You know, how they say all roads lead to Rome? Well none of them apparently make a detour through Beijing and there is a good reason for it: it is loud and messy and crazy busy and confusing. The biggest difference between Rome and Beijing, however, from my subjective point of view that is, must be the sound of the streets. Romans will throw cheap artifacts at you, insisting on you buying them, yelling gelaaaatooo, gelatoo… And Chinese people? Well, if they will talk to you, it’ll probably will be a muttering sound, saying something along the lines that they don’t speak English and then ignoring you altogether.
But there is one distinct Chinese sound that A dubbed ‘The Symphony of Beijing’. One sound, that even a month later I cannot forget, one that haunts my inner dreams, the reason why I started avoiding big crowds. A sound that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand. The hawking sound. And many Chinese people that we came across hawk from deep within (sometimes, if you’re lucky even more than once) and then spitting anywhere, really anywhere (doesn’t matter if inside a train on the floor or outside on the street). It doesn’t even matter how close you are in proximity, they will hawk away and spit away and you will be amazed but more so disgusted. Small children and elderly, business women and street cleaners, hawking and hawking and hawking, wherever you go.
The city itself has a rather hostile feel to it (from a Western point of view anyway), as there are almost no billboards to be seen, but then you find these beautifully decorated temples in the middle of concrete blocks. And it makes you realize one thing very quickly: Beijing is one place that definitely drums to its own beat. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
So since we couldn’t get online using Google and all it’s perks that we have grown to love – thank you Google for making me addicted to you, and thank you China for firewalling Google, making me realize how much I love Google and all its’ services – we at least wanted to climb a different wall: THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA.
As with many places in the world, it’s best if you come off-season (unless you REALLY enjoy the close proximity to a million people that you don’t know, hawing away left and right, behind you and in front of you which A and I generally don’t enjoy, however pleasurable this might sound to you).
If you did your research, you might know that you can visit about a billion sections of the Great Wall of China, some restored and some not so much. Many travel-homepages will recommend for you to visit the less popular, less crowded, less restored parts of the Wall (especially if you’re traveling in-season and like to risk your life as these other sections are borderline dangerous to visit). And if it wouldn’t have been the beginning of January and freezing cold outside, we probably would have attempted to visit one of the less touristy sections as well, but we figured, we were well into off-season and we don’t like to risk our lives – note here, this was BEFORE we went on our honeymoon. So the most restored and ultimately, most popular section it was: Badaling.
We took the train to Badaling, the only train we have ever been on, that offered us freshly microwaved popped popcorn, and enjoyed the hour long ride through the suburbs of Beijing. Both A and I were super excited, imagining what it would look like and feel like walking on the path of so many past generations. We thought back of all the Hollywood movies we have watched, supposedly taking place in Beijing, let me tell you this though, they never caught the true sound of Beijing’s streets! Hawk, hawk, hawk. But we made it to the Great Wall’s Entrance (not without trying to avoid anyone that was trying to sell us hats and scarfs and anything else under the sun that you might or might not want).
We basically ran through the buzzing street vendors, as our only mission was to get to the Wall, and we did in about 15 minutes before anyone else that was on our train (a handful of Westerners and about 500 Chinese people) reached the wall, which is how I was able to snap this picture:
The sky was blue (which in itself is amazing, given the high smog alerts in Beijing), the hike was easy, as we are big fans of not risking our lives while hiking, and the greatest thing about being almost the only ones on the wall: no Beijing Symphony. (Here I want to note, that there are millions of signs everywhere, discouraging hawking and spitting, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to stop.) A and I then reverted to selfie-mode, taking several hundreds of selfies, after all we were in the land of selfies and selfie-sticks, so why not take a few hundreds?
After about 3 hours dealing with the almost blinding blue sky and the gushing winds and selfie-mania, both A and I were beat and headed back home. Taking in the last few minutes of hawk-free silence. Oh the symphony, it just follows you everywhere. Snot and spit all around you, and it makes you wonder, how can a country, with so much history and so many great places to visit, not just stop with the hawking? Why? We couldn’t find the answer, but the guy in front of us on the train back to Beijing entertained us with a special solo-hawk-edition, that still makes me cringe.
If you ever plan on visiting the Wall: make sure you travel off-season, take the train from and back to Badaling AND carry around earplugs (thank me later!). Oh, before I forget it. Here is a small anecdote about being smart and knowing your money.
A, knowing that many people in China like to haggle, figured he would give it a try at a tourist vendor, where we attempted to buy some postcards for the little ones in our families. The vendor wasn’t happy with the price A offered, so we started to walk. The second we stepped out, we were called in again with the vendor agreeing with the price that A initiated, which made A very happy. He figured he would get a deal after all. So he paid the price and got change back, feeling accomplished in his haggling-skills. We walked to the train station to catch the train back. We make our way to the counter and order two tickets to Beijing (in Chinese!). The counter lady tells us 12 bucks and A pulls out two fives (the ones that he got from the vendor) and two ones. The lady at the counter started laughing hysterically and shook her head.
Not knowing sufficient Chinese, we couldn’t make out the details as to why she only accepted one of the fives, but we figured something was wrong. A guy tries to cut in line in front of us, while we were trying to figure out the situation, which made A very very very unhappy. The counter lady, by then tired of us not understanding, gives cut-in-line his tickets. Eventually A pulled out a 20 and we paid for the tickets. Upon waiting for the train, cut-in-guy ran back to one of the vendors buying a cup of noodles, yes, the instant ones, so he then, with his steaming hot cup of instant noodles, tried to cut back in front of us, but being somewhat revengeful and feeling misunderstood and confused because of the ticket-situation, we don’t let him, because apparently, you snooze you loose.
So cut-in-guy mutters some Chinese at us, either way, he lost his space in front of us, while his wife was patiently standing in front of us. Finally the train arrives, people run towards the doors, as if the train would pull out the station within seconds. We get into an almost empty wagon, unbeknownst to us we sit behind the soloist of the Beijing Symphony.
A then pulled out the two fives and we try to figure out why one of them was being accepted and the other one wasn’t. But since we are not familiar with Chinese money, we have no idea what the problem was, concluding that one of them was fake. We go to dinner, A becomes friends with the a waiter who loved to practice his English on us, so they talk for the majority of our dinner, while I basically eat by myself. When we pay, A again tries to pay with the two fives that the vendor gave us, which made the waiter giggle hysterically (again). And we finally realize: A is basically trying to pay with a regular five and one five that has the value of next to nothing (for lack of trying to explain their currency). So the vendor lady coldheartedly ripped us of, getting the price that she wanted all along, leaving us Westerners dumbfounded because we clearly have no idea what we are doing. So let this be a lesson to you, know your money before you travel.