Wednesday, 28 April 2010

extramural activities

Before I visit a place for the first time, I usually construct a mental map. This isn’t a conscious process, merely the synthesis of a series of impressions gained from books, magazines, newspapers, television—the usual sources—and information picked up as a result of visits to other places that I have deemed to be similar. I don’t know why I bother, because I’m invariably wrong. When I came to Hong Kong in 1974, I arrived thinking that it was full of seedy bars, that drugs were dealt on every street corner, and that corruption was rampant. It is true that in 1974 Hong Kong still had the air of a third world city, but then I had no previous experience of such places. Tripoli, where I worked in 1968, was little more than a bustling provincial town, despite being a capital city, and any poverty was well out of sight.

However, my mistakes are harmless enough. Most of the time. Before we went to Beijing last Thursday, I looked up a street map and a map of the subway system, on the basis of which I made a mental comparison with London and the famous ‘map’ of its underground system. Unfortunately, the problem with a cartogram, which is what both diagrams are, is that it is not drawn to scale. And the street map didn’t show the subway stations, so there was no way of gauging the distance between adjacent stations on the network. Given that I walked from Tate Modern to Piccadilly Circus the last time I was in London, I assumed that the same would be possible in Beijing, and that all the city’s attractions would be within walking distance of each other. I was disabused of this notion when I discovered that we would need to take a taxi from our hotel, located in what might loosely be termed ‘central’ Beijing, to the nearest subway station.

To tell the truth, we had only a vague idea of how to get to anywhere, but at least we were at a subway station. Solution? Ask a policeman. Works every time. So we were shown which station to go to for the Great Wall, the first destination on our ‘planned’ itinerary. Once there, we were advised to catch the 919 bus, the stop for which was easily located. Too easily. We discovered two 919 buses at different stops. I don’t know whether we asked the wrong questions, but we certainly got on the wrong 919. We had been told that it was quite a long ride (and only six yuan), so we settled down to watch the city go by as we stopped and started along a busy toll road. Eventually, we turned off the main road into a small industrial town north of Beijing, where we were informed that the bus had reached the end of its journey.

There seemed little point in returning to Beijing, partly because we were clearly going in the right direction, so we looked for a railway station. It wasn’t difficult, but we learned that we’d have to wait two hours for the next train. We were also able to learn the town’s name, which was painted in large characters above the station’s shabby portico. I will gloss over our two hours in Nankou, which was worth seeing but not worth going to see, to misappropriate Doctor Johnson’s verdict on the altogether less interesting attraction of the Giant’s Causeway, and move on to the train journey. However, I should note in passing that the first photograph in yesterday's post was taken there.

Looking north from Nankou railway station.

The section of the Great Wall that we were heading for is located behind the ridge of mountains in the preceding photograph, and the railway line sweeps around in a wide curve to enter a steep-sided ravine. The first thing that we noticed was the almost complete absence of greenery on the hillsides. However, many bushes covered with white flowers were scattered across the slopes, which made an eye-catching sight. After a short while, a section of the Wall came into view, and it was indeed spectacular. There was a station about half a mile further on, but the train didn’t stop!

We came to, and passed, another section of the Great Wall, less spectacular, but there was no station. Finally, we stopped in a station that my wife was certain was the right place. Fortunately, the train doors were locked, so we were prevented from making what would have been a serious error of judgement. After a few minutes, the train started to move again, back the way we had come. At least it appeared to be retracing its tracks. In fact, we were now on a different line, and we eventually arrived at another station, where everyone got off. Clearly, it was the end of the line.

A sign proclaimed “800 metres to the Great Wall”. It seemed further, but only about four hours later than we’d originally anticipated, we finally arrived. The only disappointment was that our late arrival meant that we couldn’t walk far enough along the Wall to escape the crowds, because the early departure of the last train back to Beijing left us with little more than two hours to explore. This was sufficient to get a feel for the place, but we weren’t able to venture as far as we would have done had we had more time, and I’ve a feeling we’ll be back. I was especially surprised to see old ladies resolutely climbing up some of the steepest parts of the Wall (I think that those accompanying and helping them hadn’t considered that it is harder to descend than ascend, particularly if you aren’t very agile). Perhaps they wanted to buy a tacky tee-shirt proclaiming “I climbed up the Great Wall” from one of the souvenir shops when they returned to their starting point. As experienced rock climbers (real climbing involves the use of your hands), we didn’t.

There were a couple of interesting observations to make on the return journey. First, we were on the right side of the train to see that at one point the Great Wall ran the full length of the skyline and was hugely impressive with the setting sun behind it. Second, I thought I saw the stationmaster at the first station we came to stand to attention as we passed through. I looked out for this at the next station, and sure enough there he was, resplendent in his green uniform and peaked cap, with his green and red flags in one hand, standing to attention in a little painted square box on the platform. This was repeated at every station, even though we didn’t stop at any of them. Was this an indication that the Chinese are a regimented people? I reserve judgement until my next post, which will appear at this address tomorrow.

Crowds throng the Great Wall.

But some sections were less crowded.


  1. that sounds like a confusing trip, but i wish i could be there some day.

  2. Did you actually get a T-shirt, or a certificate that said you climbed the Great Wall?


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