Dive the Great Wall of China with Urbane Nomads

Did you know that parts of the Great Wall of China are underwater? Yeah, me neither. But according to Urban Daddy, one particular section of the wall has been submerged under a lake since the 1980’s. And now a luxury tour company called Urbane Nomads is offering the first-ever guided diving trips to the hard-to-reach spot.

Guides will carry your gear to the submerged portion of the Wall and direct you to the coolest underwater spots, where you’ll see “Ming-era stone carvings, some intricate tunnels and a tight-squeeze guard tower”. The “Diving the Great Wall” package includes two dives at the site plus more exclusive activities like a guided tour to the unrestored parts of the Forbidden City, usually off-limits to tourists.

The group at Urbane Nomads calls themselves “travel mixologists” creating unique itineraries that customers can tweak according to their preferences while still keeping the main ingredients. There’s definitely an emphasis on luxury here, though the company claims that, unlike other high-end tour operators, their tours seek to connect visitors with the local culture (in a way that is not staged or touristy) rather than isolating them from it. In addition to China, they offer tours to over 30 destinations, including Spain, South Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Oman, Thailand, Turkey, Laos, Morocco, and Argentina.

How great is the Great Wall of China? Very!

I bet you thought the name said it all. A recent survey by of this World Heritage site – billed as “technologically advanced” – puts the original length of the wall at 5,500 miles, much further than the previous estimate of 3,700 miles. That’s a difference of almost 50 percent!

This effort took more than two years of surveying with GPS tools, infrared technology and other mapping techniques, and the outcome is the most complete view of the wall ever seen. Since perfectly restored pieces comprise no more than 20 percent of the original wall, this new perspective will help with efforts at conservation.

Erosion and war impeded protection in the past, but the current threat is construction, as China embraces (parts of) a capitalist economy. In some cases, roads exist in places once occupied by the Great Wall of China. Almost a third of the structure has disappeared completely.

More research is on the agenda, with completion expected to come in 2010.


On Horseback From Beijing to London

Last weekend, a 65-year old retired British teacher named Megan Lewis, and her two Chinese companions, Li Jing and Peng Wenchao, climbed into the saddles of their horses, and set off on an epic ride. Over the next three years, they’ll cover more than 5000 miles, on two continents, as they travel from Beijing to London completely on horseback.

The plan is to deliver a message of good will from Beijing, the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, to London, where the 2012 games are scheduled to take place. If everything goes according to plan, these long distance riders will arrive in the U.K. not long before the opening ceremonies. The trio are also riding to raise money for the charity Schoolchildren For Children, an organization whose sole purpose is to encourage the U.K.’s youth to get outside and exercise.

The long ride got under way at the China Children Charity Monument, near the Great Wall in Badling. Early on, Megan and her companions will follow the Wall itself, as it winds up and over the steppes, deserts, and mountains of China, on into Central Asia. From there, they’ll ride the remanents of the ancient Silk Road to the shores of the Caspian and Black Seas, before turning their mounts toward Europe, and their eventual destination across the English Channel.

You and read more about the Long Horse Ride, as they are calling the journey, at the official website, and you can read daily updates on Megan’s blog as well, where you’ll find that things are already off to an interesting, and challenging start.

5 Non-Tourist Destinations in Beijing

Everyone is looking forward to the Olympics. It is expected that well over half-a-million visitors will descend on Beijing during the Games. While all those people will probably contribute to the excitement and energy of the event, it going to be crowded. Imagine trying to visit The Great Wall of China or the Forbidden City in mid-August. The crowds will make a packed weekend at Disney World look like a trip to one of the monasteries where the monks aren’t allowed to speak.

True, many touristy sites will be engorged with sightseers, but Beijing is a huge and wide-ranging city with plenty of corners that will go unnoticed by the visiting masses.

Here are a few places that are well worth visiting but will most likely end up under the radar of the average Olympic tourist.

1. Dashanzi Art District (a.k.a. 798 Art Zone) is the epicenter of Beijing’s independent arts scene. The area is made up of converted factory buildings that now act as art galleries for some of China’s most noteworthy talents. Not an art fan? Dashanzi is still worth a visit for its cafes, tailors, and restaurants. Though the neighborhood has recently gone through a period of gentrification, the arts scene is alive and well and worth a look.

2. The Golden Resources Shopping Mall is located in Haidian District. Yes, it’s in the guidebooks, so it’s not much of a secret, but it’s easy to get lost in. Or rather, it’s easy to lose the crowds by wandering through the twisting passages and multiple levels. There are surprises and bargains all over the place. Even if you are not a hardcore shopper, this is a great place to browse, snap some pictures, and maybe get a souvenir.

3. If you must visit the Great Wall, know that there are other options besides the popular spots at Badaling and Juyongguan. Though it is a little further afield, Simatai is one of the better Wall sites for more than one reason. Unlike the sections nearer the city, Simatai has not been completely rebuilt, meaning you are actually seeing some of the original structures. It is a bonus that it is much less crowded than other sites and boasts some magnificent scenery.

4. Lianhuachi Park has many of the attractions found in the more popular Beihai Park. The pavilions, ponds, rock gardens, and flowers (including thousands of lotuses) are straight out of a classical Chinese painting. Though it is a popular spot for Beijingers, most tourists will probably opt for the more famous Beihai, leaving you in Lianhuachi to snap photos of the ponds and practice tai chi with the locals.

5. Longfusi Snack Street (Dongcheng District) is the place to go for authentic Beijing eats. Restaurants line both sides of the street and there are plenty of vendors as well. Those who want to wander the city guided by their stomachs might also want to try some of the mom-and-pop joints located in the city’s many (but fast disappearing) alleyways (hutong).

Dashanzi gallery by pmorgan
Simatai Great Wall by +Rachel

The real Great Wall, and how to get there

The girl in the photo is my girlfriend, in the process of slowly freezing to death on the Great Wall. We were stuck in a snowstorm with the nearest hikers miles away. And that path? Yep, it’s as narrow as it looks, and I’m not exaggerating here, but one slip, and you’ll be falling a few hundred meters down straight cliffs.

Yet that hike at Simatai has been one of the most fun adventures we’ve taken. Why? We got to experience the real wall (which is rapidly crumbling), avoided the masses of tourists (see this ridiculous shot at Badaling, the most over-touristed section of the wall), and the climb was actually strenuous in parts.

We had such a blast that we returned to the wall a few months later, this time to Jiankou (translated as the “arrowhead”), the steepest section of the 3,000 mile Great Wall. Here, we camped in one of the watch-towers for a night, which I’m sure is not exactly legal, and hiked an untouched part of the wall that has been almost covered with dense vegetation. Here’s some info about hiking to Simatai and Jiankou. Backpackers in Beijing and hostels will also have more info for you (it’s a bit strange that Westerners will actually know more about the “wild” Great Wall than the local Chinese).

This gallery has photos from both trips.