I’m sure you will have realized that we spent most of yesterday well north of China’s ancient northern defence system.We have a bit of a sleep today and don’t meet Steed until 9am. It’s a short rive north to our last place to admire and enjoy the Great Wall. We arrive at a massive empty parking lot. Tickets are bought, we pass through the turn style. All the scenic spots are designed in much the same way – to accommodate massive numbers of thronging people.
A short walk brings us to a well restored fortified garrison. We stroll through the kitchens, men’s quarters, jail and much more comfortable looking married and officers quarters. Across a wide parade square and up onto this section of the wall. Here there is no mountain ridge to climb first. On the far side of the wall is a narrow treed park, then wide sandy beach followed by the Ocean. Far far away is North America (We are somewhere just a shade north of the 40th parallel.)
We continue along the wall, there are no ups and downs here and soon we come to a temple. Here the wall heads inland in one direction and branches off towards the ocean in the other. We follow it out past the beach to where it ends in the sea. We are at Laolongtou – the Wall’s eastern terminus. Pictures taken and the moment duly recorded, we walk down a set of steps (added in recent years for us tourists) and head south along the wide sandy beach. While this feels like it should be an appropriate conclusion to our Wall explorations, the lack of grand elevation, the cranes of a huge port just to the north, the wooden tourist steps over a rough patch, the glass covers protecting a few remaining original bits, and the smooth newness of the structure, somewhat detracts from the overall appearance. This is not a wow moment but due to the lack of crowds, the pleasant warm day, and the lovely beach it is nonetheless a pleasant one.
We head towards a pier, and unlike Brighton’s famous amusement park pier (and many others I’ve seen of like nature), this one is composed of a series of temples. They are of course very pretty and the camera comes out again. To date I’ve taken more than 2400! Yikes.
This is a restored version of the original structure which was destroyed during the Opium Wars in the very early 1900s by the “Eight Powers.” A couple of those powers were the British and the French. A very simplistic synopsis of these Opium Wars is that in 1838 the ruling Qing emperor tried to ban the opium trade. This caused the foreign powers to wage war with China for the next 60 or so years. The trade in opium was making many foreigners and Chinese businessmen incredibly rich so there was much incentive to keep trading opium in exchange for Chinese silk and other treasures. It was of course having a devastating effect on the segment of the Chinese population that used, abused and became addicted to the stuff. The British East India company was a major importer of opium into China during this time. China lost the wars and among many other concessions that contributed in part to the fall of the dynastic empire, ceded Hong Kong to the British in 1842.
We return to the car, finding a secret and tiny passage way through the wall in order to shorten the walk and avoid climbing back up the wall (Dad remaining firm in his dislike of needless upping and downing).
Our next visit is to the old town of Shanhaiguan. This is the town that grew up around the garrison stationed at this section of the wall starting during the Ming Dynasty. The ancient town is much restored and still occupied. Like the Hutongs of Beijing it is now a tourist attraction in itself. Unlike the rather messy crowded Hutong we visited in Beijing, this area has been practically sterilized. As a result empty lane after empty lane bordered by uniform grey cement walls stretch away from the main drag on a precise grid. Where the locals keep their cars, bikes or other such stuff is not evident. The walls are periodically interrupted by gateways and, for the most part, closed gates. I think had we walked through the streets we’d have seen pockets of interest but we have been ensconced in a ridiculous little white carriage that Walt Disney’s Cinderella would no doubt have loved. Dad and I are horrified but as the distance to be explored is more than he likes to walk and the normal tourist golf-cart trains seem to not be running, we are stuck in the wee white carriage which is decorated with fake roses twined around its delicate frame.
After our carriage ride through town we are deposited by a courtyard with large gate. This is a hub of activity. There is a proper Mongolian camel with two humps standing by for photos ops with tourists. What grabs my eye though are three beautiful horses all done up with bells and colourful Mongolian saddlery. These too are standing around for tourist photo ops. Steed finds out the price which is very reasonable and in a flash I’m up on a high stool and atop a fine white horse. Turns out this beast is Russian and I don’t think he speaks English. The horse’s human doesn’t speak English either but Steed says something to him and the guy leads us out of the crowd, tucks the lead rein up under the saddle and let’s me take the horse for a ride. He indicates we can ride up the road to the drum tower at the end of the block. I give the horse a nudge (international horse language) and off we go. OMG. What a rush. This is a frisky high stepping horse. Things go well until a car comes along. The car looks kinda small and low from this vantage point. How big is this creature anyway!? Horse disapproves of the car and we do some skittering sides steps. I decide the side walk is our best bet. Horse is still nervous so I pull him into a tight circle. He sees his human who is coming along some distance away. Horse seems happy with this so allows me to turn him back towards our destination. A bit further on and a vehicle horn sounds. This sends him into a bit of a lather again and there’s lots more prancing and head nodding and general snuffing. I spin him again and decide to let his owner catch us up. Having never ridden on slippery stone pavement before I find the slithery and racket of horses hooves a bit unnerving. Horse seems happy when his human comes and this calms him down a bit. We then continue as a threesome up the road. The man runs flat out alongside while the horse and I have a good canter. It is totally AWESOME. We canter back with a bit more dignity until a little dog rushes out barking and that gets horse all prancing and huffing again. Back at the gate, the man offers to have his horse rear for a photo op. Well how could I resist. For this endeavour the reins are tied to the saddle (no mixed commands from the hapless rider that way) and I grip the horn as instructed. Horse seems to know exactly what is required and on command he obligingly rears up and holds the pose. We do this three times. It is a rush. Once I’m back on the ground, I realize these are actually very large powerful “war” horses.
What a rush! We go for a very late afternoon sea food “lunch.” All the food is cooked in a steamer at our table. Hot, fresh, delicious and too much for us to eat. Steed takes a large take out bag home with him. We return to our hotel with the sunset. Have I mentioned that Dad and I are really impressed with this place. The restaurant is staffed by a crew of very young people and the quality of service is outstanding.
Off to bed. Tomorrow we head to Beijing. It will be about a four hour drive. The next day we fly home. Our China adventure has come to an end. We have learned a great deal about this country of dichotomies but have barely scratched the surface. This is a very interesting and complex country. It is in part modern and fast growing, but also very traditional. There is enormous wealth and tremendous poverty. Much of the capitalism of the west has been embraced but there are still walls being built (the internet fire wall). The taxation of such a massive population seems to afford many social programs and 1000s of people die each year as a direct result of filthy air and polluted water.
It is going to make me some time to process this incredible journey.
Kim signing off on these dispatches from China. Hope to send pictures soon.