It would be silly to come all the way to China and not do the Great Wall of China. However its not top on my list of priorites...i mean its just a wall right. There are various parts you can visit – by far the most touristy is Badaling and second is Mutianyu – you can take a cable car up and have the option to take a sledge down it – which sounds pretty fun. The popular areas will always be filled with people and I don't want the plebians ruining my shots – plus I figure I can take a cable car up it when i'm 70. Right now i'm (relatively) fit and able bodied so I decide to do the most strenuous, remote part of the wall - a 4 – 5hour trek from Jinshanling to Simutai. Apparently parts of it were closed off to the public quite recently when tourists died doing it in bad weather – which is alarming but hey i'm travelling to push myself so I figure how hard can it be. The first 9 towers have been restored but after that – (the walk goes up to 22 towers) they are the original wall.
The American and Dom have decided to do the one to Simutai – and The American has found a hostel that offers the tour. I get ready to leave with them at 8am – it is pouring with rain. We trudge through the streets in flip flops through mud, puddles and no doubt saliva filled streets for a good 40 mins (thanks to the Chinese habit of hawking out great gobs of spit everywhere) until we find the place.
Unfortunately the trek is too dangerous to do in bad weather and has been cancelled – Dom and The American book on a more sedate cable car tour which will go ahead to a different more popular part of the wall. I decide to wait until the weather improves. If there is one thing i've learnt so far on my travels its that a blue sky instead of a grey sky can make all the difference when viewing an ancient monument – I can't help but feel that Tikal would have been a hundred times more magical if i'd got to witness a sunrise or sunset rather than the gloomy low hanging clouds and humidity I shared on a vastly over populated tour that I did. I have no schedule, I am not in any rush – so I decide to wait it out until the weather changes. I know that going up the wall and seeing it through the visor of a poncho and torrential rain will probably just put me in a bad mood.
It continues to pour with rain for two days solid so I take the advice of the Tibetan nuns staying at Fly By Knight and decide to go visi The Llama Temple (Yonghe Gong) which is the most renownded Tibetan Buddhist temple in China. The road leading up to the temple is lined with incense sellers – selling all kinds of different sticks -gold foiled, silver tipped, floral. I just buy some simple sticks wrapped in bright pink tissue paper – and (in a red plastic poncho – looking a little bit like a drowned little red riding hood) I enter the temple. In the gardens there are beautiful sweeping trees and a series of small terracotta and jade temples inside. The grounds are shiny with rain and outside the entrance to each temple is a great fire burner where people light up their incense, offer them up in prayer and then place them into the burners. Pretty coloured umbrellas are everywhere (the Chinese hate the rain) and smoke from the incense hangs in veils outside the dimly lit temples. Inside are various statues of Buddha – often gold – sometimes towering, sometimes with many arms - often representing the past, present and future. The highlight is in one of the final temples in the grounds where we can see a huge Buddha carved out of a single Sandalwood tree. I stand and creak my neck up to look at him – his enormous head touching the top of the ceiling – I feel a bit like Aladdin looking up at the genie . What suprises me about the temples and Buddhism generally is the amount of gold and veneration of statues. Somehow - maybe because of the Dalai Lama and the frugal lives he and the monks lead I thought it was more sparse and that there would be less iconography than in Christian religions.
That evening I venture to a night market. I've read about them in a guidebook – how they sell all sorts of horrible foods. At first I think its a touristy gimmick but when I arrive I realise that I'm the only Westerner there and that the Chinese really do love eating ANYTHING.
The first stall I get to they have skwered baby scorpions onto BBQ sticks alive and left them to wriggle their little legs helplessly in the air. At first I think the big dried starfish next to them on sticks are decoration but no they are like big dry crumbly lollipops, a little boy on the subway later is chomping away on one – it omits a rather nauseating prawny scent.
But it gets worse – there are deep fried sea horses on sticks, big black giant scorpions on sticks, long black baked centipedes skwered through that run the length of the stick themselves and large tarantulas too. There are also cicadas, grass hoppers and their larvae that look like they've been caramelised – before – yes you've guessed it - being skewered onto barbequeue sticks.
I want to be adventurous and maybe if I was with some people we could have dared each other to have a taste of something