The Great Wall of China and a birthday surprise.

Finally on Friday, Michaela and I  get to do a trek of the 2000 year old Great Wall of China, and its her 34th birthday! hooray! 

The sun is shining, the sky is a clear blue without a cloud in it – and because its the peak of summer that also means it must be about 40 degrees. As the bus nears the entrance - our tour guide starts to speak: 

“ We are almost arrived – when you get to the base you will need to walk up a hill to get to the first tower. This hill is very steep.” 

When you get to the first tower you will walk the first 9 towers which have been restored. These towers are even steeper than the hill..." 

“Then you will climb towers 9 to 15... these towers are even steeper.” 

If you are having difficulty you can get down here from tower 15 because after that you will have to walk the final 7 towers from 15 to and these are the STEEPEST part of the wall.” 

Everyone laughs nervously. I'm beginning to worry that I may not be up to it – but Micahela chivvies me along. 

We arrive and start the climb up to the first tower  which is fine and then bump into Sally and a couple of other girls from the hostel at the top. We burst into an impromptu version of Happy Birthday for Michaela which makes everyone stare:

“take your time -take photos - the guide on the walk will follow the last person...” 

We take her advice. Once up at the top the heat is extreme and difficult but the views are stunning. The wall stretches out in front of us and there isn't a soul on it except for our group, we can see for miles around us, the rolling hills and the wall interspersed with its watchtowers curls out endlessly infront of us. 

I didn't know what to expect but its suprisingly peaceful and awe inspiring up here. So this is what all the fuss is is and it isn't "just a wall." 

After the first 15 towers I begin to get a little complacent. We stop and take loads of photos to the point where the tour guide who is rounding us up actually points at his watch and hurries us along – guess we can't take as long as we want then! 

We have made lunch in the hostel to take with us as there are no burger vans up here – although there is the odd farmer selling t shirts, water and coke. We catch up with the rest of the group and eat our peanut butter sandwiches (which never tasted so good) then get going again. And then I see why its called one of the most strenuous treks on the wall. 

The wall from Tower 9 is all unrestored - so crumbling away at the sides and there are sheer drops of around 500 metres. It's so hilly that it undulates up and down to each watchtower at about an angle of 70 degrees which means we have to climb up and down on all fours to be safe. 

'In every life there are ups and there are downs...” notes a German drily. 

The final few towers to Tower 22 really are the steepest and get the heart rate pumping. 

“Come on Dominique – get those legs going!” shouts Michaela

“WORK THAT BUTT WORK IT!!” I shout back to help with the motivation. 

The rest of the group stare at us slightly bemused. But we make it! And the fact its been tiring and difficult at times has made it so much more worthwhile. And hey ….the photos really are great. 

That evening we go out for a meal for Michaela's birthday and get back late - around 11 o clock. 

I'm about to go to bed, but one of the girls who runs the hostel whispers to me to stay up. There are four of them and they have been waiting for us to get back because they have bought Michaela a tiramisu cake as a suprise with candles and everything. 

“we were so worried that you were't coming back!” they say... 

“ some of us finished our shift a long time ago but wanted to stay for this! ” 

We are all so thrilled; for Michaela  -   who is touched and close to tears; and lets face it,  at the thought of eating proper cake.  But also because it's so lovely to see how excited the girls from the hostel are that their  suprise has worked. They jump up and down with glee and clasp their hands. It's a sweet way (in every way)  to end to a very a special day. 

The next day i've made a decision to go and do martial arts at a school in Fujian province for a month. I am going via Shanghai to break up the journey a bit. 

One of the girls in the hostel helps me with my backpack. Her name in Chinese means “sea” but she didn't like it so she decided to choose an English name that meant the same - and fell in love with the word “Marine” so that is what we call her. 

“Oh Dominique...” she says, helping lug The Bastard onto my back.. 

“You are soo strong! strong and so beautiful....” 

Aw. Its only taken about 37 years but I think I'm fnally beginning to agree.

A temple of Llamas and deep fried sea horse anyone?

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

The Summer Palace, Tibetan Nuns, Tantric Sex 'n' Karma Sutra chatting - Beijing.

The next day Unique Lee and I have decided to go to the Summer Palace. I invite Dom to join us and then Guy – a lovel 20 year old student from Leeds asks if he can tag along. Somewhere along the way - Derek Chang – a sweet 26 year old Canadian with Chinese heritage joins us and also invites along the two american tibetan nuns staying in our hostel and their two friends. Suddenly we hae four sixty somethings with us as well. Unique Lee turns around and suddenly sees how many there are of us: 

"NO The group! - too big!!!" he's got a point - its going to be slow going navigating the subway. 

When we get inside the grounds we split up as Derek and the nuns pay for a tour guide and me and the guys decide we can do without. 

The Summer Palace – started out life as The Garden of Ripples in the 18th century and features acres of misty, hilly grounds with temples staggered up Longevity Hill in amongst the pine trees. Much of the building work has been restored to prisitne conditions - shiny terracotta rooftops , beautiful ceilings painted in bright jades and blues and on top of the glimmering tiled rooves there are scrolls of animals leading down to the guttering. 

The grounds are split by an enormous lake which has dragon boats on it. I have had a dream – about dragon boats the night before I arrive into China. They are all lined up in a lake and suddenly I become one – but I'm like a brightly painted red and navy animated one. I fly up from the lake into the sky and over the terracotta roof tops of China which is far beow me. I interpret it as being creatively free and my imagination working well! 

We end the day by getting the dragon boat across the lake for around 15 yuan (about 1 pound fifty) but as we sail across we see the main palace from the water and realise we haven't visited it yet – hmm maybe we needed a tour guide after all!! 

Guy decides to head back – he's about to start studying mandarin and business studies at a university outside of Beijing and will comeback as part of the course to do the Great Wall and Summer Palace again at another date. 

I regret not seeing the main bloody temple so Dom and I get a boat back across and make our way to find it. As the afternoon cools down it thins out of Chinese tourists and having found the main series of palace rooms and temples – we sit for some time in contemplative silence surveying the lake and the misty hills below. It really is enchanting. 

On our final dragon boat ride of the day a Chinese woman suddenly grabs my hand and Dom's and yanks us down to have a photo taken with her two children. In China Westerners – but particularly the aryan variety like Dom – are like an alien species and the Chinese think nothing of  photographing us as if we  are exotic butterflies in a zoo. 

That evening we all go out together for a meal. Sally, a sparrow like 60 something with sparkling dark eyes and a raucous witche's cackles – friend of the nuns – has found a restaurant that does vegan food near our Hutong – a rarity in China. 

We set off down cobblestoned streets watching as middle aged Chinese men stroll around with their shirts rolled up under their nipples - 

“What is it with middle aged Chinese men all trying to work the Britney look..” ponders Guy. 

The restaurat is called Number 9 – however it traspires that Sally has actually been eating in Number 8 all along (!) - a small cafe where you point to the food you like. The actual Number 9 is a proper restaurant which we decide to try. Dining Chinese style is very sociable – we are seated in a private dining room - around a large circular table with a Lazy Jenny on it – a big wheel on which the various dishes are placed. 

The menu has decided to try and help by providing an English translation of the dishes. However with translations such as: 

  • Skin Pimple Soup
  • Pig's fatty intestine
  • Fleshy foam spinach crystal powder.... 

Sometimes you really just wish they'd stick to proving pictures instead! 

They really do eat everything here – no part of the animal goes to waste. I think i've got a fairly adventourous palate but even I draw the line at tucking into a whole fried duck's head, sea cucumber or the milky coloured claw of the chicken's feet they shrink wrap and sell as snacks in service stations from here to Taiwan. 

“ MEDITATE DON'T MEDICATE! - that's my motto” cackles Sally with a huge guffaw. She is by far the coolest 60 something i've ever met. She works as a photographer – previously in the music industry and now shooting documentary footage. She is also a Buddhist and her and the nuns have come back from a pilgrimage that was supposed to go into Tibet (but their tour was also cancelled by the Chinese authorities - like mine.) She runs a meditation centre in New Orleans – her home town. 

On the way back from the Summer Palace I had started talking to Annie – another 60 something American Tibetan Nun. She has closely cropped hair (from when it was shaved off) and large spectacles that magnify her big grey eyes and give her the air of a kindly owl. I ask about her orange robes and she explains that she has been ordained as a Tibetan nun, about the pilgrimage they have been on to meet one of their masters in Tibet. They have stayed in Buddhist temples and remote monasteries up in the mountains with their guide and spiritual master and he has carried out something called empowerment. She tells me about Tantric or Lamaist Buddhism – which is the form of Budhhism practised in Tibet and Southern parts of China. 

Its something Naz - the ex Marketing Manager and yoga teacher I met in Guetemala has talked about about in relation to yoga – tantra -and the duality of nature - yin and yang –but like most people I also can't get away from associating it with sex (tantric sex – made famous because Sting and his wife practised it.) I casually mention this and Annie explains about the Karma Sutra- what the words actually mean -and how the act of Tantric sex is all about combining the dual forces of nature...and then I discussing Tantric sex and the Karma sutra...with an American Tibetan Beijing! 

On the day they are leaving – Annie comes to find me to give me something. She knows that I have been interested in learning more about Buddhism and has decided to give me her book on the subject written by the Dalai Lama. It has been covered in plain white paper because it is an offence to show his face in China. It is so kind of her I think its one of the most precious gifts I think i've ever received.

Fly by Knight, Forbidden Cities and 100 bicycles in Beijing.

I realise as I arrive into China that I am (for the first time on my travels) a little nervous...but excited! 

I have booked into a hostel called “Fly by Knight” which at 13 pounds for a dorm is steep by Chinese standards – i'm hoping that it makes up for it with quality. Its in a Hutong (an old traditional Chinese alleyway and courtyard) about 20mins away on the subway from the Forbidden City in the Doncheng District. 

Although Ivy has taken great pains to write down instructions on how to get from the airport to the hostel – I arrive in at 5am into 30 degree humid heat and a monstrously overweight backpack. I decide to get a cab and make the rookie error of getting in one from a man that approaches me before I get to the queue. The fare should be around 100 yuan (or 10 quid) I have – albeit after much negotation - agreed to pay 200. I later learn that some unsuspecting tourists have agreed to pay up to 550 yuan from these con artists - its such a blatant traveller error – one that I know about full well – I am furious with myself for falling for it.

But – I get to the door of the hostel in about 20 mins and the driver carries my bag through. I later find out that the others have been dumped by cab drivers and had to spend half an hour wandering around the dirty back streets and alleys trying to find the place – fresh or not so fresh off their flight. On balance its almost worth paying an extra 10 quid to have had the quick and painless arrival that i've had. And the hostel is difficult to spot - hidden as it is -without any signage down a tiny little cramped street which cars barely fit down into next to a public lavatory. There is a huge wooden door with lion headed knocker and red lanterns hanging outside. I press on the doorbell – and as ever I am blessed with my travelling luck – it is opened quickly and I'm shown to reception. 

I can't get to my room yet as check out isn't til 12 – i'm not sure how im going to fight off the jet lag but they have a common room area in reception whereyou can use the internet (they have a facebook proxy) facebook access is banned in china. They also have drinks and coffee so I get out my netbook and try and stay awake. 

I am still internally beating myself up about being ripped off by another cab driver. What is wrong with me – it doesn't matter where you go in the world I can't escape yourself – or that horrible negative critic voice in your head. 

I decide to give myself a break – i've had four hours sleep, jet lag and am in an entirely new continent where even the typescript is different – sure I fell for an old con – but I got there quickly in one piece and if being ripped off by cabs is the worst thing that happens to me on my journey i'll feel very grateful. 

Anyway its good practice in being assertive...all these bastard cab drivers... 

I decide – as is my way on arrival somewhere big and new. To do a main touristy sight first to break myself in gently. 

I go to the Forbidden City on the subway (which is very easy to navigate.) The sky is blue, the sun is shining and in the gardens of the grounds a man is playing a whistle - some gentle Chinese music. Its sunday and the parks are filled with Chinese famlies and tourists wandering around with their silk parasols shading themselves from the sun. Although the summer heat is at its worst in July and August – around 35- 40 degrees...Its peak tourist season. 

I feel a whole lot better about everything suddenly. Hey the sun is shining and i'm in China!!! 

I find Tiannamen Square ( a rather boring mass of concrete) and watch as army cadets march through it singing at the top of their voices. Then I queue with all the other tourists and their parasols to leave. 

There are very few Westerners here so I get stares wherever I go and Chinese men shouting "Hi" to me. 

I arrive back at the hostel via a restaurant for steamed pork dumplings served with a side dish of vinegar. One of my very favourite dishes. 

The sociable set up of the hostel is such that I soon get talking to an American – Dave with a long beaky nose, and beakier Adam's apple, slate coloured eyes and an incredibly monotone voice and seemingly inexhaustible knowledge about world trade.

Dom, a fresh faced blonde blue eyed 20 year old that looks and sounds like he's come straight out of the play Another Country. I also meet Lee – a Korean guy in dapper trilby hat, fancy shades and naturally gregarious nature who tells me he has decided to give himself the nickname “Unique Lee” and that is how he would like to be referred to. I like his style!