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For some reason I was wide awake more than an hour before I needed to be, so I got dressed, grabbed my camera and went for a stroll around the village. At first I headed back along the street towards the main road we’d arrived on. At the junction were a couple of bronze scenes flanking the entrance, one of which described it as the “Gubeikou Scenic and Cultural Heritage Tourism,” which made a few things click into place in my head; this wasn’t an old village making a new path as a tourist stop, it was a new-build.

Later, I walked on up a nearby hill – which turned out to have been part of the Great Wall, but had not been restored – and saw Gubeikou Village proper; a small town a hundred yards further along the main road, which looked a lot like the villages and towns we’d passed through on our journeys. We were staying in a romanticised recreation of village life, rather than the less attractive, modern actuality. Either way, I supposed we were contributing to the local economy of the village, so didn’t mind too much that this fact had been glossed over for us.

The overnight heavy rain had abated, but there was still a drizzle going on and, from the top of the hill outside the village, there were some lovely views of mist-shrouded hills in the distance. Along the line of hills to my left were a series of decaying watchtowers linked by what could just be made out as a wall.

The damp eventually drove me back inside and I showered, packed and went down for breakfast. It was the first time we’d actually had a Chinese breakfast on the tour. It was quite carb-heavy; what seemed to be potato bread and potato scones, along with a bland tapioca soup. There were also little sweet cakes and savoury cucumber and bamboo dishes along with fresh banana and tea to wash it all down.

The two of us on the Great Wall of China

The two of us on the Great Wall of China

Then we were back into the coach and heading for The Wall. Having been on the wall previously myself, and after seeing the section on my walk this morning, I perhaps wasn’t as keyed-up as some of the group. There were some excited exclamations as we got our first glimpses from the coach. We parked up at the Jinshanling restored section and began our climb, past the imposing statue of General Qi Jiguang who had restored this section and beyond, the first time around, back in the late 1500’s.

We were joined by a number of Chinese ladies as we climbed the path. At first I thought it was coincidence but, after a short while, they struck up conversations and started trying to sell us souvenirs. After a while of us politely declining, they dropped back and we climbed alone.

In a way, while the drizzle and misty overcast limited our view of the wall most of the time, it also discouraged other tourists and, for a while, we were virtually the only ones there. There was a beautiful silence, broken only by birdsong and crickets chirping – something, I hadn’t noticed until then, we had almost never heard before on this largely urban tour. We climbed a way west into the unrestored section where, on a clear sunny day, I’m sure I would have captured several of the iconic views of the Great Wall. Then we doubled-back eastwards along the busier restored section where the wall is more solid if, in many ways, no less precarious a climb.

Wall and sky

Wall and sky

One thing that surprised me was the size of some of the steps on the stairways. A number of times I was stretching to reach the next step and I am several inches taller than your average Chinese male. I couldn’t help but wonder how the ancient Chinese soldiers had coped with them, all while wearing sandals and armour too. The Jinshanling section is quite hilly, so there was lots of climbing. Enterprising vendors have set up stalls along the way, ready to sell green tea and Snickers bars – something I took them up on after a particularly strenuous section!

We explored for a few hours, before heading back to town. On the whole the weather didn’t spoil our enjoyment. Peter pointed out that, with bright sun, climbing the wall can be quite exhausting and that there are usually more people around. The cloud and drizzle thinned the crowd and gave us a different perspective on the location. I think we all enjoyed our experience of the Great Wall.

We stopped nearby for lunch and then headed into central Beijing to find our hotel nestled into the corner of the east side of Jingshan Park just north of the Forbidden City. It was an unremarkable modern build, but surrounded by old hutongs which gave the place a certain realism.

We got cleaned up and went for dinner. We’d agreed for our first night in the capital, we wanted to try Peking Duck. The restaurant Peter selected was a bit grubbier than usual – and there was a really uninviting smell of sewage drifting out of the toilet as you entered – but the food was good and, in the end, no-one seemed to get sick from it.

Brett enjoying deep-fried banana in the Donghuamen Night Market. It was surprising tasty!

Brett enjoying deep-fried banana in the Donghuamen Night Market. It was surprising tasty!

Grace, on the other hand, was a little put off her food when the ducks’ heads were served with their meat. For the rest of the meal no mention was made – which meant I didn’t get a chance to ask Peter whether we were supposed to eat the heads too, or whether they were just decoration.

After dinner, we took a walk along to Donghuamen night market and then onto the more chaotic Wangfujing Food Alley, tucked into alleyways between the bright lights of big stores selling international brands. Donghuamen almost felt like a franchise; a row of stalls, all in the same livery, selling the same items every fourth or fifth stall. That said, Brett did get a very tasty fried banana at one of them. Wangfujing was more varied, with tourist stalls cheek-by-jowl with small restaurants and the occasional larger souvenir shop. One slightly stomach churning thing here; the small scorpions on sticks waiting to be deep-fried as snacks were still moving, some quite frantically, trying – futilely – to escape their impalement. Grace was quite pale by the end of it all.