Category Archives: Beijing

Wall to Ourselves

Wall to Ourselves

Sara and I have been fortunate to learn, time and time again, that if you do some serious planning and take the extra time, you can always get away from the crowds and find yourself in truly breathtaking situations (and you can read about them here, here, and here). But in China, a country where the crowds themselves are breathtaking, we weren’t sure if that feeling of solo exploration would be possible.

Spoiler alert: it is. But I’d be lying if I said we never doubted ourselves.

Being 6,000 miles long, there are many points from which to access the Great Wall, each with different amenities: some are fully infrastructured, with restaurants and shops on the wall itself, while one section features a toboggan slide (which is something that I would totally do on a return visit!), but also, of course, major crowds. However, far along the eastern end of the wall, where the Chaohe River flows in from what was once Mongol territory, is a little town called Gubeikou (‘old north gate’). It has a very weird internet presence in that many travel sites mention it, but few offer any concrete details about how to get there or what to expect. The two stretches of wall on either side of the river are called ‘Crouching Tiger’ and, you guessed it, ‘Hidden Dragon’ (okay, technically it’s actually ‘Coiled Dragon’, but why else would a dragon be coiling unless it was hiding??). All of these seemed like good enough reasons to give it a try.

Finding our way to the bus through Beijing’s massive Dongzhimen station was technically uneventful, though it felt like an adventure because it was our first time being completely on our own in China, having to memorize the characters for our destination and then search for them on literally thousands of buses. One perk of being in the most populous country in the world is that the buses leave every 10 minutes, but even then we found ourselves sardined in the far back between our backpacks and the collection of shiny new kitchen appliances that someone had bought in the big city and was taking back home with them.

After three hours we arrived at the city of Miyun, at which point Sara used some very impressive bartering to get us a spot on a van that was going to Gubeikou. The van was filled with Chinese tourists, and knowing that Gubeikou was not a large place, we figured we were all going to the same hostel.

Forty minutes later, however, the driver pulled over, shouted ‘Gubeikou!’ and we found ourselves on the side of an empty highway, alone with our backpacks. To our right, there was a town that did vaguely resemble a photo I’d seen (a decorated arch, an ornate stone building, and beautiful winding canal), but that photo had clearly been taken before some kind of zombie apocalypse that had evidently occured since. The ornate stone building now had padlocks on the doors and boards over the windows, and the canal was literally clogged with logs and branches. Worst of all, there was not a Great Wall in sight.

I got the sinking feeling one gets when one finds themselves in a Chinese ghost town without internet or a vehicle and it’s getting dark and there isn’t even an unlocked building where one might spend a chilly, disappointed night. We wandered up the cobblestone road, only to find more of the same, when suddenly a single taxi came trundling out of the shadows. We stood shamelessly in the middle of the road, hellbent on getting into it and going ANYWHERE.

The driver (who already had a passenger, but seemed pretty chill) didn’t seem to recognize anything on the map we showed him, but kindly let us in and drove us a couple minutes out of the ghost town to what seemed like a sleepy but inhabited town and stopped outside of a building that said, in English, ‘Teachers residence’. Very appropriate, but no luck at actually finding someone inside willing to take us in for the night.

It was pitch black by now, and we had lost all sense of direction as the cab meandered through an uphill labyrinth. We stopped by some sort of field, and suddenly the driver was talking to an older gentleman who had come running from the void. From their facial expressions (which we are apparently terrible at reading), we thought that they were both equally confused. Suddenly, however, the driver let us out and the other man led us to a low building, opened the gigantic square iron door (classic China!), and welcomed us to our hostel.

The man turned out to be the hostel-owner’s father, whom she referred to in text messages as Master Ho, which of course only added to his mystique. As a gesture of good will, he made sure to procure several chives from the darkness outside for us to add to our instant noodles. He and Sara had a long conversation that was completely unintelligible to either of them, but she thinks it may have been about my height.

I woke up the next morning still hesitant about where we’d ended up. But when I set out to find some eggs for breakfast, breathing in the relatively smog-free air, my doubts were immediately assuaged.

The spine of the Crouching TIger…

At this point, we had to choose which section of the wall we were going to attempt. ‘Coiled Dragon’ was lower, gentler, and marked on a detailed GPS map. ‘Crouching Tiger’, meanwhile, was steep, winding, and accompanied by the following instructions: cross the bridge and look for some steps on the right.

We deliberated for a moment…then set off towards the bridge. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

That’s tiny me at the bottom of the roller coaster.

The scrubby landscape sloping up the steep flank of the Crouching Tiger’s spine makes it easy to imagine (or actually see, if it’s the year 1200) Mongol hordes invading from the north.

The Trans-Siberian Railway trundling under our feet, straight from Moscow.

We had hoped to get away from the crowds…we never dreamed we’d manage to get away from all of humanity entirely. I alternated between feeling so incredibly connected to history and feeling like a kid on the world’s biggest play structure. Even though the modern Mongolian border was hundreds of miles away, the sense of being on the very frontier of something ancient was palpable. Awe is usually a momentary state, but this lasted the entire six hours we were on that wall.


Now and then the path veered away from the wall, into fields of pink blossoms and unearthly white rock.

The view from below

The view from above

Gubeikou, you had us worried for a moment, but you were truly unforgettable.

The Ol’ Spring-Break-in-Beijing Classic!

The Ol’ Spring-Break-in-Beijing Classic!

Whaa?? Where am I? Oh, hello!

(*dusts himself off and looks around to get his bearings*)

Returning to this blog feels (I can only assume) like falling through a hole in space-time, like Lucy discovering Narnia, or Jack Skellington finding himself in Christmastown. But maybe this Twilight Zone-esque bewilderment is an appropriate metaphor for a Western traveller whose first foray into Asia was a week-long sortie into one of its busiest, most ancient metropolises (metropoli?).

Though going to China for a single week seems preposterous, the planetary alignment in this case (Sara having an actual Spring Break due to a clerical error the previous year / that Spring Break coinciding with mine / both the aforementioned Spring Breaks coinciding with the end of her medical exchange in China) was too good to pass up. We decided that the best way to immerse ourselves in this wildly different world was to spend the entire week in the bustling city of Beijing.


The sprawling 3,000-year-old Imperial palace, ominously known as the Forbidden City, is practically synonymous with Beijing. Standing in its first plaza, vast and paved enough to put an IKEA parking lot to shame, one gets the impression that the sole intent of this place was to intimidate visitors, to suggest the size of the army that could be assembled in such a gathering place. And then, after crossing that infinite expanse of concrete, one passes through the extravagant arch on the other side and enters…ANOTHER INFINITE EXPANSE OF CONCRETE! AND ANOTHER! These plazas repeat themselves almost to the point of absurdity, with decadent names such as Hall of Eternal Happiness and the Hall of Infinite Prosperity, finally culminating in the Imperial Garden, a refreshing Eden of exotic trees that feels like the organic nerve centre of this massive geometric body. The effect is staggering.

Breathing the fresh air of the Imperial Garden.


Sara making herself at home in the Hall of Literary Brilliance.


The next day we took the metro (which, incidentally, is a great crash course in Mandarin characters, since all the stops are just some combination of the words for north, east, south, west, gate, bridge, lake, and river) to the Temple of Heaven Park: equally majestic, but with the intimidation factor replaced by lush tranquility. Here we saw the mellow side of the otherwise frenetic Beijing lifestyle: people dancing, elderly folks doing gravity-defying tae chi, and parents playing with their kids.


I insisted we take a fairly lengthy metro detour to see one of my favourite architectural wonders (/anomalies): the CCTV Headquarters, aka THE PANTS!

If you are ever in Beijing, you absolutely must visit the Wangfujing Snack Street. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also delicious and completely unique. Where else can you find live scorpion kebabs, heaps of tentacles, or whatever donkey wallow is?

Our final major destination was the Yongzhe Lama Temple, Beijing’s largest Buddhist establishment. If the Forbidden City was formidable and the Temple of Heaven tranquil, then the Lama Temple was, in a word, reverent. A ubiquitous blanket of fragrant smoke keeps each individual alone with their thoughts, free to explore the sacred maze. I was fascinated by the worshippers, recognizing the looks on their faces but not the bells, flags, wheels, and statues that held such meaning for them.  Being an outsider in a place so intimate made me think of the old parable of the blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant and thus think they are touching something different entirely. What I was witnessing was indeed a very new and different part of the same proverbial elephant than I’d grown up with.


Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Beijing’s hottest travel destination, and although you won’t find him in Lonely Planet, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being referred to as such. My friend and fellow teacher, Travis, played the role of perfect host throughout this trip, letting us stay in his apartment, keeping me up til 3:00am on the night of my arrival to break me of any potential jetlag (watching him play hockey in a freezing cold arena for two hours helped, as did the copious amounts of beer and jianbing at the local expat bar afterwards!), helping us with everything from buying a metro pass to asking for less slippery chopsticks in restaurants (the wooden ones make it a LOT easier, okay!!), inviting us to hang out at the Canadian embassy after a ball-hockey game to partake in the finest hoser beverages in all of China, driving us to and from the airport, and finding the best spots for Peking duck (thanks Han!), hotpot, and malatong. T-Rav, I can’t believe we ACTUALLY got to take you up on your invitations to see you in your natural habitat. Xiexie for a fantastic time!

Sara and Travis greet me at the airport with a sign taped to a hockey stick using a band-aid.


A first and unforgettable experience of Peking duck.


A toast to Canada’s finest spirits, hockey team, and expats!