“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”– Anthony Bourdain
I first started this blog in July of this year, so not long ago. It began out of my most profound hope to scratch a creative itch and share stories with those who want to read them. My second blog post, Exploring Shanghai, dealt with my trip to Shanghai, China, in June/July of 2018. I will not repeat too much for those who read it, and for those who haven’t, please do. It has some great reflections and stories of the month I spent in Shanghai, China, teaching, traveling, eating, and drinking. The one part of my trip to China I did not detail, and wish to do so now, was my weekend journey from Shanghai to Beijing on June 23 & 24 of 2018 and my eventual and emotional walk along the Great Wall of China. So back to China we go, but this time we jump on a bullet train to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
To back up for one minute. My reason for being in China was pretty simple. During the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to travel to Shanghai, China teaching US History for an educational program in Massachusetts. I met great people during my month-long stay, explored terrific sites, ate fantastic food, and my wife even flew out to visit. Together we were lucky to form unforgettable memories that are important to call upon on gloomy days like today. While in Shanghai, many of those in my group went on day trips, and I decided to do the same. I concluded that I could not be in China without making a trip to the Great Wall.
It was about two weeks into my five-week stay when I booked my trip to Beijing. I had received help and guidance from another colleague on how to navigate the journey. To get to Beijing and then to the wall, I would need to travel by bullet train, take the subway to my hotel, and other essential sites in the city, and finally utilize a travel company to take me to a less crowded portion of the Great Wall. I would need to be fully prepared well before my trip so I had no issues with the train station and finding my hotel once in Beijing. I had two weeks to prepare, and for someone who was in China for the first time, did not speak the language, and had to get back to Shanghai in time to teach class, I was going to need every minute.
On June 12, as I sat in bed at my hotel after a great dinner, and preparing for my wife’s arrival in a couple of days, I booked my train tickets to Beijing. That afternoon one of my colleagues went over every detail of the train ticket and told me what each symbol and number meant. She explained what I needed to look for when I got to the train station. She had made her trip to Beijing the weekend prior, so she was a valuable source of information on how someone could navigate their way, alone. I had already become adept at using the subway system in Shanghai and had great maps on my phone I used to navigate the massive city. Still, I was going to leave Shanghai and travel 750 miles (1,200 kilometers). Traveling to Beijing was different, so I had to treat it differently.
“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, To gain all while you give, To roam the roads of lands remote: To travel is to live.”– Hans Christian Andersen
I booked my trip on the bullet train, which would “speed” to Beijing in roughly four hours rather than the standard thirteen. In and of itself, the bullet train was going to be an experience. This was also a short weekend trip. I needed to leave on a Saturday and come back on Sunday night, so time was tight. Since the entire purpose of the trip was to see the Great Wall of China, I wanted to find a travel company who would bring me on a tour, which would make my journey to the wall from Beijing simple and stress free. I used Viator.com and booked an eight-hour tour. The tour would pick me up from a hotel and provide transportation, traditional lunch, and a trip back. Not overly complicated or splashy with tons of perks, but all I needed and did not mind going with other people. I enjoyed the thought of meeting new people. I reserved my spot and was officially going to the wall!
After booking my transportation and selecting the tour to the Great Wall of China, I proceeded to reserve a hotel. I wanted something nice, in the middle of Beijing, and close to where the tour would depart. After starting my research, I noticed the tour met at, and organized from, a specific hotel. I investigated it and noticed it was in the perfect location. It would allow me to sleep later and rest up before checking-out and departing. Again, I had limited time, so I would check-in on the afternoon of Saturday and stay one night, tour on Sunday, and leave Sunday night. I could do it, but had to be on schedule. When I went to sleep on June 12, I had my train tickets, tour, and lodging booked and paid. The only thing left to do was wait two weeks.
I said in my previous China travel blog post how I am not a solo traveler. I love to travel with my wife; it is when I am my happiest. I think I never really had much confidence that I could be a solo traveler. I felt, maybe sometime still feel, I lacked the confidence to dive into any setting. But in my first couple of weeks in Shanghai, I surprised myself. I had no problem going into restaurants and ordering food. I used the subway and traveled around Shanghai with incredible ease. I even got a one-month membership at a hip boutique fitness club. I was frequently away from my hotel doing something, whether it was a historical tour, Karaoke, or visiting a brewery. Early on, after my panic attack, which I suffered my first week into the trip, I decided to let go and make every moment count. When I first thought about making a long trip to Beijing, I said to myself, nope, can’t do it, but quickly asked myself why. It was no longer would I do it; it was how and when. I would travel solo and explore the Great Wall of China.
“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Two days before I left, I did a “practice run” to the train station to see how long it took me to get there. I wanted to get an overall feel of what was required of me and see where I needed to go. Avoiding confusion when in the middle of a massive, crowded, and complicated train station was preferable. It was a smooth run, and I had everything on my phone from my booking to help me when I did it for real two days later. I felt far more comfortable, but the only detail giving me stress was how I would get back to my hotel in Shanghai once I returned from Beijing on Sunday night. The subway shuts down very early in the evening, and my schedule had me returning to Shanghai around closing time for the metro system. I couldn’t walk; it was too far. I would need a taxi, but the language barrier added a slight pit in my stomach. Even so, I had confidence I would, and could, figure it out.
The Journey Begins
Two days later, on Saturday morning, I started my journey. I started with another fantastic traditional breakfast, packed my bags, and prepared for my trip. I arrived at the train station about an hour early, found the correct ticket booth, printed out my boarding pass and found my gate. My colleague had prepared me well for this part. The ticket has all the information you need, but you are required to find the ticket booth in order to get your ticket, and finding the correct booth can be tricky. Once you know that, you are all set, but you can always show your information to a security guard and they will point you in the appropriate direction. In the end, with the help of my colleague’s instructions and a friendly guard, I found my way to my desired spots and eventually to my gate. Finally, I boarded the train, took my seat, and comfortably relaxed until I arrival in Beijing.
Once we departed Shanghai, my ride on the bullet train was excellent. The seats were comfortable, and there were plenty of food options. I had a window seat, so I could observe all the places we passed through, like Nanjing. I had never expected to have an opportunity to visit China, let alone be on a bullet train headed to Beijing, so anything I observed was fantastic! Knowing I was going to be exceptionally busy as soon as I arrived in the city, I decided to get some rest and enjoy the train’s speed. By the way, the train has the speed digitally displayed in front of you during the entire journey so you know how fast, about 350 km/h (217 mph), it is going—one in the win column for human technological ingenuity.
When I arrived in Beijing, after a four-hour trip, I hit the ground running, well not literally. I only had so much time, so I decided to go straight to the hotel and then off to do some sightseeing. The hotel I stayed at was called Sunworld Hotel Beijing. It was nice with spacious rooms, excellent air conditioning, and an air purifier. Check-in was simple, and I quickly made my way to my room, dropped off my backpack, and promptly made my way back to the lobby with the intent to walk a couple of blocks to Tiananmen Square, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, and the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the “imperial palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties where outside visitors were forbidden for five centuries.” I wanted to use this opportunity to see a couple of the massively important historical sites one must not avoid when visiting Beijing.
“It is a big and beautiful world. Most of us live and die in the same corner where we were born and never get to see any of it. I don’t want to be most of us.”– Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones
It only took me a few minutes to make my way to the square, although I had to go through no less than three security checkpoints the closer I advanced to Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. Once in the area, it was an incredible sight. After walking the square, I observed the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong and proceeded to walk through the gate and into the main square outside the visitor entrance for the Forbidden City.
After a couple of hours taking pictures and seeing some fantastic sculptures, buildings, and some of the most impressive sites, I decided to get something to eat. I had already been walking around Beijing’s city center and the Forbidden City area for a while, so I needed some food before I lost the limited daylight I had left. After sitting down for a bowl of noodles, I decided to take a short subway ride to Olympic Park, home of the 2008 Olympic Games. As someone who enjoys watching the Olympic Games every two years (Summer & Winter), I thought it would be a fun opportunity to see some of the places world class athletes competed. It was a great decision. A trip to Olympic Park offered me amazing photo opportunities and a couple of hours of walking around a unique area of Beijing.
After a long day of travel, sightseeing, some good food, and the opportunity to take memorable photos, it was time to head back to the hotel and rest. The next day, Sunday, June 24, I would venture to the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu. I choose to visit this particular section, which is further away from Beijing, because it limits public transportation and, therefore, would be less crowded. It can be incredibly crowded at those sections of wall closest to Beijing, so going further out and earlier in the day assured a more private and personal experience. In less than 12 hours, I would walk along one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The Day has Arrived
I woke up ready to go! I prepared my backpack and had a wonderful traditional breakfast in the hotel. I checked everything off my list before heading to the lobby and waiting for my pickup time. In the lobby, I saw that I was not alone in waiting on a group tour. There were at least a dozen people who had come to the lobby for their pickup as well. I met two other individuals who had signed up for the same tour as me, and we waited together. Once our guide, and driver came, we climbed into the van, leaving Beijing for the Great Wall. It was a small group, just the three of us, so it felt like a personalized private tour. It was over an hour drive to the wall, so we had time to relax and pepper the guide with questions about the wall, and of course, our traditional lunch. So, we were off. Next stop was Mutianyu.
There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”– Robert Louis Stevenson
As we arrived at the Mutianyu section of the wall, I was gleaming with excitement. For our journey to the wall entrance, we had to hike from where our van dropped us off. Then, we took a chair lift the rest of the way, which was incredible. Both the hike and chair lift starting our journey wasn’t bad, but knowing the great distance I would cover walking the wall, I was weary to walk too much, to start, seeking to save my legs from exhaustion. Even so, after a 10-minute walk and 8-minute chairlift ride, I, along with our guide and two other members of the tour group, made it to the wall, and began our walk. Of course, we had to take a group photo to commemorate this moment, and then we were on our own to take in the journey and experience it unabated.
I must start by saying the temperature that day was about 100°F (37°C), so it was freaking hot. Thankfully, I had purchased a couple of water bottles before departing the hotel and packed extremely light, or I would have suffered far more from the excruciating heat. No matter, after we took our group photo and talked with our guide about how much time we had to explore, which was a couple hours, we left the entrance and, well, just walked. Funny enough, the three of us stayed together most of the time, not that we talked to each for the entirety of journey. Instead, we comfortably remained close, as each of us had our own unique emotional experience. We walked as if time stood still. Words cannot describe, accurately, the feelings one has when walking along such a historic path. So, I will allow a few selected photos (I took at least a hundred) to summarize and encapsulate some of those difficult to find words.
As I sit here typing, it is hard, as I said above, to find the right words to describe those few hours I spent at the Great Wall of China. So instead, let me mention logistics. The decision to go to the Mutianyu section was 100% correct. As you can see from the photos, there were practically no crowds, so getting the perfect scenic photo I wanted was surprisingly easy. I could see and stand anywhere without fear of being bumped into, stepped on, or pushed. While it was incredibly hot, there was no rain and therefore had full access to any area to observe. In the end, I walked, I thought, I felt, and walked more, thought further, and felt more profoundly.
I still remember watching Engineering an Empire: China on YouTube, a series that initially aired in 2006 on the History Channel. I remember thinking I would never have an opportunity to explore where the narrator and host, Peter Weller, from Dexter and RoboCop fame, walked. He went into detail about the history of the “Long Wall,” which has spanned 2,000 years and stretched over 3,000 miles in northern China. He introduced, and discussed, the Great Wall’s initial construction by the Qin Dynasty and eventually refortification during the Ming Dynasty, it’s use as a fortification against various nomadic groups like the Mongols, and the history of those peoples who worked to build it to defend the border, promote the Silk Trade, and maintain impressive communication channels. To be able to see, touch, and walk on such an important historical structure, I thought, could only be done in my head, living rent-free in my imagination. But there I was, in 2018, doing that which I thought was impossible, only to learn it was real and a perfect moment in time. In Massachusetts language, it was wicked awesome, guy!
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”– Mark Twain
With my time on the wall ending, I took as many pictures as possible and had a great conversation with the two other members of the tour group as we made our way back to the entrance. To descend from the wall, I had assumed we would have to walk since the gondola was closed, and the chairlift was not operational, and I was unaware of any other options. That was until I realized they had a toboggan. Yes, you read that right. I descended from the Great Wall of China using a toboggan, which was fun! Just slide down, and it went pretty fast, and I avoided crashing into the person in front of me. Once, back at the front gate, we headed to the van and departed towards a town only a few miles away for lunch.
The lunch, as you might expect, was fantastic. We went to this small establishment in a town adjacent to the Mutianyu section of the wall. With our tour guide and driver, the three of us were the only ones in the place, and we sat at a large circular table for family style dining. I had already had a few traditional lunches during my stay in China, and I loved each of them. I even enjoyed the one when I was with my colleagues in Shanghai, and we had concluded a tour of the Yu Garden and went to a huge restaurant in downtown Shanghai. Although the food was excellent and the family-style allowed us to talk, laugh, and enjoy the moment, other patrons were smoking, and there was a pigeon auction going on in the next room, so it was memorable. No matter, enjoy the moments! The lunch after my walk was quiet, and I chatted with the rest of the group as we ate, told stories, and grew full. Once finished, we departed to Beijing. It was a fair drive back with a full tummy and soul, but I grew anxious about getting myself back to Shanghai. I was still unsure how to get back to my hotel if the subway was closed when I arrived. I put it out of my head and threw caution to the wind.
Return to Shanghai
Once we returned to Beijing and said our goodbyes, I headed to the closest metro, jumped on the subway, and headed to the Beijing train station. I have lived in urban environments for the last 20 years, so while these cities are massive, I know how to comfortably figure out how to navigate any system, even when I don’t speak the language. Once I was at the station, I found my gate, waited for about an hour, and then headed to my train and seat. I had planned everything out pretty well for a short but fulfilling trip. For the next few hours, I could relax and just let the bullet train speed back to Shanghai and, with it, Beijing at my back.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not why ships were built.”– John A. Shedd
The moment the train arrived in Shanghai, I was ready to get back to my hotel. It was about the time when the subway shuts down, and I would need to find the taxi pickup/drop-off area with a prepared statement to utter, so they knew where to bring me. I had plenty of cash, so the cost, even if high, was not a problem. I just needed to get back. So, I leaped off the train and made my way to the taxi line, which was about 100 people deep at this point, so I, of course, freaked out.
All my perpetration, planning, and confidence seemed lost at that very moment. I walked around and thought; what to do? Then I noticed people still walking to the subway entrance, which took you below the station. So, I ran and ran fast. I went through security, scanned my metro card and it worked! I ran to the subway. Sure enough, almost as soon as I reached the correct platform, a train arrived, and it was the last one, headed in the correct direction, for the night. I got on, not caring if it actually brought me to my location, but with each stop, I got closer.
After several stops, it seemed the train was skipping individual stations, and as I feared, it blew by my metro stop, which made my heart beat faster. I was determined that no matter what, whichever platform the train stopped at next, I was getting off. I would try to get a taxi or walk, since I was within walking distance, even if longer than anticipated. The train stopped at the next stop and I got off. I opened my map app on my phone to see how far away I was. Roughly 2 miles, not bad, not good. I had already walked nearly 16 miles today; what was two more!?! I did try to hail a couple of taxis, but to no avail. I pointed myself in the direction of my hotel and walked. I had an entire day of emotionally uplifting moments to keep my legs healthy, and I was perfectly comfortable with the area. I had been in Shanghai for a few weeks and always felt safe. I walked myself back to the hotel and into a hot shower and comfortable bed. I had done it!
“The journey, not the arrival matters.”– T. S. Eliot
It has been a couple of years since my journey to the Great Wall of China. It is still a wonderful moment in my life. It is not often you are provided the opportunity to see, let alone walk along, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I am ready to start traveling again, excited for the places I will see, and people I might meet. For now, I have my memories and this blog, which I am excited to continue contributing to once each week. Maybe those who click on my blog will find some interest in what I have to say, whether it’s my Pop! Culture musings or my historical and leisure travels or Half Marathons or even stories from my lived experiences. Hopefully, you will continue with me on this wicked incredible journey.