Thursday, May 8, 2014

China, Part 2 - The Great Wall of China

Though I still have a long list of places that I hope to visit in my lifetime, there may be few that can compare to the marvel of The Great Wall of China.  It was a thrilling experience to walk upon such an enormous piece of history and to ponder the work that went into building it.  It was easily my favorite part of the entire trip and one of the coolest things I've ever done.

We hired a driver for the day who picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the Wall.  We chose to visit the section at Mutianyu, which is a little farther out but also less crowded, and provides the longest restored stretch of wall for walking.  Most of the tours go to Badaling and we wanted to escape the crowds and to visit at our own pace rather than going with a tour, so this worked out perfectly for us.

We were disappointed when we woke up to a rainy morning in Beijing, but the skies started to clear a bit on our two hour drive out of the city.  It is only about 45 miles, but the traffic in Beijing is horrendous and so it took at least an hour just to clear that.  There is no requirement for car seats in China and it wouldn't have made sense for us to bring them anyway.  We did insist that the boys stay seated, but the seat belts in the cabs were usually tucked away under the seats.  So the boys had a lot of fun playing musical chairs during the car ride and taking turns to go sit with Dad up front.  Luke is showing off his orange fingers from some cheese flavored snacks in the photo below.

We finally pulled off the highway and drove through some small and rather run down towns.  Isaac commented "This looks like where the Dollar Store is."  That had Charlie and I both laughing.  There is no Dollar Store in Irvine, but I have on a few occasions taken Isaac to a dollar store in a not so nice part of Costa Mesa.  I assume that was what he was referring too.

We drove on for a little ways and then up into the hills before stopping in a large parking lot filled with buses, vans, and hired cars.  Our driver spoke very little English (or maybe none at all) but it was understood that he would wait there for us for a few hours, and that's just what he did.  It was still quite overcast, but from the parking lot I could just barely make out the outline of the wall high above us on the mountain which was enough to make my heart flutter just a bit.

Of course the first thing you see walking out of the parking lot are all of the souvenir shops that line the pathway.  Isaac was eager to start shopping when he saw all of the swords, nunchucks, and dragon statues being sold but we managed to coax him away for the time being.  We purchased tickets for entry to the Great Wall and also chose to buy tickets for the cable car going up and down.  You can climb steps up the mountain to reach the Wall but it is a pretty good hike.

The cable car ended up being Luke's absolute favorite part of our whole vacation.  He is still talking about it and asking when we can go back.  Since the top of the mountain was mostly clouded over, I didn't realize how high up it really was until we got going.  I'm glad that we didn't choose to walk with the boys.

And then finally we were there!  Almost.  The cable car drops you off at a landing with an overlook and a few signs, and from there you climb a short staircase with uneven and very tall steps, and duck under an archway that puts you onto the Wall.

So there we were on top of The Great Wall of China!  Holy cow.  That's when my heart started racing and I was so eager to soak it all in but also to start snapping a million photos.  I did plenty of both.

We weren't completely sure what to expect as far as weather, crowds, terrain, etc. and since we had gone without a guide, it was really up to us to explore however we wanted.  So we set off walking.

A distinctive feature of the Mutianyu Wall is the high density of watchtowers.  There are 22 of them on this section which is less than a mile and a half long.  Each tower was slightly different.  Some had steps leading directly up, and others were more like a fortress that you could walk inside of, and then go up to the top.

For this tower we had to climb a narrow set of about 8 very steep steps to get onto the roof.  The steps were broken and crumbling and visitors were working together to pull each other up to the top.

The further we walked, the less crowded it got.  I was absolutely in love with this place.  I was initially disappointed about the overcast weather because it obstructed our view, but then I felt that the clouds added to the feeling of mystique and wonder.

The Wall at Mutianyu was originally built in the mid 6th-century (various sources give different date ranges but it was around the 550s) and then restored during the Ming Dynasty from 1368-1644.  This section is less than a mile and a half long, and then it connects to unrestored and crumbling sections on either end.  The most recent restoration was in the 1980s but it appears that the majority of Mutianyu is the original construction.

Mutianyu is easily walkable but the pathway is somewhat haphazard, going from very flat shallow steps, to tall and steep steps, then flat, or a sloping hill with various crumbled or missing stones all along the way.  The direction we were headed was generally up hill.

We had been walking for awhile and enjoying every bit of it.  The boys were in good spirits and were being good walkers, though Luke occasionally asked to be carried by Mom or Dad for a ways.  Through the mist we could see a tiny spot of red, which was a Coca Cola umbrella at a watchtower in the distance.  We made that spot our original destination goal.

As our red umbrella started getting closer, Charlie & I set our sights on a higher destination.  But we didn't break the news to Isaac just yet.  He was still having fun but starting to tire.  I love these photos of Isaac & Luke together.

When we finally reached the red umbrella watch tower, we bought some ridiculously over priced refreshment to keep us going just a little further.  Okay really the walk was easy up to this point, but the hill coming up was rather steep and Isaac is one who needs lots of encouragement.  A few Oreos were enough to get him started at least.

We rested here for awhile and gave the paparazzi a chance to catch up with Luke.

Then it was on to the summit!  Charlie took Luke on his shoulders, which I'm sure was a workout since I got a little breathless myself at times while going up.  I got to be the cheerleader for Isaac.  He quickly started complaining that his legs were too tired, and so we started counting steps.  I told him he could rest after every 50 steps.

Isaac needed a lot of encouragement, and it turned out a few other visitors needed it too.  I was feeling inspired by the book I'd been reading (Follow the River) and the heroine who is just so courageous and brave and keeps going despite countless setbacks and difficulties.  It made this staircase seem easy in comparison to her journey and I was full of enthusiasm.  I started cheering on some older American gentlemen who were getting ready to turn back.  Could you really come all this way to China, to The Great Wall, to halfway up these stairs, and then turn around?  No!  We were so close to the top!

To get onto that lofty watch tower, there is a fairly arduous set of steps to ascend.  My legs were  starting to feel a bit shaky at this point from all of the climbing, but we were almost there.

It was exciting to reach the summit, but I must say I was still tempted to go further.  Charlie and I both agreed that if we had visited without our children we would have loved to hike for a full day or two along different portions of the wall.  But since Isaac's legs were about to "fall off" at any moment, this would have to be our stopping point.

We rested for awhile and took some photos with the Chinese flag.  As you can see in the background, the next portion of the wall required even more climbing and when I suggested it to Isaac he nearly burst into tears.  He can be very dramatic.

What goes up must come down and it was now time for us to begin our descent.  That last staircase felt even more precarious going down and Isaac started getting very nervous about falling.  We stopped for rests on the way down too.  I think he was just done at this point, but we still had a long way to go to get back to our driver.

By the time we made it back down to the red umbrella, my calf muscles were starting to twitch a little from the climb.  Here's a look back at that very tall staircase.  I was really proud of Isaac for making it all the way to the top when I know it was hard for him and he didn't really want to do it.

The weather was finally starting to warm up and clear up a bit, which provided some slightly better views of the Wall sprawled out across the hilltops.  The scenery of the surrounding countryside was also really beautiful with may of the trees sprouting their spring green leaves and a few blossoms here and there.

It is hard to imagine the amount of work that went into building the Great Wall.  It stretches across more than 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside.  That's about four times the length of the entire United States from Oregon to Maine!  Incredible.  It represents decades of hard work by thousands of people carrying heavy bricks and blocks of granite up the mountainsides.  The Mutianyu Wall is between 23-26 ft high at different points and 12-15 ft across.  There is so much that went into building this incredible structure and it was awe inspiring to walk along it and ponder the history of it all.

Now that the mist had cleared, we could look back up at the mountain we had climbed and see that we didn't quite reach the top after all because it goes on for a little ways after the tower.  The restored section ends just about 200 meters from there, and I am still kind of kicking myself that we didn't press on a little further.  Next time.

Luke had to take a break to do some push-ups and frog jumps.  And he also had to stop a few more times for photos with the Chinese.  Luke was always their first choice for photos and then Isaac.  Maybe because Luke is younger?  And whenever people had a child of their own, they always made sure to have them pose together with our boys.

As we were getting nearer to the cable car entrance I became concerned that I hadn't taken enough photos (which can obviously be disproved by the number of them contained in this post).  And I was worried that I didn't have a good one of myself on the Wall yet.  So I handed the camera to Charlie and instructed him to take more photos of me walking with the boys (how very vain of me - I know).

The boys had been good sports about our adventure, but they were eager to get back on the cable car.  I was sad to leave.  We got a better view of the Wall going down since the weather was clearer.  There was also an option to take a toboggan slide back down to the base, and we got a few peeks of that too as we were descending.  

As part of the encouragement to keep Isaac going on the Wall, Charlie had promised him his choice of any souvenir he wanted when we got back to the bottom.  He had his heart set on nunchucks and so that is what he got.  Of course Luke had to have some too.  These things make me cringe, but surprisingly our little Ninjas have yet to cause any damage with them since returning home.

We did a little more souvenir shopping and bought some t-shirts, and embroidered artwork.  Isaac got a black t-shirt with golden dragon on it that he calls his "Ninja" shirt and I think he loves it even more than the nunchucks.  He changed into it as soon as we got back to the hotel that evening and since we've been home he often changes after school so that he can wear his shirt again and again.

We made a bathroom stop before walking back to find our driver in the parking lot.  The women's bathroom had these useful signs on the stall doors.  The sign on the left indicates the presence of an actual toilet (there were only 3 or 4 in a room full of at least two dozen stalls), while the door on the right is home to the squatty potty.  Helpful, right?

It was another two hour drive back to the city because we were stuck in more traffic.  The last 10 miles or so took a whole hour of inching along the highway.  

The Great Wall of China was spectacular.  It's something I have always wanted to see, and something I will surely never forget.  I hope that we have the opportunity to go back again someday.  There is also a Great Wall of China marathon.  Hmmm....  It's kind of fun to think about.    


Amy said...

Oh my goodness. SOOO amazing. I loved all of these pictures and no way did you take too many. I really love that it was misty because this is how I imagine the wall should be and that it would totally make it more mysterious. Sounds like a major workout. I think that the first picture of all of you is such a good one - I would totally blow that up and hang it in the house.

Erin said...

SO, SO COOL Carrie! I think it would feel so surreal standing on the Great Wall! Love all the photos and am amazed at the troopers your boys are. They are going to grow up to be hard workers. Can't wait to see more China photos!