Joining a group of tourists to go on a trip is not really my thing at all, but I figured it was the best way to get to The Great Wall (and back) then do my own thing. Our English speaking Chinese guide collected us all by the entrance gate and suggested we pay an extra 80 yuan to use the chairlift up to the wall, on top of the fees we had already been charged. He assured us it would take 40 minutes to walk up the steps and we could save time taking the chairlift. Everybody duly obliged, that is except for myself and a fit looking German who agreed to walk up with me. It took just 10 minutes and I was slow! I did a quick picture of the ‘new’ renovated wall, then quickly left the group to do my own thing – I’d come to see the old wall in all it’s glory.
Quickly skipping past the signs telling me of prohibited entry, I was on my way through the undergrowth to see the old wall before anyone could object. My only regret being it would have been so much nicer had I been here in another season, say spring or autumn. I walked the whole section climbing high up the hillside and though it was hard work, it was pretty magical. The Chinese have plans to restore this section too, which I think would be a great shame.
The great thing about visiting the Jiankou section in December was that I had it all to myself. There are sections where you have to take extra care and not everyone would enjoy battling through the brush, but apart from the chillingly cold wind it was a very enjoyable day out with a tour group!
As I came back to my starting point, time didn’t allow me the privilege of wandering much further along the new sections, which went on for many miles.
The cold is almost unbearable. Riding here in northern China the daytime temperatures have not gone above freezing, hovering around the minus 5° mark. This is creating problems with my water bottles as they never get to defrost and actually replacing fluid lost through sweating is proving to be a bit of a headache. OK I bet you’re wondering why I’m sweating if it’s so cold? Well I’m wearing so many layers to keep out the cold wind that my body is overheating, particularly on the climbs. At night even with my top end kit I’m cold, as ice is forming on my sleeping bag (a 4 season) and the tent inner, so instead of sleeping I’m trying to stay warm.
As I cycled out of Beijing I spent my first night sleeping in a newly built (but unfinished) warehouse, as I couldn’t find any other suitable location. Day two and I’m a little further from major towns, so pitched my tent in a quiet tree lined field well away from the roads. Unfortunately I was spotted and along came the Police to tell me it was unsafe and I must go to a hotel. I protested that I didn’t have those kind of funds (typically 30-40 USD) which is why I was camping, to which the English teacher replied “no problem, we will pay for you”. Sorry I said, run that past me again please? “don’t worry, we will pay for the hotel” she said as they bundled me and my bike into the police van. Now forgive me for being pessimistic, but somehow I thought this was too good to be true and ‘the hotel’ would end up being a police station, but no, it was a reasonable hotel a few kilometers down the road. Wow, a warm shower and clean sheets!!
If only such good fortune could have persisted, unfortunately I had to camp a good few more nights and was learning fast how to become ‘undetected’ from both locals and the authorities. But as above, the cold started to seriously affect my performance as it was taking far too long to pack up camp then actually get warm enough to do any meaningful cycling. I was not sleeping and after I reached Taiyuan I called it a day, getting on a bus south to Xi’an. I don’t feel remotely guilty about it either, to have continued would have been just plain stupid.
Something else I learned, though not quick enough, was how to avoid being overcharged by the local restaurants and shops. In the past it has been sometimes pretty blatant, but trust me on this, the Chinese have taken it to a whole new level and it was not me making a mistake with currency conversion. I’ll give you a few examples:
1. Five small local buns, a packet of milk powder (which had the price on = 10 yuan) and a packet of pot noodle was offered at 155 yuan, which is roughly 26 dollars.
2. Three small milk sachets, two snickers, I was asked for 175 yuan which is 30 dollars.
3. Bowl of noodles, 40 yuan which is 6.6 dollars.
Apart from the bowl of noodles and milk powder I never bought anything from the above and the true price of things became clear as I ventured into the transport cafe’s. These people are the friendliest and most honest of the locals I’ve yet met, so now I simply seek out their haunts. A bowl of noodles and tea is 5 or 6 yuan (one dollar) and many times I’ve been given it free, the only cost being asked for my picture. Lovely people.
So I’m nice and warm in my five dollar a night hostel here in Xi’an. I’ll probably spend Christmas day here then move on Boxing day, my next stops being Chengdu and Leshan, where I have to extend my visa. I’ll post another update in a day or two, but to all those who won’t be logging on again until after the festive season, have a great holiday and a glass of wine for me…