China and South East Asia 2001-2002 travel blog

Copyright 2002

Dave Rich

Hiking Peking and its Wall

Sure the capitol of China is Beijing but the locals insist on calling it Peking, the ancient name, as if they suspect you can't pronounce Beijing. But you put up with the locals because there are three major sights beyond the sprawling modern city of 12 million people, proud as a peacock that it's hosting the 2008 Olympics, tail feathers fanned out every which way.

Right across the huge boulevard north of humongous Tianamen Square sits the Forbidden City, behind a fifty foot portrait of Chairman Mao bordered in flaming red, flanked by several spiffy soldiers you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. The Forbidden City is a series of a dozen four-story rectangles and courtyards sprinkled with locals dressed up in ancient costumes to get their pictures taken among ferocious bronze lions, gigantic cauldrons, tiled canals and interminable artsy steps with intricate carvings stretching a mile and surrounded by a moat guarded by towering pagodas along encircling walls. Actually the City wasn't forbidden; you could go. But you would never leave, sort of like Hotel California. It's excellent to see the Forbidden City first. Though pictures of the gussied up locals are remarkable, the other two top attractions are superior.

The second best attraction is super, the Summer Palace where the Empress holed up when not shivering in the Forbidden City where Peking winters continue frigid. Schedule a full day for the Summer Palace's many miles of attractions, half lake and islands providing miniature samples of Chinese beauty spots, from Suzhou and Zhongzhiang, the Venices of China, to a small karst limestone mountain in the middle covered with swoop-roofed temples of many colors set among intricately patterned canals linked by stone bridges to towering pagodas, all bordering the imperial lake with an island in the middle reachable by a long multi-arched fantasy bridge or huge dragon boats jammed with hordes of Chinese tourists, and a truly ugly monstrosity of a stone barge commissioned by the Empress in a fit of bad taste.

The supreme attraction in China is the Great Wall, the only earthly object visible to the naked eye from outer space. The Wall starts at the sea and winds across China 30 miles north of Beijing, an easy day trip that is worthless if you take the usual tour bus to the Badaling portion of the Wall, the touristy part restored, revamped and deflavored. Instead go to any of the other 3,000 miles of the Wall, the wild Wall which Lonely Planet does a superb job of describing in eight full pages of its China guidebook. You'll see few if any other tourists, few mercenaries to charge one or two yuan ($.12 each) to get on or off, and the experience is such that you'll come back the next day to hike it the other direction. It goes both east and west at any portion except at the ends. Pictures cannot depict the steepness, the grandeur, height, convolutions or sheer ruggedness of the Wall as it snakes across China, near vertical up precipitous hills, sheer vertical down, overgrown with vegetation, stretching seemingly forever except where the locals have savaged its ancient bricks to built practical accommodation. Towers with observation ports and roof lookouts appear every few hundred yards, providing superb vantage points for pictures. Naturally you absolutely must buy a t-shirt that says, "I Climbed the Great Wall" because you've hiked Peking and its Wall.

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