Back in Beijing

Beijing is different than I remember it. And it’s not just that is 27C now where it was 37C last year. It’s Beijing itself that has changed, and it’s unbelievable to see how much it has changed in just one year. I still remembered the way when I got off the subway, but I had to look twice – at first I thought I took the wrong exit. Buildings that were there then are now not, while others that weren’t, are. The cute little bakery on the corner of the street where my hostel is is now gone, replaced by the 566th branch of a hole-in-the-wall fastfood chain. The other corner now has a McDonalds, housed in a brand new building. As far as I can remember, there weren’t even any signs that they wanted to demolish the building that stood there last July. An entire hutong block that I explored last year, filled with little restaurants and eateries, is now gone – just gone. Only now can I really comprehend how much Beijing must have changed in the last five or six years, in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Hutong that I used to know

But I’m happy to be here, even if it’s not quite ‘like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’, as Lonely Planet put it. For the past weeks, I’ve been constantly on the run, and this is the first time I can finally take things a bit more slowly. Add to that very fine autumn weather – about 27C during the day, 18C at night. And Bastiaan is here – in fact I think I see him more often here in Beijing than I do back home – and it’s always nice to meet up with friends in a place like this.

One thing Bastiaan did was arrange for me to come with him and a group of his fellow students to hike the Wall from Gubeikou to Jinshanling. One trip to the Wall I won’t soon forget. Last year I was at Badaling, where the wall is basically a new structure; the steps you are climbing are twenty years old at most. While Jinshanling is partly ‘restored’, Gubeikou is at parts almost completely original Ming-dynasty Wall– or what’s left of it anyway (Mao encouraged the use of the Wall as a source of free building material for new homes or whatever – that alone should be enough to rank him among the worst criminals in history). Also, there is a military base that you have to walk around or be shot on sight, so it’s pretty adventurous all in all.

Sunset on Jinshanling

The above view, however, is not what made this trip so unforgettable. Neither is the fantastic four to five hour hike, first over and then alongside the wall. The unforgettable part came when we got to Jinshanling, and found a lady in green guarding the tower we had to pass through. While uninvited foreigners crossing the wall would probably have paid with their lives in the old days, her demand was rather more prosaic – a ticket to Jinshanling Scenic Area, weighing in at 65Y (about €8). We had, however, already paid at Gubeikou. And with half of our group Chinese or at least fluent in Mandarin, an argument soon ensued. And this is the part I’ll never forget. Those sweet girls turning sour, shouting at the top of their voices at the lady in green, who wouldn’t budge, wouldn’t let us pass without buying the ticket, wouldn’t give us a discount.

But there were eleven of us and only one of her, and soon (well not soon, for they argued for at least 20 minutes) we were scaling the tower on all sides – a group backtracked some 200 meters, descended the wall and passed the tower on either side at ground level. Bastiaan climbed in through one of the tower’s windows, but was . When the others turned back to descend as well, the lady turned her back on us and started slowly to cross to the other side of the tower. This was the moment I had been waiting for, and I quickly sprinted passed her, avoiding the need to backtrack and trod through the bushes. The lady in green was now in full retreat, but had signaled for help. Not by lighting a fire in the tower as they did in the old days, but by cell phone. At the exit, two guards (police? Private security? Somewhere in between? We’ll never know) were waiting, blocking our way. And the argument repeated itself. I sadly forgot to take a picture of the lady in green blocking the way, and missed the most heated part of this argument, when three of ours were in a shouting contest against three of theirs, but you get the idea.

By now, this had become a matter of principle. Indiana Jones-guy had found an easy way off the wall some 100 meters back from where we could get around the guards, onto a terrace of sorts, and Bastiaan and I went down to create a diversion. The lady in green had spotted us and went down to the terrace to block the way off of the terrace, while the rest of the guards continued to hold up our group. However, she chose a poor position to guard us – about halfway between us and the narrow exit. There was a statue right before the exit and Bastiaan and I decided to each walk around a different side, so the lady in green couldn’t catch us both. And then Bastiaan was out, and the guards finally acknowledged their defeat. The lady in green hopped on a moto, calling after us with her final bluff: ‘Later! Ticket later!’ The two guards followed soon after, and the rest of our group had an easy walk down. There was no ticket control later.

3 Responses to “Back in Beijing”


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