A bit of luck

While the Chinese still prefer to go to Badaling ("Why travel far to see a piece of wall?") we opt for Simatai, a small village at the foot of the wall about three hours drive from Beijing. Our scheduled night at Simatai becomes two nights, then three ... It's hard to say goodbye to such a fantastic place.



Two walls

After a night of rain and thunder suddenly the sun is shining in an un-Chinese way, very much unlike the day of arrival, when everything was shrouded in a humid haze. We now have a clear view of the wall high above the village and the contours of the mountains show sharply against the blue sky. Pure luck.
Along the lake the path winds steadily upward, until we come to a choice: will we do the western or the eastern wall today? To the east you will find some of the steepest parts of the wall. At the twelfth tower the road ends with a warning sign. The last four towers can be admired safely from behind the barrier, entering is far too dangerous because of the almost vertical slopes. This part of the wall has been beautifully restored and is also occasionally visited by Chinese people - persuaded by a comfortable cable car. Only a handful of small souvenir stands, too few to be a nuisance. The view is magnificent, in the distance we can see the jagged peaks of the Jundu mountains towering above the landscape.
Simatai A bridge takes us to the western part of the wall, on the road to Jinshanling. Men are working hard to restore this part of the wall, as some parts are still very run down. Adjacent paths are a welcome alternative. Western tourists have discovered the ten mile hike from Jinshanling to Simatai; they book their day trip in Beijing. But no one starts the walk at Simatai, so in the morning it is still very quiet. A Chinese farmer and his wife walk with us the whole way. They have bottled water, coke, postcards and T-shirts for sale. Between Jinshanling and Simatai thirty towers can be found. Sitting in the shade of tower number fourteen we count below us at least twenty-five towers more. Bright colors are moving towards us: the first groups of tourists are already arriving. And we turn back to Simatai, because halfway this route we will be charged admission once more.

All alone

Tired of the hike from Jinshanling tourists plop down in the restaurant of our hotel. The terrace is beautifully situated high above the blue lake. Every few minutes you see the tremendously dangerous-looking single chairlift sliding down across the lake with dizzying speed, to enable the day trippers to reach the table a bit faster. Quickly, they work away their meals, because the minibuses are already waiting to take them back to Beijing. A few regret all this hurry. Rather they would have liked to sleep a night in Simatai too. From three o'clock in the afternoon we have the whole place to ourselves again.
Simatai Much to our surprise, we notice on our third night that "newcomers" have moved into the dormitory. An American and his Chinese guide have come from Beijing on bicycles. Wei has become a guide as a result of the financial crisis, as he lost his job as an accountant at a bank and was forced to become a cycling guide.
Li the taxi driver comes to have a chat too. He would be happy to bring us back to Beijing tomorrow for a friendly price. But we prefer to take the nine o'clock bus. He tells us that prices during the Olympics were much higher and that visitors to the wall spent a lot of money in those days. For a taxi ride he could charge astronomical amounts at that time.

While we are waiting for the bus to Miyun the moon glides in front of the sun: the eclipse. Everyone present in the crowded parking lot has plastic black glasses in hand. There is not much to see though, because as the Chinese weather befits, today it is once more very hazy, hot and humid. The surroundings are hidden behind a white blanket of mist. You do have to have a bit of luck with the weather if you wish to see the wall in all its glory.



Buses run frequently on a lonely highway from Beijing to Miyun. The last 75 kilometers to Simatai on a busy road full of trucks is covered by taxi. Only early in the mornings there are buses between Simatai and Miyun. A new highway from Beijing to Chengde, with a branch to Simatai, is under construction. After opening the inflow of tourists will certainly increase significantly. In Simatai you can stay in the spacious Youth Hostel, where you will find rooms as well as dormitories.

© 2010 Monique van Gaal
The Dutch version of this story has been published in China Nu, autumn 2010