Stop 1: The Great Wall
We got up early to head off to the Great Wall – about an hour and a half drive from our hotel in downtown Beijing. Once arrived, we bought tickets and hoofed it up the steep stairs to the wall. It was tough, and hot, and our group traveled at various speeds, but we all made it up. But it was nothing compared to the Wednesday morning stair workouts the crew team does in the spring…
When we reached the top, we could walk along a renovated length of the wall as we pleased. My group found our way to the highest, furthest point before the tourist area ended and the wall became overgrown with trees and vines from the surrounding forest. I actually found myself more impressed with the natural surroundings than the wall, as the surrounding forests and mountains were definitely very different from my beloved North Cascades. I asked our tour guide, and he said that people do backpack along the non-renovated sections of the wall in various areas. I would love to do that some day, in order to get an understanding of the incredibly enormous monument the Great Wall really is by walking some of its length.
The best part could have been getting down, though… We took the toboggan! For about $15 USD (80 yuan) you can ride down from the wall in a tiny cart on a shiny metal luge. It’s definitely something you would have to sign a liability form for in the states, since you control your own speed with a lever and can shoot down pretty darn fast if you lean into the curves. I deemed the ride definitely worth the money!
Stop 2: Vegetarian Buffet Dinner
We were on our own for dinner, and made our first foray as a student group into Beijing without tour guide or Professor surveillance. We did, however, take their dinner recommendations and go to a vegetarian buffet restaurant across the street from a nearby temple. The food was delicious, and there were an incredible number of choices of misleadingly meat-like products. My personal favorites were the dessert and fruit areas, however, as I hadn’t had chocolate or bananas since arriving and got to nab both – fresh nanners and chocolate cake were both available.
Communication with the wait staff went reasonably well – we have a couple of students that speak functional Chinese. It’s very funny, however, because one of our students appears to be Chinese, and everywhere we go Chinese folks assume he is our guide and try to talk to him, when it is actually one of our other, American-looking students that speaks the best Chinese in our group.
(Unofficial) Stop 3: Reggae Roots Bar
After dinner the group went out on our own and trekked over to a shopping/nightlife area that surrounds a small artificial lake. We had passed it earlier, in the daytime, and it looked like an average shopping street with food carts and other small attractions. Arriving in the nighttime revealed a spectacular transformation of colored lights, neon signs, and bright doorways and windows. Even every tree and lamppost were wrapped in strings of purple and green. My personal favorite has to be the lights that hang from almost every tree and balcony – long strips that light up in sequence that create the effect of drips and drops of light, as if the trees were raining LED. I surprised myself by finding this scenery just as beautiful, although very different from, my usual green trees and flowering gardens of Seattle.
The Reggae Roots Bar was the only nightlife spot we could find that didn’t charge 50 kuai for a beer (10 dollars!). Mixed drinks were about $4 US, and needless to say, it was a fun spot. The best part, however, was the band – a mixed ethnic group of Chinese and who knows what else who sang and played relaxed versions of many American pop songs, as well as a few Chinese pop numbers. The walls were covered in posters, flags, and sharpie scrawled on every available surface with messages from foreigners and locals praising the spot in every imaginable handwriting and language.