Exploring Beijing and the Great Wall
When I had the chance to request the Field Programs for which I wanted to be a Trip Liaison, I pretty much requested every overnight program (overnight programs are completely comped while day programs are 50% discounted). However, the one that was at the very top of my priority list was the program called “Hiking the Great Wall”, a five day/four night program to Beijing and the Great Wall of China. The idea of hiking along the Great Wall sounded like an adventure, and combining the outdoors with one of the most famous historic sites in the world is like a dream.
With 64 voyagers signed up, we had enough to split the group into two; I was a Trip Liaison with 31 voyagers (including 2 staff/faculty), and a professor from San Diego had a group of 33 voyagers (including her husband and three kids). We met at 6AM in the Kaisersaal Union on the ship, exited the ship, and jumped on a bus that took us to the Shanghai Airport for our 2.5 hour flight to Beijing.
We arrived in Beijing around noon, and our guides and buses were waiting for us. From the Beijing airport, we quickly left the city and made our way to the Gubei Water Town, an interesting city where we stayed for the next two nights.
Gubei Water Town
Gubei Water Town is actually a brand new city designed in traditional Chinese architecture, much like a city you would’ve seen along a river hundreds of years ago. The city was constructed in 2014 as, quite literally, a tourist attraction. Gubei Water Town is built at the bottom of the mountains with a river cutting through, with stone streets and buildings, beautiful bridges, a large main square with a shrine to a former Emperor, and even a stone church at the top of a hill. If one did not know this was built in 2014, they would probably never guess it was so new. The winding streets connect small stores sell arts and crafts, clothes, foods, and more. Narrow alleyways lead to hidden plazas. The place is designed so well that it feels like a classic city. When we first arrived, it even started to snow; the students quickly became giddy because it reminded so many of home in late November.
Many say that the Gubei Water Town is like going to Disney. I would somewhat agree with this, even though I think this doesn’t have as much as the artificial feel. What does bring this Disney feel, however, is that one must have a ticket to get into the city. Adding to the touristy feel is the ultra-modern visitor center which must be passed through to get into the city. All indoors, there is a Starbucks, gift shops, and more. To add to that, the ticket gate also requires fingerprints to enter; not only do you show your ticket card, but you also need to confirm your ticket by scanning your fingerprint upon entry.
The city seems to be most popular with Chinese domestic tourists, most of whom come from Beijing for its close proximity. It’s a great weekend getaway to travel outside the huge city. Plus, the Great Wall is very easily accessible from here – you can even see several parts of the Great Wall up on the mountain from the city. Our hotel for the two nights was the nicest hotel in which I’ve ever stayed. It was built to accommodate thousands of guests as well as large conferences. The enormous hotel is built just outside the city walls, and it is built on plenty of space. It might as well be called a resort. The lobby smells the jasmine, the swimming pool is immaculate, the breakfast was that of a top restaurant, and the rooms were top-notch with nice bathtubs and king sized beds. We visited in the off-season, so the town seemed quiet; however, this hotel showed just how many people come (or will come) in the high-season.
The town was great for strolling around. We had a Chinese paper cutting class, a nice hot pot dinner (you boil thinly sliced beef and pork and vegetables in a broth), and we had plenty of time to wander. There were pubs, cafes, shops, and even spas. The students definitely enjoyed the experience, a relatively unstructured experience where they could roam and shop without stress.
Hiking the Great Wall
The Great Wall of China is something that many of us learn about at a very young age. We learn about several of the world’s most famous sites in elementary school – the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China. Needless to say, we were all quite anxious that next morning to finally step foot on this amazing structure.
The Great Wall of China was originally made up of many different sections, built by various empires through various time periods. The very first section is believed to have been built around 220 BC in order to protect from intruders. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty, which reigned from the 14th century to the 17th century, that the Great Wall was finally all linked together. This large project protected the land we now call China from the Mongols in the north as well as other intruders to the west and south. It wasn’t until 2009 that there was an official count of the actual wall distance; astonishingly, they found that the wall is about 13,000 miles long!
The wall was built by a few hundred thousand commoners and soldiers, who worked over long periods of time to bring the stones and bricks to remote locations in the mountains. Legend has it that many of those who died while working on the wall are actually buried inside the wall. Interestingly, in most of the 20th century, the Great Wall was widely considered a blemish on China’s history, proof that the wall did not keep intruders out. Because of this, the wall was destroyed by carelessness. The government offered anyone to take the bricks from the wall to build their homes. Cars would be allowed to drive on the wall. There were no conservation efforts until the 1980s when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now, it brings millions of dollars into the Chinese economy with tourism; visitors from all over the world come to see this remarkable site.
Our first day of hiking started after a 30-minute bus ride from Gubei Water Town. We hiked on the Jinshanling Section to the start of the Simatai Section, which was about seven miles. On the second day of hiking, we walked along the Simatai Section, a renovated but steep section, for about four miles. That means we covered just over 11 miles in total of one large stretch. I loved that we covered all of this without any breaks; when we looked back in the distance at the end of our second day of hiking, we could see in the far distance where we started.
The Jinshanling Section, our first day of hiking, was a mostly unrenovated and original part of the wall. This meant that it was more deteriorated, more decrepit, and more beat up than the parts you may have seen in photos. This also meant that we had to aver the wall and hike on dirt paths because some of the parts of the wall were impassable. The second part was much more renovated, meaning that it looked nicer in general but is not the original. It was certainly nice to see and hike on both parts. A huge plus to visiting this part of the wall, located much further away from Beijing, is that relatively few people are visiting this section. There is one section in particular that is within an hour of Beijing, and that part is highly visited. In our two-day hike, in total being on the wall for about 10-12 hours, we saw less than 20 other people. I thought that was pretty cool, seemingly like we were discovering it for ourselves.
Hiking the wall completely blew away all of my expectations. We were in the middle of stunning mountains, with peaks as far as the eye could see. There was almost nothing else around – we only saw a few houses, a road from a distance, and not much more. There wasn’t a moment that went by in which the views were not breathtaking. Every second was photo worthy, though I stopped myself from taking TOO many. It was incredible to see this stone wall, as tall as 25 feet, snaking along the mountain ridges. Lookout towers were strategically placed at all of the high points, so that we could see these rectangular blocks on each peak in the distance. It’s difficult to fathom what it must have taken to build this wall – the cost of the lives and, I’m assuming, the number of people enslaved, as well as the distances these materials were carried.
Seeing and experiencing the Great Wall of China by foot was truly a privilege. I never would have guessed that it was even possible to do such a thing, let alone to have the opportunity to lead a group of 31 on this hike. I could have spent several more days hiking and taking in the scenery. The feedback I received from the students was similar – they loved the hiking and could’ve spent even more time on the wall. The hiking was tough but not too difficult. The weather, sunny and in the low 40s, was perfect for hiking. The experience certainly lived up to the hype!
Next up on our itinerary was Beijing, China’s second largest city and the historic capital. It has long been an important city and was the main host for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Whereas Shanghai is the modern city with futuristic skyscrapers, Beijing is the city with the historic sites like Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and more.
Hutong is the Mongolian word meaning “water well”. Because of the importance of clean water, villages formed around these water wells in the 13th and 14th centuries in Beijing. Nowadays, Hutong is still the name of these historic communities, and this was our first stop once we arrived in Beijing.
We arrived and our bus dropped on a main street. Before we knew it, we were walking down these quiet small streets. Our guide took us to a square in the Lingdang Hutong district. The square had large buildings on each side, one a bell tower and the other a drumming tower. We went into the bell tower for a Chinese tea ceremony. With all 31 of us inside, three women explained each of the five teas we were to try. All of the teas had their unique tastes. Afterwards, we were courted to the gift shop where many people bought souvenirs for family and friends.
Afterwards, just like in India, we jumped onto bicycle rickshaws, two per rickshaw. We cruised through these small streets in the Hutong to the location of our dinner, a family’s home. We fit all of us into a dining/living area of a local’s home. Soon after arriving, they demonstrated how they make Chinese dumplings and even gave some of us the opportunity to try it ourselves. Afterwards, they began bringing dish after dish of food including rice, beef, chicken, and more. It was an excellent dinner and was fun to be in a local home.
The following morning, we departed the hotel at 9AM to visit the Summer Palace, the imperial garden during the Qing Dynasty (18th century). The Summer Palace is 1 square mile in area and combines green hills and a large blue lake with pavilions, halls, palaces, and temples. It’s a beautiful place for a stroll.
When I found out that we wouldn’t be leaving the hotel until 9AM that morning, I wanted to find something I could do early in the morning. A quick search gave me the idea of seeing the flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square. The flag raising ceremony is a daily free event where soldiers march from the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square to raise the Chinese flag as the Chinese national anthem plays over the speakers. Intrigued, I went for it.
I left the hotel at 5:30AM and took the subway to Tiananmen Square. Still completely dark and 20 degrees, I passed through security and could see the square from across the street. The square was blocked off with barricades, and I eventually saw a place where people were starting to line up. Not knowing exactly what was going on, I jumped in line with the hundreds of others. At about 6:15AM, they opened up the square, and people at the front of the line started to rush in, even running like it was Black Friday to get their spot as close to the flagpole. I posted up just six or seven rows deep and waited in the middle of about 1,000 Chinese nationals. I waited, and waited. The best part was that being squished in between people helped with the cold. Finally, at 7:15AM, the exactly moment of sunrise, soldiers started marching from the distance. They arrived at the flagpole, and the national anthem started to play. Slowly, the flag rose. Two minutes after it started, the music stopped and the flag was at its high point. And it was over. And then people left.
I’m glad I went to the ceremony. It was a cool buildup, and it gave me something unique to do with the morning free. Would I do it again? No. The actual ceremony was pretty uneventful. But I’m happy I went.
Later that afternoon, we made a stop and walked through Tiananmen Square on the way to the Forbidden City. It was so windy and cold that most people were unable to enjoy it. Even so, it was amazing to be in such a historic place.
We then made our way into the Forbidden City, the palace that was the former seat of the Emperor from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1420-1912). Not only did it include the home of the emperors and their families, but also the ceremonial and political center of the Chinese government. It is made up of almost 1,000 buildings and is the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. It is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of architecture in all of Asia. It was called the Forbidden City because no one could enter or leave the complex without the emperor’s permission.
We spent about an hour and a half inside the complex, as our guide explained the intricate details of the main structures. The wind had picked up in the afternoon, which made it another cold experience. However, we did our best to stay with our guide!
The Forbidden City is visited by about 15 million people every year, an astronomical amount of visitors. It was so cool to finally see this famous place and learn about its history.
Temple of the Heavens
Our final morning in Beijing, our last site was to visit the Temple of Heaven. Not located far from our hotel, it was a short bus ride to arrive at the complex of religious buildings. This was used in the same era as the Forbidden City (15th-20th centuries), and it was used as a place for annual ceremonies to pray to heaven for a good harvest. The complex was constructed in the early 1400s. Today, the large area has two main purposes, tourism and a community space. Every morning, hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese (mostly seniors) come to the Temple of the Heavens to use it as a social space. They exercise, play cards and other games, tai chi, and more. Even though it was 25 degrees when we arrived, so many seniors were hanging out as if it were a summer morning.
The main site in the Temple of the Heavens is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It’s a triple-gabled circular building. Over 100 feet tall, this is where the emperor would pray for good harvests. The building is all wood and has no nails. The original building was burned down in 1889 after being struck by lightning. I only wish I had more time to roam around this entire complex. I feel like I only saw a small part of it in a relatively small amount of time.
This brought an end to the Field Program, as we made our way to the Beijing Airport and took a flight to the Shanghai Airport. We arrived at the ship at “on-ship time”, so we had no additional time to explore Shanghai.
Just like every other country, I really enjoyed the experience and the opportunity to visit these places so rich in history and culture. While it is a short visit, all these experiences combined on Semester at Sea are like nothing else I’ve ever done. I’m very thankful for that!