We have enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of independent travel over the last few months, using an organised tour on occasions to visit a particular attraction that would either be impossible (Inca trail, Galápagos Islands, Bolivian Salt Flats) or difficult (Amazon, cycling across Borneo).
Back in September 2013 when we were planning the outline of of our route, China seemed like a very daunting prospect in terms of independent travel given it’s size and the obvious language barrier we would face. Therefore we made the decision to book an organised tour with a Canadian company called G Adventures, but now the thought of 3 weeks of being “organised” is a little daunting even though our experiences of using them elsewhere has been very positive.
That said our tour briefing last night was positive, we have a small group and a very good guide based on first impressions, and today we start with one of the “Big Guns” of China’s tourist attractions….The Great Wall.
Sadly, my one and only fact about the wall turns out to be completely rubbish. The Great Wall is not visible from space, and I now don’t want to Google to check whether my other space visible fact about the Belgian motorway network is true or not.
Whilst it is not visible from space, it is still a mighty impressive place to visit and the stats are amazing. Construction started 221BC, though a good proportion of the staggering 6000km length was built 600 years ago during the Ming dynasty, forming the border between their empire and potential enemies. Impressively they maintained the same style and appearance so it looks like one single project, and it’s thought that the labour used would have been POWs and prisoners.
Accessing the wall at the Mutianyu section we have chosen to visit is physically challenging (unless you take the easy option of the cable car) with a 30-40 minute walk up steps, and once you are there simply walking along the snaking stone strip requires some effort too as it hugs the undulating topography. Towers are spaced regularly along its length and provided accommodation for the unfortunate guards given the duty of manning the tower (a cold, desolate and lonely location at the time), but these days they provide an easy way of seeing the route that the wall takes – which appears to be over inaccessible mountain ranges.
All the grandeur and history of the wall and the challenge of getting up to see it is in stark contrast to the manner you return back to the car park. The Chinese have built a steel luge / toboggan slide that allows tourists to speed back down the hillside along banked bends and over bridges – great fun!
Our evenings entertainment is delivered via a stage show called the “Legend of Kungfu” which is shown in the rather spectacular xx theatre, resembling a massive red cage illuminating the night sky. The performance is a musical and choreographed display of the history and skills of the martial art which is mesmerising, in particular the demonstrations of strength that have performers breaking metal bars on their heads which you cannot help but wince whilst watching.