Two Backpacks

The Great Wall

Chapter 7 - Beijing and The Great Wall

            I’m back in Beijing, this time with Ron. I’m hoping to show him the sights of Beijing and also the Great Wall.

            Since my last visit five years ago, the city has been transformed, primarily due to the Olympic Games having been held in China the year before. Information and road signs in Mandarin now have welcome translations. There are new subway lines and stations, and the trains have air-conditioning!

            But, with all the changes that greet Ron and me as we venture out on our first day, the city still feels the same to me in so many other ways. Once you step back from the main tourist areas, the traditional restaurants and shops are still there, as are the tiny single-story houses wedged between new modern high-rises. Whilst this ‘new’ city shouts modernisation and innovation, with its international shopping malls and eight-lane highways, millions still live in poverty.

            We’ve booked into Beijing Downtown Backpackers. A lovely traditional wooden beamed house in the hutong area, it is close to Houhai lake with its willow-lined waterways, cafes and bars. Apple is the hostel’s manager, a welcoming woman in her early thirties with a beautiful smile and an excellent command of the English language. Ron and I are planning a trip to Tibet by train; we’re hoping Apple can help us obtain the necessary documentation for the adventure.

            We decide to visit Tiananmen Square and then make our way into the Forbidden City. We climb the steps from the subway and emerge onto the Square; a vast open expanse filled with people – families, soldiers, vendors selling kites and snacks, plus several undercover police mingling with the crowds.

            ‘Undercover, but obvious,’ mutters Ron as two men wearing loose-fitting jackets and grey flannel trousers stare at us as they pass by.

            We wander through the crowds, happy to simply people watch for a while. At the far end of the Square are the walls of the Forbidden City. An imposing portrait of Chairman Mao hangs above the central archway, the entrance to the city. In the other direction stands Mao’s mausoleum.

            The main entrance to the Forbidden City is imposing, but once through the narrow stone tunnel, the sheer size of this historic site hits us. We wander through the main areas, pavilions, throne rooms, the emperors’ wives and concubines’ living quarters, and beautiful gardens that are dotted around the site.

            ‘It feels as if their spirits are still here,’ I say to Ron as we gaze into one of the throne rooms. ‘Imagine the sentries standing in front of those huge wooden doors, guarding the emperor; all the intrigue that went on.’ I gaze in awe at the ornately carved walls, ceilings, and paintings.

            We spend four hours wandering through the site, occasionally stopping to contemplate the history, buildings and sculptures. Marble walkways and steps lead from one pavilion to another. We pass a sundial, an enormous circular stone balanced somehow on a similar block of identical square stone.

            ‘How did they do that? Cut the dial and balance it so precisely?’ I ask, but Ron has already walked away.

            Tired after climbing the hill behind the city’s walls for one last view of this vast metropolis, we return to Houhai lake for a well-deserved beer or three.


I’ve booked a trip to see the Great Wall. I don’t want to go to Badaling, where thousands of tourists visit daily. Instead, I want Ron to see the original Wall, so we’re off to Jinshanling, courtesy of Apple and her contacts.

            We set off in the early morning in the company of a minivan full of young tourists, a mix of English, Americans and Australians.

We pull into the car park at ten thirty. It’s been a long, bumpy three-hour ride. As we look about, we’re met with breathtaking views of the Great Wall as it twists and turns its way up and over distant misty hills.

            On the trip, we talked to another British woman, Susan, on leave from the British army based in Cyprus.

            While we wait for our guide to arrive, Ron whispers, ‘Have you noticed they’ve all got small backpacks, Sandi? Should we have brought anything?’ he asks, glancing again at our fellow travellers.

            ‘Too late now, but I’m sure all we need is water. Besides, we’re not walking that far,’ I reply with more confidence than I feel.

            There’s no time to dwell on how prepared we are, as our guide calls us to gather around.

            ‘Okay. Take the cable car to the top of the hill; from there, you can hike along the Wall. I will meet you at the car park at the other end in four hours. Any questions?’

            No one replied, so we made our way over to the cable car and waited in line.

            ‘Where do we buy water?’ Ron asks, looking about for a kiosk.

            ‘I’m sure there’ll be somewhere at the top. Come on, it’s our turn,’ I reply, pushing Ron towards the next available car.

            A vista of hills and the Wall extends before us as we reach the hilltop. Our guide has told us there are twenty-eight turrets to pass before we reach the pick-up point. I begin to count, one, two, three, four ….. the fifth is way off in the distance, the remaining twenty-three mere dots on the horizon.

            Ron goes off in search of water and returns a few minutes later with two small bottles.

            ‘It was all I could find,’ he states. ‘C’mon, let’s get going.’

            We set off at a steady pace, stones are loose, and climbing becomes difficult as the path between our first two turrets climbs higher.

            Our progress slows as we pick our way over rocks and climb what feels like near vertical pathways. Susan has set off at a cracking pace and is already past the first turret. I can see her in the distance, arms pumping as she powers along the uneven surface. We’re grateful for the locals positioned along the route with cool boxes full of cold water and fizzy drinks.

            ‘Do you think they’re following us?’ asks Ron, nodding towards two middle-aged Chinese women, their faces the colour of tanned leather. I’d noticed them when we set off from the top of the hill. They’d both smiled as we passed them.

            ‘I’m not sure, but let’s get another bottle of water each and crack on,’ I reply, beginning to feel a little worried at the time it’s taken us to hike the first two turrets.

            The sky is cloudless; the day’s heat intensifies. Our progress slows, and we’re still followed by our two friendly women who smile and say something in Mandarin every time we stop for a rest.

            ‘What did they say?’ Ron asks in between gulps from his third water bottle.

            I’m tired and frustrated by Ron’s assumption that I can translate Mandarin. ‘How the hell should I know!’ I snap.

            ‘We’re halfway, I reckon.’ I’ve been counting the turrets, and if I’m not mistaken, this is the fourteenth.

            ‘Only halfway? We’re never going to make it to the end,’ exclaims Ron, voicing my own thoughts. ‘And we’ve got the same problem if we turn around and head back! What are we going to do?’

            We’re both exhausted. Slumped in the shade of a turret, we look around. The two ladies are still there; they approach and start gesturing to us, pointing down the steep hillside to the valley below.

            ‘What do they want?’ Ron asks again.

            ‘I think they’re trying to tell us they can take us down the hill and get us to the trail’s end. But I’m not sure. Can we trust them? What do you think?’

            ‘What option do we have? We’re stuck. Neither of us has the energy to go any further, not with those climbs ahead,’ Ron replies, pointing to the snaking Wall and fourteen turrets still ahead of us.

            I hold out a ten yuan note. One of the women holds up her hand, indicating fifty yuan. I do a quick calculation – roughly six pounds. It’s a bargain to pay to get off the Wall and into the shaded valley below.

            Ron hands over five yuan notes, and while nervous about where we’re going, we follow our two new best friends along an almost indiscernible path that twists and turns down the steep hillside.

            Once in the valley, the going becomes more manageable. We pass a small farm yard, with piglets grunting in a muddy puddle while chickens scatter as we walk by. Half an hour later, we reach our destination. We gratefully hug our companions and thank them for their help, take photos and after waving goodbye, head into the restaurant, our meeting place at the end of the trail.

            We find a table and collapse into two chairs. Neither of us wants to talk, we’re that tired, but thankfully, Ron has enough energy to order two beers. We sit in silence and sip our beers as we struggle to recover.

            ‘No one’s back yet,’ Ron comments ten minutes later and orders two more beers. ‘Do you think we’re in the right place?’ he adds.

            ‘I think so. Let’s give it a few more minutes,’ I reply. The waiter places two beers on our table.

            Then I see Susan, who’d set off at break-neck speed, walking across the car park. She enters the restaurant and looks around as if expecting to be the first to arrive. Her smile disappears as she spots Ron and me.

            ‘How on earth have you made it here before me?’ she asks. ‘You didn’t pass me on the hike; I’m sure you didn’t.’

            Ron and I enjoy the moment, her confusion at how two oldies had beaten her to the finish line.

            ‘We knew a shortcut,’ replies Ron with a mischievous wink. ‘Fancy a beer?’

            Back at our hostel, we shower and then collapse on the bed.

            ‘I feel like I’ve gone five rounds with Mohamed Ali!’ exclaims Ron, stretching to ease his sore muscles.

            ‘Do you think anyone would have come to find us if we hadn’t taken that shortcut?’ I ask. ‘No one mentioned a back-up plan for accidents or emergencies.’

            ‘Probably. But I’m not sure what state we’d have been in by the time we were found. If it hadn’t been for those two women, we might still be there. I reckon they knew we weren’t going make it to the end of the trail; that’s why they followed us. Thank goodness they did; otherwise, we’d still be climbing that dammed Wall!’

            It’s only eight o’clock but neither of us has the energy to go out for supper. Instead, Ron reaches for the light switch. ‘Night love,’ he mutters before we both fall into a deep, exhausted sleep.