While most of my friends were out celebrating the end of exams, I was at home, frantically packing for my trip to Beijing. I’m staying a month in the Chinese capital as part of the University of Sydney Chinese Department’s In-Country Study program.
Me and about 30 other students from Sydney will spend the coming weeks trying to balance learning Mandarin at Peking University while seeing all the sights in Beijing — a challenge which will prove difficult considering the rich culture, cuisine and history of this huge, thriving city.
After a brief stopover in humid Hong Kong, I landed in freezing cold Beijing in time to see the first snowfall of the coming winter.
With my exams behind me and my pollution mask on (Beijing’s air quality is known for being exceptionally poor, especially in the winter), I headed off to the first tourist destination on my checklist: a little street not far from the famous Forbidden City called Wangfujing.
The first thing that hits you, even before you pass through the little gate that marks the street’s entrance is the smell of food. Wangfujing is lined with vendors selling a variety of Chinese food, drinks and snacks — rice cakes, freshly roasted chestnuts, corn, noodles, scorpions on a stick. We were assured that this last was only popular with foreigners — but I think that the sticks of wriggling, live scorpions to mark the beginning of the street do a good job of introducing the kind of culinary adventure the street offers.
If the sight and smell of the food doesn’t make your mouth water, the prices will. One Chinese yuan is equivalent to 20 Australian cents — with some snacks on sale for as little as five yuan, you can enjoy some quality Beijing street food for just one Australian dollar! (I went for the chestnuts and rice cakes.) And don’t forget — on Chinese streets, you can haggle. Side streets offer all kinds of souvenirs for you to warm up your haggling skills on — and if you’re looking for a bit of familiarity, you can find it in a gaming arcade just off the main street. The lights and rhythm of a dance machine is a language we all understand.
My classmates and I returned from Wangfujing to our dormitories with our stomachs full and our wallets slightly slimmer, somewhat exhausted but completely satisfied, swearing that we would come back and eat again before the month was up.
The following Saturday, Peking University organised a trip for all thirty-something of us to the Great Wall of China. We were accompanied by a wonderful Chinese tour guide who told us to call him Joe, and who anticipated all of our jokes about that good old Telstra ad that taught us all we know about the Great Wall’s purpose. (“To keep the rabbits out, right?” he joked.)
Joe explained the real reason the wall was built — the first emperor of China’s Ming dynasty, fresh from having overthrown Mongolian rule of China, wanted to build a wall to protect his people from Mongolian retaliation and finally keep the peace. The dynasties that followed continued to work on the wall — until they achieved the nearly 9000 km beast that people from all over the world come to see today.
From Beijing, there are three sections of the Great Wall that you can visit – Peking University chose to send us to the Mutianyu section, which is a little further away and a lot less crowded. After taking a shuttle bus someway up a hill you are provided with two options: you can choose to walk up a steep set of stairs to the base of one of the watchtowers, or you can take the cable car and enjoy the view. Fool that I am, I took the stairs.
The Great Wall is surrounded by beautiful, picturesque mountains that fade gently into the mist. And occasionally, as you gaze out of the window of the ancient stone watchtower, you’ll imagine life as a medieval Chinese soldier stationed on some section of the wall, and you’ll think to yourself, “apart from the cold, the isolation and the attacks from Mongols, was it really so bad?” (The answer is yes, it probably was. But my point still stands – the scenery is exceptionally beautiful.)
The Great Wall snakes up and down through the mountains, so if you enjoy climbing steps, it really is a dream destination. Even if you don’t — the climb will be worth it.
The Great Wall is not only the perfect vantage point from which to enjoy the mountainous landscapes which surround you, but also to see the Great Wall itself. I climbed to the highest watchtower on the Mutianyu section of the wall, and looking out at the rest of wall as it curves over the mountains, it’s vastness suddenly strikes you. You recall that it not only extends as far as the eye can see, but also across so much of northern China.
At the the top of that last watchtower, there was a lady selling souvenirs and refreshments for the brave tourists who had climbed so high (888m above sea level, to be precise), and would eventually have to make the daunting climb back down.
It’s probably not that daunting if you don’t mind heights, or steepness. If you do, you can look forward to the exciting options of getting back down – which aside from the stairs and a cable car, includes a toboggan ride.
We were lucky enough to see a suspiciously-clean little dog running back and forth along the wall, and just past the Great Wall’s exit gate there was a posse of suspiciously-clean cats, one of whom climbed into my lap. It seems the Great Wall is a hotspot for humans and animals alike.
My time in Beijing is only beginning — I’m looking forward to what’s next!