Chinese Buffet – Part 6: Hutong Hostel & Great Wall Hike

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

For the last four nights of my stay in Beijing, I stayed at the Downtown Backpackers Accommodation, located smack dab in the middle of the Nanluogu Xiang hutong in the Dong Cheng district. As I walked down the alley towards the hostel, sweaty from lugging all my gear, I knew I had made the right decision to stay in the hutong district.

These ancient networks of dusty roads lined with homes and shops are slowly disappearing in Beijing, as construction and development tear through old neighborhoods, displacing hundreds. Preservation efforts will save some portion of these clusters, but who knows for how long. As I huffed along, I realized the importance of being able to witness the hutongs first hand, before they are gone for good.

(Aerial shot of a hutong from the Bell Tower)

Of course, I stayed in a comfortable hostel with amenities like Western toilets and internet access, while many locals in the area live without hot water or plumbing. But I could still get a sense of what it feels like to live among the cement walls and low hanging trees that line this maze of alleys.

I had to wait in the hostel lounge area for a bit before checking in, and found it to be a delightfully quiet and peaceful room that I returned to throughout my stay. Jetlag was still messing with my sleep patterns, so I often found myself here in the early morning, writing in my journal before breakfast.

The free breakfast began about 6:30 each day, and was usually a fried egg, some sausage or bacon, toast, a piece of fruit and orange juice. (Coffee was 15 RMB.) The hostel was clean, efficient and cheap! My total bill for four nights was 220 RMB, which is about $30. There are three computer terminals downstairs with internet access. Payment is on an honor system, but there was no one monitoring usage — it was easy to get away with a little extra time when no one was around. (I think the minimum payment for usage is 3 RMB for a half hour.) There is also a cozy little cafe next door to the hostel, serving lunch, dinner, drinks and free wireless.

I slept in a six-bed mixed dorm. It’s littered with travel gear in the shot below, but it was very bright, cheery and cool – thanks goodness for air conditioning! Thankfully, none of my roomies were rage-till-dawn rowdy types. I met folks from Canada, the UK, France, Austria and Belgium, and several of us went out for dinner one night.

Part of why I chose Downtown Backpackers over other lodging options is because they run a well-organized trip to the Great Wall every other day that leaves right from the hostel. You don’t have to stay at their hostel to go on the daytrip, but since the van leaves at 7 am, I decided it was most convenient to stay there as well. I signed up for the trip a few days in advance because it is a popular one that takes visitors to a less touristy section for an extended hike along the Wall.

The 220 RMB fee covers the round-trip transportation, plus a bathroom pitstop on the drive out. It takes three hours get from Beijing to Jinshanling in the morning, and then another three hours to drive back from Simatai. In between, hikers are on their own, and given about five hours to complete the 6.2 mile hike along this serene and STEEP stretch of the Great Wall.

Completing this hike was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done – a personal achievement I’m quite proud of. It’s a fairly intense hike, especially in the heat. The haze was thick, but and I still managed to get a deep Great Wall burn by day’s end. At times, the walk was much more of a CRAWL for me, as I grasped for sturdy rock amid the crumbles that remain. Much of this portion of the wall has not been heavily restored, and we did pass a group of workers repairing one of the thirty towers we passed along the way.

Our group of 15 spread out organically into smaller packs, and everyone completed the hike at their own pace. This trek was much more than a simple walk along the wall, but it felt so good to sweat through it till the end. I just kept thinking about the millions of people who worked to build this ancient wonder — and the millions more who have since made the trip to see it. There were several divine moments of silence, and vantage points when I felt as if there was no one else left in the world.

Every inch of my body ached that night, but it felt great. And after such an exhilarating day, it was comforting to return to the warmth of the hutong hostel. Returning “home” for the evening to the friendly staff (Danielle, Puli and kitty cat Xiao Si shown here) seemed a most fitting end to my Great day at the Wall.

The ‘Wonders of the World’ Votes are in!

Following up on an earlier post, the voting is now complete, and the winner has been announced. And here are the “New Seven Wonders of the World”: Mexico’s Chichen Itza, Brazil’s statue of Christ Redeemer, The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Jordan’s Petra, the Colosseum in Rome, and India’s Taj Mahal.

The organizers say that they got about 100 million votes in what they’re calling the world’s first global vote.

The Egyptian pyramids at Giza retain their place in the “original” list of the Seven Wonders of the World, and that site is the only site which still exists from the original Seven.

The organizers are now busying themselves with the next world-vote: the New Seven Wonders of Nature. Vote online at

A Canadian in Beijing: Simatai, The Great Wall: Take 3

My sister and her fiance Steve arrived in Beijing on a Thursday afternoon and they hit the ground running. Before the sun had fully set, they had checked into their hotel, eaten a traditional hot pot meal and were in attendance at my last and final performance in Beijing. That night was a late but great one, and it was wonderful to have them there.

Six o’clock the next morning rolled around far too quickly.

We were scheduled to depart for Simatai Friday morning, the most beautiful tourist section of the Great Wall. A car was waiting for us just outside the hotel lobby, thanks to my wonderful friend Stuart who works for a travel company (Intrepid Travel) and who has excellent connections with things like this. He set it up for us and I was thrilled to not have to navigate public transportation with my family after such a late night. I was already bleary-eyed and poised to nap on the two and a half hour trip out of town.

When sleepy, must sleep. That’s my body’s motto.

The driver was very nice and we smoothly exited the city in nearly absentee traffic and quickly found ourselves in the morning mist of the outlying Beijing area. I slipped back to sleep in the front seat while my sister and Steve chatted about the scenery and the different energy of China compared to Canada. I tried to stay awake to act as the translator and tour guide, but it was for naught.

I woke up when we turned the final corner towards Simatai. Off of the highway, this last twenty minutes took us through several small and quaint countryside villages where we could see small-scale farming and country life up close, sometimes just a few feet from the windows of the car.

We all exclaimed at the brilliant greens and natural beauty that is in such contrast with the grey cement of Beijing. I reminded them that there is a lot of green hidden between buildings in the city, but it takes awhile to find it and celebrate it. I hoped I would get a chance to take them to some beautiful places in the city as well. We only had a few days together, and the density of the “intended” schedule was already apparent.

This tourist site is the section of The Great Wall that is farthest away from Beijing. Its beauty took my breath away. The misty mountains, the water below as you climb the several hundred feet up to the wall, the parts of the wall not fully renovated and so still breathing some of the crumbling history into the soles of our shoes – all of it was incredible! Even though this wasn’t the wild wall, it was part of the story. I am continually inspired by this snaking stone wonder that covers this part of China. I don’t think I’d ever get tired of laying my eyes upon it as it weaves its way along the skyline.

All told, seeing this part of the wall completed the cycle between the first section of the wall that I saw (Mutianyu, which was extremely renovated and almost pristine in its square edges) against the extreme rustic beauty of the wild wall that I saw when I went hiking in early June. Here was the middle ground between the two and it felt like the missing link in the chain of historical events.

We climbed the few kilometres up taking many rests in the heavy humidity. At one point, we came upon a group of women lounging along the wall’s edge. They all had sacs and were dressed in the same deep navy blue pants and shirts. I thought they may be workers, but it turned out that they were all vendors and were all selling the same items.

Three of these women greeted us and began to walk with us. When they realized I spoke Mandarin, they got even more excited and the conversation took off. Eventually, I realized that they were planning to accompany us (as though official guides) and I stopped walking. So too did my sister and Steve and I rounded off the conversation. I then gently requested that we be left alone to walk separately. I thanked them for their kindness but explained that we wanted to have some space just the three of us. They responded in kind and then trailed us by about fifty feet as we climbed the wall, always keeping us in view.

Finally, closer to the top, they inched nearer again and began to offer some interesting historical information about what we were seeing. I’m a sucker for history and so I didn’t discourage it and I listened and translated for my sister and Steve who were also interested in what they were saying. Eventually, they pulled out their tour books and asked us to once again consider buying their wares.

My sister wanted a book. They started the price at 180 kuai. I laughed outright at such an inflated price and told my sister to not pay more than 20 or 25 kuai. She eventually paid 50, which we learned was the starting price for the same books down at the base of the mountain where the rest of the vendors were. Oh well, I suppose my instincts were correct in terms of price, but my sister felt their ascent, historical information and overall persistence was worth the extra cash. She has a heart, after all.

We didn’t go right to the very highest point, but instead took the trail towards the cable cars. They wanted to take the easy route down and I relented and agreed. I wasn’t tired but it was threatening rain and I figured being in a covered cable car in the rain was better than getting wet while making our descent. In the end, the cable car ride was about ten or fifteen minutes of peace. I rode alone and they rode together and I took the time to just watch the scenery slowly roll out beneath me – such a carefully and meticulously landscaped valley – and the wall fade into the mist of the mountains behind me. I shut off my brain and let the colours soothe.

It was all very storybook-like. It was lovely.

Our driver was waiting for us at the bottom. We piled in and ate the picnic lunch I had brought while we made our way back to the city. Due to the midday traffic, the trip back was much longer than the trip there, but it was still interesting. The driver and I had a great chat about historical sites in and around Beijing and I fared relatively well in Chinese throughout it all. He was complimentary and taught me some interesting new words.

When we got back to the hotel, I was ready for a nap but happy to have seen the Great Wall of China one last time before I had to go home.

I fell asleep in my hotel room conscious of my great fortune and privilege in being in Beijing for so long. I have seen the Great Wall three times now! Some people – most people – never get to see it even once.

Life is great.

Researchers to Measure The Great Wall

Great WallThe Great Wall of China, built to protect the northern border of the Chinese Empire, is an amazing spectacle. In fact, the Great Wall — known to the Chinese as the “Long Wall of 10,000 Li” — is actually a series of walls and earthen works begun in the 5th Century BC and connected centuries later. Since it’s so old, it seems odd that no one really knows the precise dimensions of the iconic structure. Didn’t anybody bother to measure it when they were building it? Or when David Copperfield penetrated it? So weird.

In any event, researchers with both the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping are planning to undertake a detailed survey to establish just how long the ancient barricade is. In addition, they also plan to map the wall’s exact route and check its fortification. After all, a wall over 2000 years old probably needs some patching.

Though you can’t really tag along on the 4-year project, you can walk the Wall yourself with a tour company like China Hiking Adventures or the Adventure Center. Alternatively, you can arrange for the permits and try to tackle it yourself, like Eddie Davis and Beau Bacevicius did in 1997. It took them 109 days, and they clocked it at a paltry 1800 miles. Curiosity piqued? Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas are walking the Wall right now — and blogging their adventure!

The Great Wall Crumbles

Following up on my recent blog regarding construction crews taking a bite out of the Great Wall of China, here’s an interesting piece from the NY Times about folks who are trying to preserve the Wall.

An official at the Great Wall Society thinks that most of the damage to the Wall was probably done in the 1950s and 1960s, since Mao encouraged farmers to use bricks from the Wall to build homes. A reservoir outside Beijing was built with bricks from the Wall.

Now, however, visits by millions of tourists are taking a toll too. One site near Beijing alone counted 4.5 million visitors last year.

New national regulations, effective December 1, will, hopefully, help to protect what remains.