Temple of Heaven or Tiantan

Ancient China in Modern Beijing


Temple of Heaven or Tiantan

Last time I visited Beijing I was 4 years old (~1989) and I ran off in Tiananmen Square looking for bullet holes (which led to homemade personal locating devices attached to me for the reminder of the trip… aka little bells around my wrist).  From my recollections Beijing was a sterile and oppressive city possibly because my parents and I visited not too long after the infamous Tiananmen Square incident.  My memories of Beijing consisted of endless bicycle traffic with occasional motorbikes (cars and buses were few and far between); numerous soldiers standing guard everywhere; ice-sledding/tobogganing on a frozen lake (courtesy of nice Beijing locals); climbing the Badaling great wall in tears but got a “Great Wall conqueror” certificate; and my first encounter with snow.

Raised in Hong Kong before immigrating to Canada when I was 9, I had a pretty good grasp in spoken Cantonese and I understood some Mandarin as well… Fast forward 20+ years my Chinese had regressed tremendously compared to the 4 year old me (shame!).  This time I took my wife with me to hike the Great Wall of China (wild wall).  My wife, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian who is fluent in English and French, turned out to be less useful in communicating with the locals than even myself lol.  During our trip to the Chinese Capital we were essentially two foreigners traveling in Beijing where everybody expected us to converse in Chinese which led to some funny and memorable experiences (ie. We went into a store for some souvenirs and the shop owner would tell us a price, and as soon as he realized that we were English speakers our price immediately went up by 200%… I could still understand numbers in Chinese haha)





Beijing had graced us with a mix of western familiarity along with its deep-rooted eastern culture. We had seen and experienced the variety of Beijing’s food culture, from the world famous Peking duck to local dumplings (but we were too scared to try scorpions and starfish). It was abundantly clear that the Beijing I visited two decades ago had transformed into a world class metropolitan. The evidence of such rapid development could be seen at every corner of Beijing as old traditional Hutongs struggle to survive in a sea of new concrete developments. Beijing is now a modernized city by all western standards (in fact many North American cities are falling behind cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc), but in pursuit of development Beijing has evidently sacrificed some of its ancestral charm.  In my opinion it is equally important to embrace Beijing’s rich heritage (3000 years!) going forward and maintain a proper balance between history and growth.  However, despite all the cosmetic changes throughout the city one thing did remain constant: the welcoming and warm personalities of Beijing citizens.

Jinshanling Wild Great Wall

The Great Wild Wall of China (Jinshanling)

February 8th, 2012

Day 4: Jinshanling

Woke up to a beautiful clear morning with cloudless blue sky (BOO YA no smog!).  The first order of business: Go to McD’s and grab our lunches for the day – $2 CAD breakfast meals (we got 2 each haha).  We are not big fans of fast-food especially when traveling abroad, but with minimal choices we had to buy from the world famous golden arches.  Combining McD’s with some light snacks/drinks, we were ready for the Great Wall of China (the real one)!  Our driver met us at the hotel lobby and off we went to Jinshanling!

For RMB $900 we hired our driver Joe for the entire day.  Having a fantastic guide/driver really made our great wall experience that much more immersive.  The drive to Jinshanling was approximately 2.5 hours from where we stayed (close to the Forbidden City).  My wife (of course) slept through the entire car ride (there and back), but I was conversing with Joe the entire time in English and some broken Chinese about topics that would’ve put her to sleep anyways haha (like politics).  In fact I was pleasantly surprised at Joe’s willingness to speak his mind about more “sensitive” subjects such as government and politics.  From our conversation I learned a few fun facts about Beijing and China:

1.    The “one child policy” in China is not applicable to rural communities (farmers).  I have always wondered why any country would want to half their population every generation… As of 2015 this draconian family-planning rule was finally scrapped.
2.    There are a lot of changes in the past couple decades and there are hiccups here and there.  However many Chinese citizens are content and they enjoy a lot of day-to-day freedoms similar to the rest of the world (Thanks CNN for conditioning me to think that mainland China was similar to North Korea)
3.    To control the amount of cars roaming around central Beijing, only certain license plates are permitted to enter the city each day (ie. Monday = cars with license plate starting with odd numbers, etc).
4.    Beijing is constructed like a spider web with various ring roads surrounding the city (separated into 1st ring, 2nd ring, and so on).  But unlike most cities in the world where the center is filled with skyscrapers, Beijing is the opposite with the Forbidden City at its center and the tallest buildings are found in the 2nd and 3rd ring.

The scenery on the drive out to Jinshanling was a lot like the drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon: barren and uneventful.  Occasionally sections of the wall could be seen on some distant mountaintops (I think… it could also be self-fulfilling prophecy).  I had originally planned to hike Jinshanling for 5-6 hours (~2.5 hours one way then backtrack to the starting point) but Joe suggested a new route where he would drop us off at a newly built entrance closer to the Simatai end (east) and we would hike one-way towards the main Jinshanling entrance. (I couldn’t find such information anywhere on travel sites so hopefully I am contributing something new to the public haha).

This new alternate entrance (East gate entrance?) to Jinshanling Great Wall was similar to a lot of new architectures in China.  Although the property itself looked amazing, it did not blend in with the surrounding landscape and thereby it stuck out like a sore thumb.  We realized that we made the “correct call” to visit Jinshanling instead of the more famous sections like Badaling or Mutianyu because we were the only visitors at the entrance.  After an entrance fee of ~$50 RMB per person, we embarked on a 30 minute hike uphill on a well maintained trail until we reached our starting point.

After having Beijing’s bone chilling wind kick my butt a couple of days before, I made sure I was dressed appropriately even though it was +3 degrees Celsius outside (dressed in layers, just like any good Canadian would because cold + sweat = trouble).  Once we were on the wall the view overcame my desire for warmth and the majesty of this ancient monument trumped my senses.  The weather-battered great wall meandered endlessly like a stone serpent resting over hills and valleys, and at that moment I truly felt small and powerless.  The vastness of the great wall against the barren landscape, in combination with the shivering wind created a harsh and lonely atmosphere… as if I were a sentry posted here 450 years ago to defend against barbarians from the north.  Granted, 450 years ago the protective barrier walls were probably intact and the bricks weren’t loose, but I am sure the wind was just as harsh.  In fact midway through my daydream those nasty gusts woke me up from the jaw-dropping experience because my face screamed in pain (thank god for face warmers and heat packs).

Our hike started at Dongwuyanlou (or Dongwuyan tower/East Five Eyes Tower/東五眼樓) and we could only proceed in one direction westward towards the Jinshanling main entrance because the path towards Simatai was off limits.  This section of the great wall was considered as the “wild wall” because this section had not been touched since its conception from the Ming Dynasty era (AD 1570).  We walked casually westward as we were in no rush, sometimes stopping at the watch towers (or what was left of it) for refreshments and sometimes even doubled back to savor the astonishing views.  (Jinshanling has the highest density of watch towers as well as various strategic wall improvements that are unique to this stretch of the Great Wall).

The first third of the hike was definitely more challenging as loose bricks, crumbling walls, wobbly steps, and numerous potholes welcomed us at every turn.  We hiked this section rather cautiously but the hike itself was easily manageable and we didn’t feel at any point in danger.  We had the Great Wall all to ourselves as we did not encounter another soul for the first 1.5 hour.  Our driver said most visitors who visit Jinshanling are foreigners as most Asians usually stick with Badaling or Mutianyu.  In fact throughout our entire hike we saw two other couples, one local elder, and four local kids playing tag.  Looking back at my Great Wall experiences I would rather experience 5 minutes of Jinshanling than hours at Badaling.  There was something special about experiencing the Great Wall at its original state with minimal disturbances from other visitors, over commercialization, and traffic.  (Did you know the Badaling section was basically completely rebuilt on ancient foundations?)

(Aside: I visited Badaling when I was a kid before China was open to the western world and domestic Chinese citizens were too poor to travel… and Badaling was already packed then! Badaling wasn’t as commercially developed then and the “washroom” had white crawlies everywhere – I imagine its hygiene status should be improved now. Anyways I digress…)

As we proceeded westward the wind felt gentler and our hike felt less rugged as well.  We encountered an abruptly repaved section half way into our journey, but just as abruptly the renovation ceased 200 meters down the path.. WTF?  By the time we reached the Big Jinshan Tower our journey through the wild great wall was over and we were walking on “solid stones” once again.  This stretch of Jinshanling was renovated in the 1980-1990s and it was beautifully renovated (non-intrusive).  There were even cable cars to traffic less physically-able visitors to/from the great wall! It was closed when we visited during the winter months and in fact the entire main entrance seemed deserted when we hiked through the little Jinshanling resort village (aka main entrance).  Joe was waiting for us at the parking lot as promised and our hike through Jinshanling was about 4.5 hours all together (with numerous photo/snack breaks in between… so probably 3 hours with no interruptions).

As we return from our mini road trip our driver Joe was kind enough to detour to the Olympic grounds so we could have a glimpse of the “birds nest” National Stadium before he dropped us off at the trendy Houhai district for dinner.  Houhai district was filled with restaurants, bars, and karaoke shops… We were going to chill-lax at a pub after dinner, but since my wife refused to use squat toilets her dehydration tactic was only successful for about 12 hours haha… we hailed a taxi (with great difficulty) and headed back to our hotel.