Today’s the Day!

This post is being written over a month after the events described.

Long before we planned on going to Asia, we said we would like to go someday in order to see the Great Wall. Finally, today is that day!

When we decide to book the Viking cruise, we knew that their included tour for the first full day aboard was to the Great Wall. BUT, that was going to mean about a 3 hour bus ride in each direction and Viking would be visiting during the National Holiday week, we quickly began to explore other options.

We didn’t know that there were so many sections of the wall that were open to tourists, not that most had been heavily restored while a couple of sections are “wild” and unrestored. After much research (Link to descriptions of the Great Wall) we decided to do the Jinshanling section which had both restored and unrestored sections. We were concerned however as it would involve some hiking but our contact at the agency said they had other clients who had done it. We also hoped that since this section wasn’t as popular that we wouldn’t run into huge crowds as we had seen in our research:

We left the hotel at 7:30 and after an hour and a half or so drive we got our first glimpse of the Wall from the highway. Shortly thereafter we arrived at the entrance where the driver dropped us off (he headed to the east gate where he would pick us up several hours later).

From here Coco and we rode a big golf cart to the entrance building where Coco bought our tickets. You can see in the map what we hoped to hike.

The hike uphill to get to the wall was pretty steep and while there was a cable car, that seemed like cheating so we walked up the asphalt and gravel path and stairs until we reached the gate where we climbed up, into and on the wall.

The wall is just incredible. To see it disappearing into the distance in both directions and to think of what it took to build this 13,000 mile long building over 2,300 years ago is just amazing.

While our intention had been to walk both this restored section and make our way to the unrestored portion, the wall conquered us. The steps up and then down and then up and up and then down and down killed us. Thank goodness we had splurged at Target for the set of 19.99 hiking poles or otherwise I don’t think either of us would have made it. Some of the steps were almost as high as my knee-Crazy steep! Anyway, after about two hours of being on the wall we asked Coco (that’s her hands on her hips in the picture with Mike) how much further to we got to the Wild section. When she said we had five more towers (it’s the last tower you can see on the far right of the top picture in those just above and at this we had only been through two plus our entry point) we both decided that it was not going to be possible. 😢 While it was disappointing to not do what we had hoped, we were thrilled to have been able to do it at all. If you have any notion you want to walk on the Great Wall be sure and do it when you are able. We are so glad we did, and as you can see we didn’t have crowds to deal with. We saw the same 15-20 people all day including the family below who asked us to take their picture. It was so much more enjoyable than what our fellow cruisers described they did later in the week. Not only did they have the 3 hour bus ride there (and due to traffic a 4 hour one back), they only had a short visit to the wall and had to fight their way through big crowds. We truly enjoyed the experience and with the exception of the disappointment of having to leave the wall after only doing about a third of what we had hoped (compare the marked up map below to the one at the top of the post) it was a wonderful time and one we wouldn’t trade for anything.

After walking to the next exit point and climbing back down the hill followed by one of the several souvenir vendors (who we had seen at the entrance, at the towers and now on the way down – why won’t they take no for an answer), Coco finally had cell service and she was able to tell the driver to come back from the other end of this section for us.

We then went to a local restaurant and were the last lunch customers as as soon as they served us, all of them sat down and had lunch too.

Coco ordered for all three of us and just like Rocky before her we had too much food. But after our exercise, we ended up finishing almost all! We had a delicious slightly spicy beef stir fry, fried rice, an omelet with green onions, a tofu (it was thinly sliced and very dry-almost like a noodle) and snow pea dish, wok fryed greens (sorta a cross between spinach and kale) and sweet and sour pork. We questioned Coco about the last dish as we both thought this was a Chinese American dish but she swears it is authentic. It was very tasty and while sweet, not as much as here in the states. We were intrigued by the set up at each place (we had seen the same thing in Xi’an). Apparently the smaller restaurants use a service to wash, sterilize and package the dishes rather than having staff to do it.

After lunch, we made the drive back into the city. After our big lunch, we weren’t hungry for dinner but we did need some cash so after a little bit of a rest we explored the blocks around our place. Like everywhere else, there were lots of National Holiday decorations up. I was surprised that poinsettias seemed to be the flower of choice – not sure how they kept them from wilting. We ended up buying a few sodas and some interesting Chinese snacks which we enjoyed while watching some tv later that evening. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the purple yam ice cream cone at McDonald’s 😢.

Needless to say, we weren’t up late and slept good after the great day on the Great Wall.

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Xi’an Day 2

This post is being written in cloudy Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 7 (more than a month after the fun below actually happened).

When we were emailing back and forth with Lily our contact at China Highlights about how to spend our time in Xi’an, she suggested we might enjoy a bike ride on the city’s wall. Hmmm, wonder if the bikes will be big enough? Will we end up falling and breaking an arm (or at this age now maybe we need to start worrying about a hip?!). Lily suggested we plan it and if upon arrival we just wanted to walk them that would be ok too.

Rocky picked us up bright and early at our hotel and we drove to the north gate (there is one in each compass direction). Xi’an is one of the few larger Chinese cities whose walls thankfully haven’t been demolished to make way for new buildings or roads. While Rocky bought our tickets to mount the wall, we looked around the base of the gate. This was our first (but not last) time seeing how hard the Chinese work to keep places clean. They use the old fashioned brooms everywhere. With tickets in hand we went through the tunnel and into the courtyard and up the stairs to mount the wall.

The wall is well preserved and one could circumnavigate the entire older part of the city on it, a distance of about 9 miles. It was originally built in the 1300s. It is about 40 feet tall and just as thick at its top and even thicker at the base. In addition to the four towers at the gates, there are towers every 400 feet or so along its length. The walls were relatively empty when we arrived shortly before 9 am but by the time we left an hour and a half later they were becoming more crowded with folks taking morning walks, sightseeing, a company morale boosting run celebrating National Day. the towers were decorated for the Holiday as were the battlements at the corners.

We ended up deciding that the bike ride would be a great way to see more of the wall and are so glad we did. Not only did it give us a great overview of the 1/4 of the wall we rode, it got us some exercise in before our afternoon train ride to Bejing. Turns out the bikes have easily adjustable seats so they were able to fit even me! The bike ride turned out to be a real highlight of our time in Xi’an.

After returning our bikes, we went to a city market where Rocky (we apparatuses don’t have any pictures of him 😢) pointed us in the direction of ten souvenir sellers and advised us on how to bargain. He said however that he wouldn’t join us for this portion as the vendors blamed him if we ended up not buying something. We think we did ok buying chopstick sets for “bread & butter” gifts for our friend Andy in Seattle and Jeff & Ken who we stayed with last week in Tucson. The market reminded me of a single alley in Istanbul’s huge bazaar. The vendors all try to get you to buy their stuff as it’s better than everyone else’s even though it’s pretty obvious it’s all coming from the same manufacturers. When we did t have enough small bills to pay for what we bought, our lady pretended to not have any change and wanted to give us the change in merchandise until we started to walk away….then suddenly her vendor neighbor “loaned” her enough to make change. 😂

Rocky met us at the end of the market and we then headed to the food portion. He explained to us what each of the foods was and we had some delicious fresh squeezed (crushed?) pomegranate juice.

Even though it was a little early, we had lunch in one of the local’s restaurants in the market. Rocky ordered on our behalf and we had “soup” dumplings. We had heard about these before our trip and were excited to have them in person. The “soup” is broth made from bones and then chilled into a gelatin which is chopped up and mixed with the dumpling’s stuffing. When the dumpling is cooked, the broth liquifies. Theybare eaten by tearing a small hole in the dumpling, draining the soup into a spoon and drinking it. Then you eat the dumpling after dipping it in the ponzu sauce served in a small bowl along with the basket of dumplings. Delicious!

Rocky also wanted us to try “Chinese” hamburgers. These were steamed buns with a chinese meat filling that reminded me of pastrami. Not a hamburger but certainly tasty. We finished with the local fried dessert made of yams and filled with nuts.

After lunch we were driven to the HUGE railroad station newly built just to handle bullet trains. Rocky left us after making sure we (and some other gringo tourist) made it correctly though the first security check. We had to go through another to get to the area of the stations for trains headed to Beijing (perhaps extra security for the holiday?) where we faced hundreds of people waiting for the gates to open to let us go downstairs to the platform. After a short wait, the crowd finally started moving and we made our way to the train where the platform seemed relatively empty compared to the chaos upstairs!

The train trip was uneventful. Speed was slightly greater than on the Japanese trains and we got some snacks though most weren’t very tasty and were left behind! Legroom may have been a little less than in Japan but the lack of a footrest meant it was just as comfortable. Even though they didn’t bow, the attendants were just as pleasant and even better dressed. Unfortunately, unlike the Japanese, the Chinese don’t think it impolite to chat on their phones or sing/hum along to whatever song they are listening to over their earphones! 😱

We arrived in Beijing just before sunset and after wandering around the station for waaay too long (apparently there was more than one Exit 3) we finally found our guide, “Coco” and after basically retracing our steps, we got to the van and were driven through the heavily decorated streets to our hotel for the next three nights.

Just before we left for Japan, Lily our contact at the Chinese travel agency emailed me to inform me that due to the holiday, our hotel near Tinammen Square was no longer available and she suggested another hotel. After checking TripAdvisor and finding poor reviews, we looked to see if we could find another hotel. We found a great rate for the Crown Plaza and asked her about booking it. She did but I order to get a king room we paid an additional $20 a night. Upon arrival, apparently they had given away “our” room so we were upgraded to a huge fancy corner room with an entry hall, separate toilet room, and big shower/tub room. So glad we “splurged” for the extra. I think even with the extra the room was under $80 a night!

After checking in, we had a snack from the mall next door and quickly went to bed. Tomorrow we attempt to conquer The Great Wall!