From Sichahai, via the wonderful Yan Dai Byway (Skewed Tabacco Pouch Street, we entered the Gulou Dong Dajie. Here lies one of the symbols of the old city, Drum Tower. An imposing pagoda like structure rose against a blue sky at the end of the busy road. Inside the compound, several rickshaw drivers offered Hutong tours. At the other end, is the formidable gray-looking Bell Tower. Hutongs surround this ancient towers. The locals gathered in this convenient large cobbled stoned compound. Some just chatted away with little ones running around.
Both these towers are symbols of the old city. They were built around 1272 during the Yuan dynasty and the capital (Beijing) was named Dadu. They were historically used for telling time during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. They set the tempo and beat of daily life in Beijing. A small collection of colorful rickshaws gathered at the entrance. They gently persuaded us to take their hutong tours. They were not pushy or aggressive. We just turned down their offers. We wanted to walk through the hutongs at a leisurely pace.
We headed first to the Bell Tower. It is a decent climb up to the top. Albeit the pollution laden air, the views were wonderful. On one end, the towering CBD and nearby, compactly arranged gray roof-tops of the hutongs. This is old Beijing, still preserved in pockets in the heart of modern Beijing. The huge bell, at 57 tonnes, had a rather sad story. The maker tried several times but failed. Eventually, his daughter jumped into the furnace and the finished bell resonated perfectly. We wandered around a park adjacent to the Bell Tower. Adults and kids played badminton and some elderly people played mahjong. We surveyed the area while exercising on some exercise implements.
The walk up the steep staircase to the top of Drum Tower was tiring. However, the view from the top was similar to the Bell Tower. Originally, thee were 24 drums but only one had survived. We timed our visit here with the scheduled drum performance. It was interesting and entertaining. It was getting late as we left these ancient towers. We were ready to hit the hutongs, near the northern lake areas.
Tiananmen, a name taken from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (at he Forbidden City), is a huge concrete square surrounded by Museums, Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the iconic Forbidden City. The square had played a significant role for several event in China. However, the most remembered is probably, at least for me, was the 1989 pro-democracy movement and subsequent suppression and massacre by the Communist government. For me, the most vivid memory was the lone man attempting to block a row of tanks form advancing. He was subsequently dragged away by fellow demonstrators.
Today, it was the unusual blue sky with the pollution level reading of 50! It was wonderful to feel the sun on my skin with winter, almost forgotten. Both locals and tourist meandered through the crowds and avoid collision with the uniformed marching soldiers. Parents frantically coxing the young kids to pose with the Forbidden City in the background. Not leaving out the patriotic waving of the Chinese flag. All whom entered into the square are subject to baggage inspection. Safety is paramount, but for whom? I was told by locals that there are many policemen in mufti wandering around, just in case if something undesirable should arise. Close circuit cameras are everywhere. The legacy of Mao Zedong is ever present here, a large portrait, hung on Tiananmen Gate across the street is a prominent sight.
The surrounding buildings, all gray and looked like characterless soviet block buildings. A busy Chang’an Avenue separated the square from the entrance to the Forbidden City. Besides the blue sky, everything here is gray. It was great to see the relaxed faces of the local adults, and kids being kids. It is an open space for the masses to gather freely , mass gathering for the regime, historic events and a great place to people -watch. The control by the authorities is tangible. Furthermore, there is no sitting areas or benches. A must-see place, perhaps. If you are a history buff, Mao’s mausoleum is a must. He is still there for all to see.
We arrived at the Temple of Heaven complex by train which is conveniently located near the East Gate. The air seemed more polluted than yesterday as the gray sky descended onto the land. A two dimensional image – A great wall of gray! The crowds were mainly Chinese tour groups, with tour leaders waving flags and leading the way. This park is about 270 hectares. I like to say it was a breath of fresh air out of the crowded city, but no. Pollution is not only hazardous to health but depressing too. The cold weather did not help either.
The Temple of Heaven complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of Emperor Yongle. The layout of the architecture and location of structures were in line with both Feng Shui and Orient cosmology. It was once part of the walled Imperial City.
The Seven Star Rocks (seven rock placed on the ground are symbolic of the seven peaks of the Taishan Mountain). Elderly man and women gathered here under tall leafless trees. Initially, I thought they were dancing or having a chat. I soon noticed sheets of paper on the ground. Some with pictures of young man and women with specifications like height, age, academic qualifications, occupation and so on. This is a non-digital match-making site. Some people were unhappy with my intrusion but soon ignored as the realized that I was just a foreigner passing through. This is serious business judging from the intense but quiet discussions and scrutiny of the documents. With China modernizing rapidly and young people chasing their dreams of better lives, there is little time to ponder about romance and marriage. A girl over 28 years old is considered ‘old’. This is further divided between educated and non-educated; rural and urban young people. There are actually eight rocks, the last one added by Emperor Qinlong.
Hazy view of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest appeared at the end of a long corridor with many doors. The locals gathered here for a chat, play chess and card games. It was quite social and people seemed relaxed and enjoying the moment. Through a gate, we entered the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest complex. Even though it was hazy, the elevated circular Hall was impressive with vivid colors. Two buildings on either side balanced the complex. Three circular tiers made from marble complete with balustrades and railings is the base for the 32m circular and colorful Hall. In the middle of the stairway is a wonderful marble engraving of clouds, dragons and phoenixes. It was very regal. The majestic Hall is made entirely from wood with no beams, crossbeams or nails. The upper surface is decorated with blue glazed tiles, inter-painted with red and yellow. The top of the structure is crowned with a gilded ball. I squeezed past the crowded entrance to get a glimpse of the interior. It was very impressive indeed. Massive pillars painted red and decorated with dragons, phoenix and paintings supported three layers of richly decorated web-like ceilings.
This Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is significant as the “Sons of Heaven’, the Chinese Emperors came to worship the Heavens’ for a good harvest at winter solstice. Sacrifices are also made here to please the heavens. The structures and arrangements are precise – The circular hall on a square base symbolizing heaven and earth respectively. This is perhaps the Chinese axis-mundi, center of earth!
Further north is the Echo Wall. An interesting structure with three buildings. A circular wall built around this complex echo’s every word to the opposite side of the wall. It helps when it is less crowded. It really works. Excitement as well as amazement showed on the faces of those whom participated.
At the southern end of the temple complex is the Circular Altar built on three tiers – representing Earth, the mortal world and heaven. Each platform is decorated with marble dragon carved guard rails. At the center is a flat rounded stone, Heart of Heaven. I stood on this stone and uttered these words – let there be peace in the world. I was astonished that the sound reflected off the guard rails created an enhanced resonance. Amazing!
Pines and cypress occupied large parts of the garden. In one building, elderly ladies, dressed in colorful costumes, danced to some lovely music. We finally exited through the West Gate. Just outside the exit are hutongs. On one streets, a busy market was in full swing selling an assortment of food items including dried fruits and nuts, and pastries. A must visit site in Beijing.
The Great Wall of China is not a single wall but a series of walls built over a period of time. They are connected at various points. The earliest wall were built warring feudal states as a protective boundary. The first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, whom united China, ordered further construction around 220BC. The wall near Beijing were mainly build during the Ming Dynasty, to protect against northern invaders. Originally built with gravel and earth, bricks and mortar were later used to fortify the walls. The width and height varies along the walls. Today, it is estimated to be over 21000 km! The largest man made structure. Jiànkòu and Mùtiányù sections were constructed during the Ming era, about 1300. Some sections were just fortification of older walls.
I anticipated that it would be very cold up here in the mountains. Pleasantly surprising, it was manageable. We continued further. There were no other footprints on the snow covered ground. In some places on the crumbled wall, woody shrubs made walking tough. Sometimes walking on the edges with bricks and paving stone loosely accumulated on the uneven ground. Again, the ‘snow nails’ on our shoes helped us tremendously.
Finally we a reached a crumbling small tower. The path past here was a steep ascent and carved out a semi-circle loop with a even steeper decent. Leo offered an alternative, to cut across the valley and continue back on the wall. This is the Ox Horn Edge Wall. Considering that we had slight difficulty over some previous descents, we opted to give this part a miss and rejoin on the other side. This leg of the hike would take about two hours ( estimate 2km). Along this new path, we found some paw prints in the snow. Perhaps foxes or perhaps just local dogs.
The distant views were still hazy due to the persistent smog. The height of the wall continually rose and dropped with the terrain. Hikers from Mùtiányù section passed us wondering how far they needed to go (perhaps to Xizhazi Village). This was our first contact with anyone since the man at Zhengbeilou. The cold and slippery surfaces made parts of the hike treacherous. One hiker literally sat on her bum and slide down steep descends. We soon reached the beginning and restored wall of Mùtiányù section, Tower 23 around 11pm. It has taken us about an hour to get here from Zhengbeilou. An industrious man had set up a small stall with some basic snacks. Red ribbons hung on trees perhaps for good fortune.
We continued to hike over smooth paved stones, with a few other hikers coming from Mùtiányù entrance. Everything was tidy, both the walls and walking surfaces. Almost sterile. The walls climbed and descended as it crawled over the mountains. Snowfall continued a the views ever-changing. We descended down on some steeps steps and reached the walled entrance of Tower 20 around 1145. This was was put up by the government to indicate the the sections we had just hiked is off limits to the public. We climbed onto a narrow ledge and jumped across a low wall. However, one slip, it is a long fall! This is the restored section of the wall. The stones used here are granite. The wall stretched zigzagging through the mountains. Towers popped up at intermittent breaks. The concentration of towers seem more that in Jiànkòu section.
Although restored, the surface was slippery. Furthermore, the snow and steep elevation compounded the problem. Those with spikes were steady. Alternatively is the cling to the wall and move slowly. From tower to tower, we too moved slowly like the crawling snake. At places, the walking surface is smooth and in some stone steps. As it is winter time, there were very few people walking on the wall. This suited me fine. At Tower 14, there is an exit by taking the cable car down the hill. We continued our hike until Tower 6 before descending to the main entrance of the Mùtiányù section. It was around 1315. We had hike the sections for about 4 hours.
Our transport picked us up and head to a local restaurant. We were all hungry and tucked in our lunch rather quickly. It was still snowing as we left the area and headed back to Beijing. Leo had been great. Welcome back to chaos and the din of a Chinese city. This had been, despite the heavy smog above in the mountains, one of the satisfying experiences of an iconic structure. Hiking on the wild sections had been a wonderful experience – the rugged natural beauty of an ancient and crumbling wall; with very little interference from other people and finally hiking with my family.
Hiking the unrestored Jiànkòu section had given us the raw beauty and the difficulty that comes with hiking the crumbling walls and undulating, sometimes steep climb and decent, terrain; the isolation (there was no one on this trail today until we reached nearer to Tower 23); and a sense of adventure. Finally, there is a sense of being present with the workers who built these walls and towers long ago. Their work untouched by restoration. Only encroached and etched away by nature if continued to be left alone. This is something to see, touch , feel and witness.
There was excitement and a little apprehension this morning. The smog prevailed. I wondered how this is going affect our (my family and I) hike on the Great Wall today. Apprehension came from the questions on the weather – cold. We had organised a guide and transport. We were picked up at 0730 at our hotel. Our guide was young Leo of Beijing Walks. He seemed pleasant. The traffic on Beijing’s streets were relatively low. Our road trip took us through villages and little towns. As we neared our destination, I had my first glimpse of the Great Wall high above the valley snaking on the mountain ridges. I was excited.
We arrived at Nanjili Village, a sub-village of Xizhazi Village in the Huairou district, the start of our hike. It is sparse village with a small population right under the nose of the wall. It is a farming community.Through the hazy sky, I could make out the silhouette of the wall on the ridges. Our target, Zhengbeilou Tower was visible through the forest. It began to snow lightly. Leo seemed more excited than us as this was his first experience walking in snow. My thoughts were….it is going to be cold and wet! A signage read – This part of the Great Wall is not open to the public. Leo just smiled.
We started at 0915 by walking up a hill behind the village. A few villagers were already on up and about. The walk entered a deciduous forest as most were leafless. Through the shrubs and trees, I could clearly see a few towers on the wall. The trail zigzagged uphill and at times steep. Fortunately, the trek was dry and traction was good. I can imagine the difficulty walking in wet conditions. We seemed well prepared with our gear.
After an hour, we reached Zhengbeilou Tower. Our first steps on this iconic structure, we climbed up a wooden ladder and a few stone steps up. We stood on the top level of the tower. The views, even with the thick smog hanging about, was stupendous. On the west, I could see the partially collapsed towers and the wall meandered along the ridge like a white serpent and disappeared into the mountains. Some looked ridiculously steep and the steps completely broken. Trees and shrubs grew sporadically on and along the wall.
Jiànkòu is considered the ‘wild Great Wall’ as it is completely unrestored and in disrepair. However, it exuded natural beauty and the snow today was just a bonus. Hence, the reason we are here. On Zhengbeilou Tower, the floor moved with every step as snow covered bricks lay strewn all over. Even the walls had partially collapsed. Clumps of shrubs were scattered all over. Voices from a western tower indicated the first sign of other hikers. However, they were moving west. This suggests that there are several treks through the forest leading from the village to the wall. On Zhengbeilou, there were no signs of other hikers. However, there was a man inside the tower and evidence of a fireplace suggest he may be a regular, perhaps a villager.
We continued east. We were all excited including Leo. I liked him. He show full of enthusiasm, knowledgeable and just being a simple guy. The wall here seemed whitish. The wall followed the ebb and flow of the mountain ridge and further on seemed to climb uphill and form a semi-circle and decent towards the valley. That section is call the Ox Horn Edge. The wall from Zhengbeilou descended sharply at almost forty five degrees. Finding traction was difficult with the smooth snow covered pavement stones. We edged forward, a little at time.
Leo was trailing behind. He seemed to walk steadily. He had a weapon, snow nails. Thoughtfully, he had brought us some. These were metal spikes embedded into elastic rubber. We placed them over out boots. It steadied our walking. Leo quipped, “these are not good ones, made in China”. However, they did the job perfectly although repeated adjustment is required as the walking surface is uneven and unsettling. I cannot help wondering about the purpose of the wall, its effectiveness, and the tremendous cost (both in financial resources and human) in building and maintaining them. At times, we walked very close to the edge of the crumbling wall with no protection. A slip or fall can send you tumbling down over 5 meters at places. The thought of the men whom were stationed in these desolate places throughout the seasons. It is an amazing human feat built at a high cost, including human lives. Some are buried within the wall.