There’s something about China that I just can’t shake, there’s a palpable energy to the country that’s as equally bewildering as it is compelling. Ever since I first visited the country as a 13 year old, I’ve had an affinity with place and endeavoured to revisit it whenever the opportunity presented itself (which as a struggling writer living in Australia, doesn’t occur as often as you might think). So when I had the chance to join the second departure of a brand new trip offered by Gecko’s Adventures that packed an incredibly dense itinerary into a 12 day trip, of course I jumped at the opportunity. With very little preparation and a last minute visa I jumped on a plane and headed off.
The reality of the situation didn’t really sink in until the captain announced our imminent arrival in Beijing. As we descended into the city of around 21 Million people, butterflies started dancing in my stomach. It’s been five year since my last visit to the country and the extent of my mandarin skills encompasses vaguely introducing myself, and a fairly useless ability to count to 999. China is a country that defies logical categorisation, its industry and progress seem to explode as exponentially as its population and the general consensus seems to be that day to day life is managed by a constantly shifting web of contradictions and paradoxes – which is exactly what makes it so appealing in the first place. To say that it’s unique is as inadequate platitude as describing molten lava as ‘hot’. There is nowhere that perfectly encapsulates the discord between modern and ancient, rich and poor, progression and tradition, than China. As we touched down on the tarmac at 3pm I’m not exactly sure what to expect, but that’s the point of travel right?
I find my way to a driver holding a sign with my name on it, a luxury that I’m not anywhere near accustomed to. I can’t explain this to him though, because after a clumsy “Nǐ hǎo,” on my behalf, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t speak any English and my phenomenal counting ability isn’t going to be of much use here. My reintroduction into the internal logics of China is swift, when en-route to the Beijing hostel where I’m spending my first night my driver-friend pulls over to the side of the road at a busy intersection and leaves the car for no apparent reason. When I try to follow he shakes his head and smiles in a way that’s not entirely reassuring before disappearing into a gaggle of middle-aged men smoking on the side of the road. I assume that he’s coming back, so I just stay put and watch the ebb and flow of a staggering variety of vehicles, bicycles, and motorbikes haphazardly pass each other with a chaos that’s so fluid it seems as though it has to be coordinated. After about 15 minutes a different middle-aged man gets in the driver’s seat, while a stream of young kids clamber into the back seat. He smiles and laughs at my obvious confusion, while a primary school aged boy stares at me and tries to undo the straps on my backpack. Welcome to Beijing.
When we do actually arrive at the hostel, I have a whirlwind chance to unpack and before I meet my guide for the next week and a bit, Dragon. Dragon is an unfalteringly polite, quietly spoken guy who’s maybe a couple of years older than me. He lives in a small town just outside of Shanghai, but much of his time is spent roaming China assisting wide-eyed westerner’s such as myself with navigating some of the intricacies of Chinese culture. He’s a fixer, in the best sense, present and reliable but not overbearing and dictatorial. After meeting the rest of the crew I’ll be travelling with, and a quick rundown of what to expect over the next few days. I was told to back a bag for three days, and warned that tomorrow was going to be an early start with a lot of physical activity.
The next morning we jumped a two-hour bullet train to Shanhaiguan, before transferring onto a local bus to Dongjiakou, a rural village. The juxtaposition between the two sides of China is incredibly striking in that short journey outside of Beijing. Factories and city infrastructure quickly give way to farming communities and sparse buildings. In Dongjiakou a local family who run a small restaurant out of their home greets us. The accommodations are minimal, but the food is superb. We’re presented with dish after dish, all sourced from the land directly around the village. Fresh sugared tomatoes, salted peanuts, mountain mushroom stews, and freshly butchered lamb (the blood still shining on the concrete just outside the door). It’s explained that the room we’re eating in is the sleeping quarters of the family. Up to ten people share a space that’s comparable to a small city apartment, sleeping on straw mats on the concrete floors.
We’re in Dongjiakou as it’s a perfect place to visit the Great Wall of China, this isn’t the same experience as you can get in inner-Beijing where the wall is overrun by tourists and merchants, but the real deal. After a few hours of serious hiking straight up a mountainside we’re rewarded with a section of the true wall. The townspeople endeavour to maintain it as much as possible, but the wall bears it’s 600 years of age. It’s a phenomenal experience – to stand on the same bricks and tamped earth that hold three-times the history of our entire country. The ascent to the peak of the wall is breathtaking, figuratively and literally, but the chance to witness the sprawling forests below this ancient bastion of defense is unparalleled. We return to Shanhaiguan at sunsets and Dragon warns us to grab some sleep because tomorrow will be an early start – something that I’m fast learning will be a recurring motif of the trip.