Honestly I had never tasted rice wine and it isn’t something I will enjoy on an evening out at a Juhu five star. But to save my bones from being frozen? Every time! The biggest takeaway? Not only will you feel warmer inside, but an extra few swigs will give you a miraculous energy to climb the Great Wall Of China to the top where you can get yourself snapped doing a cartwheel (if your legs haven’t given way already), buy a “I climbed the great wall” jumper and then… walk down the same 3,000 steps. Sounds like the magic potion Asterix and his pals knocked back, doesn’t it?
Ah, but we are running ahead of the story. Three days after landing in Beijing and getting acclimatised to temperatures that varied between zero and minus 8 degrees as we took buses, taxis (and even walked) to see the famed Tiananmen Square, enter the Forbidden City and do a quick trip to the Temple of Heaven, we were set for our pilgrimage to the Great Wall of China at Badaling.
Badaling for the uninitiated, is the nearest village from Beijing where one can see the Great Wall, and it is also probably one of the better preserved portions of what was at one point a 8,850 km-long wall that protected the citizens of the Ming Dynasty (and even later kingdoms) from Mongols and other invaders.
It was a bitterly cold day, even though some of our companions in the 10-seater Greyhound Bus we were travelling in, seemed to be enjoying the weather (we found out they lived in Norway). Luckily we had a guide with a great sense of humour who kept regaling us with real and imaginary stories of Chinese culture and curious habits. “Have you noticed that no one lets their cats out after dark here?” he asked and answered without waiting: “that’s because then the cats might end up on the neighbour’s dinner plate!” Seeing our horrified look he quickly added: “I was joking. We have become more civilised now.”
Jokes and such bizarre stories done, we soon arrived at the halfway mark — the Ming Tombs — ancient tombs of the Ming dynasty kings. Carefully stepping past frozen (and very slippery) ice that lay across the path, we walked around the area, dutifully had a look at the tombs and quickly walked into the restaurant where lunch was laid out for us. It was here, after our meal, that our guide Lin suggested that we keep one small bottle of rice wine handy.
An hour later as it started snowing, we were on the gates of the Great Wall. What an imposing sight. Words can hardly describe the feeling when standing in front of a gigantic structure that stretches across miles and miles in front of you, often rising to heights that can dwarf the tallest of Mumbai’s skyscrapers. But woolen gloves, a pullover and snow-jacket firmly in place and the rice wine in our pockets, we were raring to go.
Not heeding the guide’s feeble attempt to guide us towards the longer but easier gradient of the eastern wall, we chose the shorter but far steeper western wall that seemed to have less of a crowd. Less than halfway up though, we realised this trek was for the Olympians! Each step was a climb in itself and often we were on all fours trying to get to the next step. Either those ancient soldiers had really tall legs or were built like horses. But hey, what’s the fun if you haven’t struggled a bit? One large sip of the wine and we were back on our feet again.
Finally after an hour, we lay flat on our back trying to catch falling snowflakes on our tongues, as local hawkers used sign language to sell us sweat shirts and jumpers. To think they walked up and down these steps every day for a living. Having done the trek, here’s one bit of advice: for the less adventurous, the more relaxed Eastern wall climb is recommended. We saw even a few elderly couples trekking up with relative ease and in hindsight we should have taken that one too. Of course, there is no compulsion to climb to the top at all. Some tourists just walked around or trekked for 10 minutes before clicking a few snaps and retiring to one of the many restaurants at the foot of the wall.
There are a chain of curio shops and local handicraft shops along the wall and if you can bargain hard, you might end up with a great deal on statuettes, jumpers, semi-precious stones or whatever it is that catches your fancy. But we suggest that you leave your souvenir shopping for a day trip around Beijing, maybe on a day you check out the Temple of Heaven (the blue-coloured temples representing the Gods) or the Beijing Zoo.
Which reminds me, it is nothing like any zoo in India. For sheer variety, it beats even the Singapore zoo. Hairy Bactrian camels, polar bears, grizzly bears, snow leopards, pandas — you name it they have it. So we were curious when we saw a large crowd of European tourists in front of a smallish enclosure. We peeped. A small little Billy goat, complete with a goatee, tied to a mini rickshaw, peeped back at us. A goat?
That’s when we realised that the special thing, that unique experience in any holiday, depends really on what your thing is. If it’s a combination of breathtaking beauty, majestic palaces, a wondrous zoo and of course the adrenaline rush as you climb one of the seven wonders of the world — then pack your bags for Beijing today!