As I expected, boredom has begun to set in. I knew I was going to get bored of Beijing at some point; perhaps I should be thankful it took a week to begin. I thought that maybe I could make it longer before boredom set in, but I really don’t have as much to think and write about as I thought. I think much of my thoughts and reflection will come once I’m back in the US. Anyways, unlike working in a place, staying in a single place when traveling can get really, really, really boring. I think its because moving, seeing new places, and experiencing new things is the nature of travel. Try staying anywhere for two weeks without work and I think you’ll get bored too. Maybe this boredom is good for me though, as now I’m looking forward to getting out of Beijing. Hopefully it’ll balance out my desire not to go home.
As we walked further along the wall, I just kept thinking over and over, “Why did they build this thing?” The terrain is so steep anyways, the wall doesn’t seem like it adds too much of a barrier that the mountains didn’t already provide. I read the wall didn’t do so much to keep people out as much as that it was useful for the towers where signals could be sent over long distances. But that just took me back to my question—why did they build the wall? Couldn’t they have just made the towers? It would have saved a lot of time, I thought. Anyways, I’m glad the wall was build though, at the moment, simply because it looks really cool. The hike today was really great though: a little bit of up and a little bit of down, and a lot of stairs. It wasn’t too wimpy, but not too strenuous either. It’s one thing to go on a dirt trail, but being able to walk on a giant wall provided an excellent vantage point as we were high above the trees. Additionally, there were no switchbacks, just a path that kept going forward.
The weather (overcast) was favorable. Though Matt and I both still worked up quite a sweat, we both knew that if it had been sunny out our leisurely hike would have been much more tiring. In addition to the mild temperature, the other unexpected part of our day was the lack of crowds at the wall. Sometimes it truly felt like just Matt and I hanging out on our own section of the Great Wall.
“If you haven’t been to the Great Wall, you’re not a man.” -Mao Zedong
And so today I became a man, at least according to Mao. The other infamous politician whose Great Wall quote I like is Richard Nixon’s: “It is a great wall.” I like that quote because it really sums it up quite simply. This morning, Joylani and I got up early and took at a bus three hours northeast to Jinshaling. Although there’s dozens of locations that wall-touring is allowed, from just outside Beijing to remote provinces, we chose our itinerary pretty carefully. What we didn’t want to do is what most people, mainly Chinese tourists, do; that is, visit the totally restored and super-crowded Badaling. Rather we had two criteria in selecting a wall section to visit: unrestored and relatively remote. Jinshaling fit both criteria, plus it was good option because we both thought hiking the wall would be cool and we could hike 10km from Jinshaling to Simatai, where we could catch the bus back to Beijing.
By 9:30 we were getting off the bus at Jinshaling. It was foggy and cool, which was exactly the weather we were hoping for with a 10km hike ahead of us. From the road, we couldn’t see much of the wall, except for a tower atop a nearby hill. We took a path towards the hills and then climbed stairs for a few minutes until we were walking alongside the wall. Then we came to an opening in the wall, entered, and climbed some stairs up to the elevated walkway. Being up on the wall was awesome. Above the trees and overgrowth, we could see the steep green mountains and topography. But not too far, as it was pretty overcast and misty. My eyes followed the wall as it faded into the east; as far as I could see, it was going to an uphill trek as the wall followed the mountain ridges higher.
Near Jinshaling, the wall is actually pretty restored. The perfection of it all was an obvious clue, as was the still-white-mortar and sharp contrast between parts of the wall. As we got walking though, the restoration work faded out. Ah, this was what we came for. Well, it was restored in a sense, but not since the Ming dynasty several hundred years ago. Also, the villagers hawking drinks, t-shirts, and carvings thinned out.
Our hike passed through a total of 30 towers, so we had some idea of our progress and pace as we walked. Some towers were pretty intact still, while others were in various stages of ruin. Some had walls left, while other just had a pillar or portions of a wall standing. The hike was a lot of up and down, as the wall snaked up and down mountain ridges. The towers often marked inflection points in the walls slope or sat at the tops of a mountain. It was so majestic to look at, while rugged to walk. As we got further from Jinshaling, the smooth paved walkway gave way to rubble. The top of the wall was a collection of broken and uneven stones, many turned into grey and white dust. Some parts of the wall had been destroyed and we had to detour on the ground or tread carefully around a big gap in the walkway. The ruins were what made it interesting too. After a month and a half in China, where everything is perfect and even old things are totally restored and new, it was nice to be somewhere not yet restored.
The hike was pretty difficult though. Despite the cool weather and relatively easy terrain, it was still super humid and the walk consisted of incredibly steep inclines and descents. I sweated through my shirt and our backpack pretty quickly, although I never got hot the entire day. The ups and downs were brutal, but didn’t seem so bad. Nothing seems so bad after our Nepal trek though. Sometimes it felt like we were going up 60-degree inclines. Climbing stairs was exactly that, climbing. Coming down was even more difficult, with all the loose stones. Joylani almost started a landslide, when she accidentally knocked a stone that fell a few steep steps, while I fell on my but once descenting. This kind of leads me to my next point, which Joylani also touched on: why was the wall built? Obviously, we all know the wall was built to protect the borders of the kingdom, but why here? Many of the ridges are impossible to even climb, much less attack. Looking at the terrain had us scratching our heads about why. Whatever the reason, it was a nice walk.
After 30 towers and 4 hours, including lunch and a few breaks, we made it to Simatai. A good thing we were stopping at Simatai too, because the wall continued up a mountain so high that it disappeared into the overcast sky. We’d had enough walking for one day. But it was the best day I’ve had in a long while. It’s the first time we’ve been out of a city in weeks and it felt great. Plus, trekking on the wall is something we’ve both been wanting to do for a while and seeing the Great Wall was obviously on our must-do list for our trip. Its not everyday you get to see the Great Wall, much less walk along its beautiful ruins with barely anyone else around. And like Mao said, now I’m a man.
With so much time in Beijing, we’re trying to take our time seeing all the sights. Additionally, with so much time, its inevitable that we’ll see more of Beijing too. And although Beijing has a lot of sights, we probably don’t need to see all of them. We learned that today, with our ill-fated trip to the Temple of Heaven Park. The highlight is the Ming-era Temple of Heaven. Having had our fill of Ming architecture (and everything else for that matter), we opted to just hang out in park. But even that was disappointing. Sure, it was a lovely looking park with lots of grass and plenty of trees, but the problem was that it was only for looking. All the flora was fenced off and we were relegated to paved paths and hard park benches. We walked around a bit and ate the lunch that we’d brought along, but it was kind of a lame park. Maybe seeing everything in Beijing isn’t as important as exploring and experiencing the parts of Beijing that we want to. With our time so short now, I really want to maximize it.
One of the reasons we’re staying in Beijing for so many days is so we can just rest and reflect before going home. I’m still kinda sorting things out mentally, but here’s some random thoughts for today:
- It’s been a long journey. We’ve seen a ton and I’m thankful for all the places we’ve been able to go.
- The past year has been a dream. On one hand, I have no regrets. On the other hand, some memories already seem like a dream. Did we really go there? Did we really do that? Its been a year packed with experiences.
- While the first two points are true, I’m bummed that much is over. I would relive the past year if I could.
- I’ve learned a ton, about the world, about people, about my wife, and about myself.
- Our trips not over yet, so maybe I should hold off on all this reflection stuff.
On a tangent, I think that Beijing has the most sights to see of any city we’ve visited since Paris…coincidentally, that’s where we were exactly one year ago:
Unlike a lot of places we’ve gone on this trip, Beijing is a very relevant place. Relevant in the sense that what goes on in Beijing is more likely to affect us as Americans than any other Asian city. The political and economic relationships between China and the US aren’t always amicable, but they are more important than “our” relationship with all but a handful of nations. I won’t get into all that right now though. The only reason I bring up relevance is that we visited the new Olympic Park today. Truthfully, I’m kind of sick of the Olympics already, because that’s all we’ve heard about for the past month and a half. From road-closings and stepped up security for the torch, to the countless articles and “news” clips that take up space in English newspapers and time on the one English channel in the country, to the official and unofficial Olympic stores that setup everywhere from inside department stores to inside public parks, to the 2008 Olympic logo and mascots on everything (and I mean everything- manhole covers, in public toilets, on nearly every company’s uniforms from grocery stores to restaurants, on my soft drink cans and beer bottles, on buildings, on plastic bags, on everything!), the country totally focused on this summer’s Games. Everything is about the Olympics. Chinese life revolves around the Olympics and nowhere is this more true than Beijing. It only seemed appropriate to visit Olympic Park.
the “Bird’s Nest”
the “Water Cube”
With the Olympics beginning in a mere four weeks, of course the 3 new subway lines aren’t yet finished. Joylani lamented the Chinese government could built a railway deemed impossible by European train engineers to Tibet (and months ahead of time), but are months behind completing their capitol’s subway lines. We did take the subway, but then had to walk quite a ways to the park. It wasn’t hard to find though, as we just followed the throngs of camera-toting Chinese. The park was fenced off, but hundreds of tourists were walking around and snapping photos. Mainly, I had just wanted to Bird’s Nest Stadium, since its looks really cool on TV. Initially, I was disappointed, as it wasn’t too impressive up close. But was we walked further away and its unique shape took form, I decided it was worth seeing. But for all you readers who are home, seeing it TV is probably good enough. The Water Cube wasn’t too impressive in person, not that seeing it TV ever impressed me either. Nonetheless, it was cool to see the place and sights, if not just because in a month we’ll be seeing it on TV along with the rest of the world.
One year ago, today, we departed on this around the world adventure.
Just to provide some context on how long it’s been, here’s what my memory and a couple Google searches turned up:
The US presidential election was over a year away and the two frontrunners were Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton. Speaking of New Yorkers, Eliot Spitzer was perceived to be the most ethical guy on the planet. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have had equally embarrassing years.
In other national politics, Sarkozy, Brown, and Abe were all newly in office and hugely popular. Not so much today. Benazir Bhutto had just announced she would return to Pakistan.
Litvinenko and missile-defense shields were chilling Russian-NATO relations.
The American military’s deathtoll in Iraq was around 3600. Today its 4113. The cofirmed Iraqi deathtoll was 40,000. Today its approximately 50,000. The number of undocumented deaths is probably much higher. People were waiting to see if the “surge” would work.
Terrorist drove their cars into the Glasgow airport. Fighting was sporadic, but constant in Lebanon and Palestine. Civil wars and separatist movements raged from Latin America to Africa to Asia- some things never change….
In financial news, the Dow was at 13565. Last time I checked, it closed at 11,215. Ouch.
Oil had just broken $70 a barrel. Today its more than double that (along with many other commodities, including ag). The average price of gasoline in the US was nearly $3. You know better than I how much it is now.
I won’t even talk about where the dollar was at. That’s even more depressing.
“Subprime” and “Credit Crunch” were relatively unknown words.
Since we’ll be returning home for a visit in just over a week and we’re near the end of our long journey through Asia, I’ll try to save my thoughts and reflections for other posts. Additionally, I’m going to try to hold off on making favorite/best-of lists. Rather, I’d like to model this post along the lines of a birthday, anniversary, or even New Years. All three occasions are celebrations more than anything else. And while they simply mark an arbitrary date, they provide a good opportunity to not only celebrate another year, but to reflect on what happened during the previous year and to anticipate the coming one.
Besides being a year older and married a year longer, we’ve changed a lot too:
Matt’s lost 20 pounds. Joylani’s lost 10.
Speaking of health, Joylani’s been to the doctor 6 times, while Matt’s racked up two hospital visits.
We’ve visited 25 countries. 18 new ones for Matt, while Joylani’s gone from having visited 6 nations prior to 30 now.
I cannot count the number of tallest, oldest, biggest, or other “est” things we’ve seen, nor the number of UNESCO and World Heritage Sights we’ve visited.
We’ve been at every single altitude between 80 feet below sea level (diving in Indonesia) to 18380 feet above it (in the Indian Himalaya). We’ve visited the most mountainous country in the world (Nepal) as well as the flattest country in the world (Maldives). We’ve crossed the equator twice, which (upon our return to San Francisco) makes our trip a bona fide circumnavigation of the globe.
Excepting the US, we’ve been to the three most populous countries on the planet. Total, the countries we’ve visited account for roughly half of the world’s population.
We’re feeling the effects of the sun, and not just in terms of more freckles. Joylani has a blonde streak of hair. Matt has a zig-zagged tan line on his foot from wearing his Chacos (he hasn’t worm shoes since November).
We’ve stayed in rooms that were less than 80 cents all the way up to, well, I’m not sure…thanks Mom and Dad
We’ve slept in over 130 beds. And spent 29 nights on overnight transportation- almost a month!
We’ve met up with eight friends from home, plus Matt’s parents.
This list is random and incomprehensive, but even looking at these things that I jotted off the top of my head, one thing is apparent: it’s been a hell of year.
The sky was blue today. Of course, yesterday it looked like this:
After seeing what Shanghai was like, I really didn’t expect to see a blue sky in Beijing. Traffic restrictions have recently come into effect in an effort to reduce pollution for the Olympics. I was skeptical as to whether or not this would make a positive impact, but Paul, who has been here for the last month and a half said that he can see a difference in the air from before (what must that have been like?!). So fewer cars, coupled with yesterday’s heavy rains seem to have rendered the sky blue, at least for today.
For the record, Carrefour is not my favorite store, but it is a convenient place because you can find pretty much anything you need there. Number two, at our breakfast place we do not order chicken dumplings and pork buns. I believe that they are filled with lamb, although I could be wrong, but i know for a fact that they were not chicken or pork.
On the grand occasion of our trip’s one year birthday, we didn’t do too much. After a late night eating hotpot, we slept in before heading out to what’s become our usual breakfast joint (see above photo). The past four days, we’ve had the same breakfast- Joylani gets a bowl of rice porridge and we split a serving of chicken dumplings and a serving of pork buns. Its pretty good and I’m glad that after just a few days here, we’ve found some good “spots” (i.e. the drink shop, the ice-cream lady, the breakfast place, the pork sandwich place, etc). Between our nice hotel and Beijing’s hidden charms, we’re really enjoying ourselves here. Originally, we were going to do a multi-day sidetrip, to Inner Mongolia or up to Manchuria, to break up the monotony of nearly two weeks in Beijing. While I think we would’ve had a great time wherever we went and we would’ve had plenty of time and energy to do it, we’ve decided to just stay in Beijing until we fly out. One, and to me quite surprising, Beijing is both pleasant and interesting. There’s more than enough stuff to keep us occupied indefinitely, whether we focus on the big sights or just the small stuff. And two, with this portion of our trip winding down and our visit home fast approaching, I think we both do and will appreciate having some time to process and reflect on it all. Its gonna get crazy once we get home, so it’ll be nice to focus on savoring this last week abroad.
More time in Beijing has its other advantages. For one, we don’t have to rush. We can really delve into the place. Hanging out with friends the past few weeks, I’ve realized that although we’ve visited a lot of places and learned a ton, we haven’t gotten to know individual cities and countries very well. And although nobody can really grasp Beijing in two weeks, we’ll get a better feel for it than if we stayed less. After breakfast today, I headed to Tiananmen Square to visit Mao’s Mausoleum. I don’t know why, but I was just really curious to see his body. Visitors are kind of rushed through and the corpse probably has an inch-thick layer of makeup, but it was interesting nonetheless. Then after a midday nap, Joylani and I went out to explore the city a bit. We wandered around a market for awhile, before visiting Joylani’s favorite store: Carrefour. Then we ate one of my favorite meals: sidewalk BBQ. It wasn’t an incredibly exciting day, but it was no doubt enjoyable.
Since I’ve already touched on it a bit, I’ll write a bit more on my current thoughts of this trip and out upcoming visit home. While Joylani’s really excited, I’m not really. I know that I’ll have a good time at home and it’ll be nice to see people, but I’m sad, I guess. Not sad about going home, but sad that this part is over. The past year has been amazing and I’d do it all over if I could. I’d go back to India, do the Annapurna Circuit again, and dive Komodo in an instant if I could. I already have a yearning to go back to places we’ve been to experience and relive some of the past year. After such an incredible year, how can I not? Yes, after our visit home, we’ll spend some time in Korea and Japan before traveling for a few more months, but our planning has shifted from strictly “where next?” to discussing our reentry to America. Now we talk about where go we want to go before we head home, how will we get home, when will we get home, in addition to job stuff and other everyday life practicalities. The light (darkness ) is at the end of the tunnel and this fast-approaching visit home us shaping up to be an emotion preview of sorts.
The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.
Matt swears the toilets in China are the worst of our trip. I say, at least there are toilets! Sometimes in India it was so hard to find a public restroom, and if there was one, it was often far worse than the ones in China. It’s just not as easy to use an “open toilet” if you’re a female, particularly if you are in a populated area. I would much rather go over a trough that sits a couple feet below me with no door than be boxed in a filthy stall stained in urine, or, worse, caked in excrement, nervously hovering (much too close) over what should have been flushed (but wasn’t) by the 10 or 15 people who went before me. I think one of Matt’s main issues with the toilets in China is the lack of doors. But for me, if the toilet is going to be dirty, I would much rather have more airflow than pangs of claustrophobic panic from being surrounded by dirty walls and putrid smells.
Let it be known, however, that while I do prefer a Chinese toilet to an Indian one (or lack thereof), I don’t think they are that great or anything. And I do find the no door/no flush thing kind of strange, particularly in a big, modern city like Shanghai (at the long distance bus station). It’s not quite so out of place in the more rural areas though. Anyways, my final comment for this toilet post is regarding this statement: “China is modernizing incredibly quickly. But it takes the people some time to catch up,” and the context it was used in, because I saw SOMEBODY take a leak outside tonight after hotpot…. Let’s face it, sometimes you just have to pee in public. And if anyone should be allowed to, toddlers should. (Adults have more mental capacity to “plan ahead.”) I don’t really mind, as long as it doesn’t happen too much or all in the same spot or in a place where I might stand or walk. It doesn’t bother me that little kids are allowed (encouraged) to pee in public. I mean, it cuts down on diapers, so that’s good. But it would be nice if they could stick their kid in a planter box (fertilizer?) or on the side of a curb to go so that I don’t have to be cautious of every single puddle on the ground.