You can tell you’re far from home when the moon looks like the vanishing Cheshire cat’s smile from Alice in Wonderland. On other evenings, it’s huge and red. There’s that saying that even though you’re far from your loved ones, you’ll still see the same moon. I wonder what my friends see, in their homes in different parts of the world. For someone, it’s going to be small and white, for another, large and red, for a third, it can’t be seen because of vegetation/firecrackers in the sky/they’re living in a cave, for a fourth, a cheese-resembling ball where you can see the seas on its surface. I’ve been here for almost one month, and I’ve experienced all these sides of the moon’s changeable nature. I guess you need to start thinking about satellites romantically instead: they circulate around Tellus too, and everyone can see them, but they don’t change their appearance.

“China” is a new name to call the middle kingdom of the east, only about 200 years old. If you want to see the change China has seen in the last 100 years, go to Shanghai. 100 years ago, Shanghai was nothing but a small fishing village. If you want to see the change China has seen in the last 2000 years, go to Xi’an. 2000 years ago, at the beginning of the first of the imperial dynasties — the Qin dynasty — the emperor united China as we know it for the first time. (Although he was lurid as a person, and when he died, the townsfolk were so angry with him they tried to beat his dead body. This really goes to show that no amount of prestige or status can define a person’s true character. He’d apparently been aware of his unpopularity, and ordered a terracotta soldier army to be established before his passing to guard his tomb, which is the largest in the world. It is yet to be found and opened!) Xi’an, “Western peace”, became the capital, which was then gradually strategically moved eastwards until it finally settled in Beijing. The city wall surrounding Xi’an still resides and can be biked around (challenge accepted!). Beijing used to have several city walls too: they were turned into ring roads 1, 2 and 3 in the 50’s and 60’s.

Things learned:

  1. There are animated, moving advertisements in metro tunnels. The animation “follows” the train in the tunnel, and passengers can watch the ad through the windows. 9 out of 10 times the advertisement is about weddings and marriage.
  2. In restaurants, after you’ve been seated, one of the waiters/esses covers your belongings with a cloth. The cloth is removed only when you’ve finished eating.

Simatai and Jingshanling are two of the more unpopular sections of the wall to visit because of their steepness and hard accessibility from a ground level, but for this reason they’ve managed to maintain their original structure quite well and that’s the reason why I chose to go there. There were no handrails (this is not the EU, people) and in several places, the ascent was as steep as 75-80°. It will definitely feel like you’re just climbing upwards in a vertical fashion. You need at least a medium good physical condition, a walking stick for descending (yes, descending is more difficult than ascending. Most somewhat experienced hikers will know this) and a good coverage-insurance deal to go there, especially the rocky eastern part. The ascent itself is not difficult, the highest point is only at about 1000 m, so it’s quite easy to manage and the ascent to the wall itself (about 700 m) only takes 15 minutes. The floor of the western part has been partly renovated to make walking convenient, but for the most part it’s retained its original condition (think cobblestone streets in old, small African villages). The openings in the watchtowers are narrow, and you need to be very careful not to damage your head. All in all, if you tend to suffer from either claustrophobia or a fear of heights, it might be a good idea to take the tourist shuttle bus to Badaling or Mutianyu. The experience is less authentic, but supposedly more reassuring physical safety-wise.

I (luckily) realised it would be a foolhardy idea to go at it all alone, and asked a local guide if he’d like to come and have a trip to the wall with me. He obliged, and we had a great time. We met some domestic tourists along the way who joined us for a while, but there were long stretches of solitude which I didn’t mind at all. We passed 24 watchtowers on our journey, and for a specific number of watchtowers there is a local guard, usually an old man in his 80’s who will take care of that job for his whole life. I was a bit shocked at first when I peered out of one of the apertures in the wall, and saw an old man’s head on the outside! He was standing on a narrow, perhaps half a meter wide footpath, with a precipitous drop right at his feet listening to the local radio and chewing tobacco with no safety equipment whatsoever. My guide explained to me that he’s used to working in these conditions, and I couldn’t help but wonder what our safety regulation experts at home would have to say about this. 😀

Here are some pictures. The weather was better than I’d hoped for too. This is the time of the year I recommend everyone to visit the wall and China in general: no tourist crowds, a pleasant temperature, the pollution levels from the steel factories somewhat in check, no mosquitoes (except in Guangdong), and low prices.

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This is a doorway, not a window. You can tell how steep the terrain is. It looks like you’re stepping into nothingness.

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I have started preparing for the upcoming spring term at Wuhan University. The registration week starts on Monday. We’ll see what the universe has got on her mind regarding the future.

Mili

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