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Beijing, the Great Wall, and the Knot

Beijing, P.R. China5.14.2007China’s capital city is a desert. In all regards. The streets are wide to accommodate the traffic, the buildings big, rectangular, and lack face, and the people are moving just to get to where they are going. It is as if the entire area was indigenously flat gray pavement from which a city [...]

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Beijing, P.R. China

China’s capital city is a desert. In all regards. The streets are wide to accommodate the traffic, the buildings big, rectangular, and lack face, and the people are moving just to get to where they are going. It is as if the entire area was indigenously flat gray pavement from which a city grew like a concrete forest. Vegetation is sparse anywhere, and the sun beats down upon the pavement and buildings just to be reflected back up into the atmosphere to be trapped by the thick smog layer. It is an oven, quite literaly. Beijing is the archetype for the “new world” city- lacking community, lacking substance, lacking “time-pass,” lacking the guts and dirt of “culture.” At least these are the impressions of a wanderer just travelling through. If I made it out to the slums which I assume surround this monster, and lived there for a while my tune would probably be a little different; but, then again, I am not too sure it would be.

We decided to get out to the great wall through using public transport. Figured that we would save a few kuai and have a little more interesting of a time than taking the package tours that all of the hotels and tour agencies offer. We wanted to get out the farthest section of the wall from Beijing at Simatai. Surprisingly, there was not a bus out of the city that got anywhere close to the wall at this juncture. So we took a moderately priced bus out of Beijing to a town at about the halfway point. We figured, logically, that there would be some public bus route that would go somewhere near the great wall- we were wrong.

We hoped off of the Beijing bus an into a trove of taxi and minibus drivers bent on taking as much money from us “tourist” as possible. They told us that there was not a public bus to Simatai; we did not believe them. But to test the mettle of the situation we asked their prices. 150 yuan, twenty dollars, one way was the cheapest price they stated. No way. So we took off walking down the street to ask the other drivers that were lined up far down the road. We soon noticed that we had a trailer. One of the taxi drivers followed us and barked prices out ahead to any driver that we asked for a ride from. They had a racket set up which they would not go against. So we pressed on with the taxi driver following us down the entire road. We knew that we had to get rid of this guy if we wanted to get anywhere. So we began loudly yelling profanities at him to attempt to disassociate ourselves from his grasp. He would yell back in unintelligible screams. This approach was not going to work. So I one uped my assault and was very near to beaning him with a rock when we noticed a tourist center.

We walked into the center and began inquiring as to whether or not there was a public bus to Simatai when the taxi driver came in and stood directly behind us. We tried to explain that he was harassing us but my knowledge of Chinese would not fully allow for this. So I blurted out in Chinese the equivalent of, “This guy is a motherfucker.” They understood. The tourist center employees then told us that there was a bus to Simatai for 30 yuan and where we could catch it. We then quickly exited the tourist center with the sounds of violent screaming and fighting fading fast behind us. We did not delay to find out who the victor would be.

At this point we thought that we had the situation beat. But we were wrong. An hour of waiting at the bus stop and over a dozen inquiries gave us the impression that there really was not a public bus to Simatai for 30 yuan. The information center put us on. So we went back to them to call them out. “Oh sorry,” a women said, “if you take this bus to this stop then you can get a bus to…..” We left nearly before she could finish.

We went back out into the jungle of idle taxi and minibus drivers who kept yelling to us with offers of rides. We talked them down to 80 yuan to get there but then we would have to bargain for another price for the ride back which could be far far more costly. “Besides,” said Mira, “do you really want to ride for sixty km with these motherfuckers.” I thought for a minute and decided that I did not. So we got on a bus back to Beijing to try again at a different point on the wall.

We sat in our seats with the heavy feeling of defeat hanging over us. Mira had to leave in two days and this was the dusk of our time together. All she wanted to do was to see the Great Wall before leaving China. I looked over a map for a contingency plan. I found one. If we were to get off the bus at a certain cross road then we could get another bus to another town and then try to get to the Great Wall at Mitianyu. I went up and explained to the bus conductor my plan; my Chinese was flaunt less in my excitement. We then hoped off of that bus and ran across the highway and jumped up into another.

We rode into another small city and noticed the dreaded taxis and minibuses just waiting for us to step off into their net. Dammit. But we were going to make it to the stinking Wall somehow. We tried to get off of the bus at a few junctures but the driver kept telling us to stay on. He knew that we were trying to get to Mitianyu as there was no other reason for us to be in that particular Beijing satellite city (and there really wasn’t). So we rode the route out to its end at the station, where the driver told us to get off and to follow him. We walked around the station and right into his personal car. Whatthehell, whatthehell, we just wanted to go the the Great Wall. We hardly even asked him how much money he wanted. He just named his price, and it was fair.

Everyone seemed to know the plight of the traveller who tries to get to the Great Wall outside of a package tour, as the bus driver told us that all of the taxi and minibus drivers were out to get as much money from us as they could. “They’re going with me,” he barked at the taxi drivers whom were mulling around the gate of the station as we pulled out.

We got to the parking lot of Mitianyu in due time and the bus driver ask if we wanted him to wait for us. I said that he did not have to because we did not know how long we would be. “No problem,” he said, “one hour, two hour, three hours, OK.” We said alright, and set off on the trail up to the Great Wall.

Mitianyu was not crowded, unlike almost every other tourist attraction in the country. There was space to walk, move, and breath. As we walked up the path I pick tweeds and stems from the ground and wove them into a little ring, complete with a little flower at its top. Mira can handle me and we are going in the same direction. We laugh constantly and never tire of each other’s conversation. At the top of the wall, as we looked out into the Mongolian mountains, I asked her to marry me. She answered……”of course I will marry you!” That is that. We walked around on the Great Wall holding hands and talked of far off lands, and each other. When we got back to Beijing I bought her a proper ring which she can wave around and tell people how wonderful I am.

Marriage is not solely about love. One can love someone genuiningly and never need to marry them. Getting married, obviously, stems from love, but grows through multiple layers of practicality and logical thought which compliments these root emotional feelings. Mira has the practical qualities that make our relationship not just a joyous emotional splendor but also functional. She can take care of herself, she can get from point A to B, has the ability to do things and do them right, she learns languages quickly and well, she is responsible for herself and her articles, she keeps me going in the right direction, she keeps me balanced, says when I am being rediculous, she is a traveller, and, most importantly, she can read a map. She wants nothing more than to just sit on the beach of some far off shore, and she expects nothing more of me than to sit there with her. And I am in love with her.

After three journeys to China, I can now finally answer the many inquires as to whether or not I have been to the Great Wall in the affirmative. “Yes,” I will say, “it is a great wall.”

Mira departed with kisses and tears streaming down her face the next day for Philadelphia and her family. I am still in Beijing preparing to go to Mongolia. I am trying to talk her into meeting me in France. All love is either accentuated or lost in Paris. Her travelogue is at

Great wall at Mitianyu. There were so few people here that I could take photos of the wall without a hoard of tourist im the picture, stroll leaisurely, look out at the mountains, and get engadged. I was really surprised about how relaxed this visit to the Great Wall was. I could never have expected this to have been this way- maybe this is because it is so frigging difficult to get there outside of a tour.
Mira’s new jewel. The fruit of my now lighter pocket (and heart).
Russian woman riding in a rickshaw in Beijing’s Russian district.
Beijing slum at the edge of a new super highway through the city. One thing about Beijing, for better or worst, is that it is set up very well for the automobile. There are none of the Shanghai, Hangzhou, any other city in China traffic congestion here.
Mira and Mao at the forbidden city. We did not want to wait in line to get in while the soldiers were playing soldier out front, so we snuck in the back door with a group of elderly Europeans on a package tour. We did not find the inside very interesting though so we took a picture of some famous doors and just strolled out the front door.
Rooftops around Beijing youth hostel.
Taiji with swords.

Chinese and Russian signs in Russian district. This is probably one of the most colorful areas of Beijing. It was the only place in the city that Mira could find resonably priced souveniors in. I read in a book sometime ago about how the Chinese are surprised by Russians, because they have white skin but are poorer than they are. Therefore, the Russian shopping malls were real cheap. Beat fighting with vendors on Wangfujing Lu. But other than this, I really liked this Russian district. It had a touch of seedyness to it, real character. Where ever we walked we were addressed by the Chinese in Russian. Our style of dress and some of our features are not typical for the American traveller, and most people all over Asia mistake us from being from Eastern Europe, or, in China, from Xinjiang (Muslim area in the north west).


Filed under: China, Other Travelers, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3689 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

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