, from mountain-top to mountain-top, into the distance in both directions. It’s an awe inspiring spectacle, particularly on a day like the one we enjoyed which – whilst only reaching a high of zero degrees Celsius – boasted crisp blue skies and a cloudless horizon.

Our trek began with an hour-long climb along a mountain path through the forest. Whilst neither as steep nor as arduous as our ascent of Wayna Picchu in November, it remained taxing, particularly given that the frozen ground was slippery with snow and ice. We had to stop for a rest from time to time.

Throughout our climb, we could see the towers of the Great Wall above us, always watchful, mocking our attempts to draw near. Finally at the peak, we sat on the foundation stones of the north tower. We could see our path winding up the hill below. To our right, we could see `Cow Corner’, a section of the Great Wall which doubles back tightly upon itself.

Any thoughts I had that the going would be easier once on the Wall were soon dashed. Our section of the Wall was severely run-down, with no continuous paving and large sections missing. Wild shrubbery ruled our route.

Indeed, care in foot placement was paramount throughout our trek along (the remains of) the Wall. Our pilgrimage was perpetually perilous.

At one point – several hours into our journey – we came to a very steep decline. Our path appeared to disappear. The sight of Wang Ping withdrawing a length of rope from his backpack had us fearing that some lessons in abseiling were imminent!

A few steps forward, however, revealed a heavy-set ladder welded to the sheer rock face where – centuries before – a stone staircase had once existed. Whilst comfortable in the knowledge that neither abseiling nor base jumping would be required, we were alarmed to observe that the ladder to which we were entrusting life, limb and the avoidance of litigation was not very well constructed. It was, in truth, a ladder-to-nowhere!

In order to make the treacherous descent, we had to climb down five rungs, place all our weight on a mound of concrete bound to the right frame of the ladder – now suspended dauntingly in mid-air – and stretch one leg to the right in order to obtain a tentative foothold on part of the rock face. Once we had our right foot in place and our left hand on the foreshortened ladder, only then could we take a large step backwards to once again find ourselves on solid, albeit grossly uneven and unsteady, ground.

I hasten to add that none of this breathless adventure was even hinted at – let alone described – on Wang Ping’s website. However, we were grateful for the security of his rope, so I guess that makes up for his failure to issue an appropriate risk warning.

Whilst perhaps in a lather over the potentially litigious ladder, there were other tricky twists and turns along our walk…

As many would know, the Great Wall is punctuated by guard houses every hundred metres or so. In order get onto the roof of these guard houses, we often had to climb up piles of loose, and unstable, bricks. At other times, we had to haul ourselves up with our arms. Yet as difficult as it may have been to go up, going down was always much harder!

Although the going was tough, we are glad we walked the Wall less travelled. Indeed, until we came across some boisterous youngsters at the end of our trek, we did not see any other tourists on our six-hour journey along the Wall. We had the place to ourselves and that made the experience infinitely more enjoyable.

A Pilgrimage Fulfilled (A Great Man’s Legacy)

Perhaps surprisingly, the highlight of our journey to Beijing occurred in a non-descript room, in an ordinary looking building in a quiet corner of the city tourists are ordinarily not permitted to enter.

It was here that B finally caught a glimpse of a grandfather she had never met but whom she had long revered.

B’s maternal grandfather was, by all accounts, a brilliant man. Born on Hainan Island, he was skilled in chemistry and agriculture. Indeed, he is credited with producing a juicier variety of rambutan whilst living in Singapore.

Grandfather’s real interest, however, was in Chinese ceramics. Such was his devotion that he purchased – with his own money – Min Dynasty and Qing Dynasty ceramics, for example, and donated them to the Chinese Government. During his lifetime, he donated over 300 items in this fashion, worth, in today’s terms, a small fortune.

In 1962, one year before B was born, her grandfather moved to Beijing permanently in order to take up a position as ceramics consultant to the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City. This was the last time B’s mother saw her father. When you lived in Malaya in the 1960’s, the government did not permit young Chinese to visit Communist China for fear that vulnerable minds might be `corrupted’.

Regrettably, Grandfather died in 1970 whilst still working in Beijing. B remembers Chou En Lai (Chairman Mao’s right hand man) sending a condolence message to her grandmother and family.

Much of the detail of Grandfather’s work after he returned to China was concealed behind the veil which divided the Communist world and the West during the Cold War. Indeed, we only discovered some of the information outlined above when we visited the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City and were granted the privilege of a personal audience with some of the Museum staff including its curator.

The curator was kind enough to bring out four ceramic items Grandfather donated to the Museum so that we could see them. He even broke the rules by allowing us to photograph and videotape the treasures.

Seeing these artefacts first hand was an emotional time for B as they represented the most tangible connection she had ever made with Grandfather and his work. She had long dreamed of learning more about Grandfather and here, sitting on the table in front of us, were four treasures he had purchased with his own money and returned to China, lest they fall into the hands of ignorant foreigners.

Our visit culminated with the ceremonial presentation of a large book which honoured those who had donated items to the Museum and included some photographs of those items. The book was published to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Museum. B looks forward to giving the book to her mother as a memorial of her father.


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