08.01.2010 - 10.01.2010 -15 °C
During my last day in Xi'an I had started to feel just a little under the weather, but I thought it was combination of smog and fatigue from all the walking I'd been doing as well as the ridiculous bike ride I'd taken along Xi'an's city walls. It wasn't until I boarded my train to Beijing that I knew for sure I had caught some sort of cold. Luckily, the journey was only 11 hours and I had bought the highest class ticket (Soft Sleeper) on a much nicer train so the amount of mysery was kept to a minimum.
So far in China all the destinations I had been to only had "K" trains running along their routes. The "K" trains are some of the oldest trains on the railway network. They are slow, cold and the carridges I travelled on only had squat toilets. I won't go in to too much detail about the quality of these squat toilets, suffice to say I felt like dunking myself in to a vat full of disinfectant every time I used one. At least I always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer with me, otherwise I would have gone insane - I'm one of those neurotic people that uses their elbows to push elevator buttons and door handles in public places. Because the train route from Xi'an to Beijing is quite major, I could finally opt for one of the nicer "Z" trains which are much faster, cleaner and the better class ticket carridges have very comfortable beds in lockable compatments - not to mention they have relatively nice and clean Western style toilets.
There was only one other person in my four bed compartment and he was a business man from Xi'an who spoke decent English. He was polite and friendly although very serious but at least I was able to have have a conversation with somebody on a train, even though it was just small talk. Not feeling the best, I had an early night and was fast asleep before 10 pm. At around 5:30 am I was awakened by the Chinese version of elevator-style music that they play when the train nears its destination.
That morning I realised I had caught something a little worse than the common man-cold when I started feeling all the classic symptoms of the flu. These included a sore body (I swear even my hair hurt), a slight fever, a cold sweat, a light-headedness feeling whenever I turned my head and just an all round miserable feeling. I started to worry a little, not only because I could have contracted the dreaded H1N1 virus, but also because I was due to fly out of the country in only six days time and most airports are measuring passenger's temperatures before boarding. All of this and I also had to deal with arriving in a brand new city where the temperature was a bone chilling -18 C (officially the coldest place I'd ever been to). To be honest, with all the spitting and uncovered mouth coughing and sneezing that Chinese people do, I wasn't particularly surprised that I had caught the flu - I did almost predict me contracting it in an earlier blog. The only thing that stopped me from going to a doctor, was that my lungs were fine and I was still breathing easy.
Unfortunately my journey for that day was still not over because I was not staying in central Beijing that day. I had already booked two nights at a hostel in Badaling which is just over an hour northwest of the center of Beijing and one of the largest and most popular entry points to the Great Wall of China. To get there I had to catch a train from the Beijing North Railway station and I had just arrived at the Beijing West station. This meant catching a bus then walking a few blocks to the Beijing North Railway station before finally catching a final train to Badaling.
It had snowed quite heavily in Beijing about a week before I got there and although the roads and most of the footpaths had been cleared of much of the snow, it was still piled up on the side of the footpaths and really slushy in places. The worst part was that I didn't know which way to start walking from the bus stop and it took me a while to find someone who spoke English so I could get directions. By the time that happened, I had already walked two long blocks in the completely wrong direction. Even though I spotted the roof of the train station pretty quickly, the area was not very pedestrian friendly and it took me around 45 minutes in total to negotiate my way there with all the detours I had to take around barriers, motorways and snow piles. Walking around with a steadily worsening flu along the freezing cold and slippery streets from the bus stop to the railway station with a pack on my back was without a doubt the lowest point in my trip so far. It was quite a relief once I had bought my train ticket and got to rest for about an hour until my train started boarding.
The snowy views outside the train from Beijing to Badaling
After finally arriving in Badaling, all the other passengers (day trippers to the Great Wall) headed north towards the Wall's entrance. I was left alone on the steps of the tiny station inspecting the directions to my hostel that I had printed out. The directions told me it was only a short 5 minute walk and that I should head south for about 30 meters and then cross the railway tracks to the nearby Badaling Village, but after walking for about 50 meters along the empty road, there was still no sign of a crossing and I thought perhaps the map had been incorrect, or even worse, that I had gotten off at the wrong station. Even though it was sunny, there was a gusty cold wind blowing and I didn't want to risk walking around for hours looking for it in the cold so I headed back to the station where I showed the hostel's address (written in Chinese) to the non-English speaking guard standing inside the doorway. After looking at the address for a while looking rather pensive and mumbling to himself in Chinese, he pointed north, and said "Twenty minute". Not surprisingly, I was not particularly confident with his directions but I started walking northwards anyway whilst looking for someone that could give me a second opinion. Unfortunately the street was now almost completely desterted except for a lonely brown mini van parked underneath a bridge with a man sitting behind the wheel and a woman standing next to the open side door. They were both looking at me quite eagerly and it wasn't long before I realised it was an illegal taxi. As I approached, the woman pointed to the open door and said, "Hello? Taxi?" I knew the hostel wasn't far but I would have taken the taxi just so I could get to the right place and somewhere warm as quickly as possible. I showed her the address to which she reacted in a similar manner to the railway station guard. After a while, she also pointed north and said, "Yes. Taxi" and gestured for me to get inside the van - I asked, "How far? How long?". She pointed north and said "Thirty minute". Now I knew something was wrong because the hostel was supposed to be only a 5 minutes walk, how could it have been 30 minutes by taxi? I said "No thank you, I walk" and continued northwards. This didn't deter her because she started following me on foot, repeatedly shouting "Hello? Taxi? Hello?". No matter how much I dismissed or ignored her, she went on and on until I finally had enough so I turned around and shouted "No taxi! Bu yao! Bu yao!". Finally it was silent, though rather comically about 10 seconds later I heard a distant and solitary, "Hello? ...Taxi?"
Eventually I reached a small complex of buildings where I spotted a small cafe with a woman standing inside near the door. I walked inside and she greeted me with a big smile so I showed her the address. She proceeded to have a long discussion in Chinese with another staff member who also came over and joined her in studying the address while I stood there once again not feeling too confident. Finally she turned to me and gestured for me to follow her as she walked out the door. She took me to a bigger, flashier cafe across the road and about a block away. After the two women had a short discussion in Chinese, the woman from this other cafe greeted me with near perfect English and told me her brother owned the cafe as well as the hostel I was looking for and she was going to call them so they could come and pick me up. With a mixture of relief and skeptisim, I thanked them and sat down to wait on one of their comfortable couches. About two minutes later, a very friendly woman walked in and said, "Joshua? You booked through hostelworld?". With a big sigh of relief, I replied, "Yes!" and just managed to restrain myself from hugging her (I had justifiably suspected this was going to be a scam to get me to go to a different hotel). I thanked everybody again and two minutes later I was at the entrance to the hostel. It turned out that I had initially walked in the right direction from the station, but their "30 meters" estimate was off by about 150 meters (the directions I've been given by hostels in China are almost always incredibly vague and/or inaccurate).
From the outside, the hostel looked quite cold and isolated, surrounded by only a few other buildings and large flat areas covered in a thick blanket of snow. In the background you could see an endless row of snow laden hills and the only sound you could hear was the howling wind.
The area around the Great Wall Courtyard Hostel (right), in Badaling
My fears about the hostel disappeared as soon as I walked in and caught sight of their courtyard. It was sealed from the outside by a roof surrounded by large windows that let in lots of sunshine. All of the guest rooms had doors and windows that faced directly on to the courtyard and a small pond with a fountain and gold fish lay at the center. Around the edges of the courtyard there were several tables and comfortable looking couches. The whole place was tastefully decorated with lanterns and wooden furniture which gave it an authentic Chinese look and feel.
A Buddha statue facing the entrance of the hostel
The pond, furniture and rooms surrounding the courtyard
The courtyard of The Great Wall Courtyard Hostel in Badaling
Even better, I had actually booked a bed in their six bed dorm, but the dorm was under renovation so I was given a private double room for the same price. This was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time given that I was feeling absolutely miserable with the flu. My room was not only equipped with AC but it also had one of the old style water radiator heaters so it was warm, dry and cosy.
My room seen from the courtyard at the hostel
It wasn't long before I was tucked up in bed in the fetal position and sleeping like a baby (yes I know, I'm pathetic). When I woke up at around 7 pm, I ventured out of my room and was immediately invited by the hostel staff to join them and the other guests for a free home cooked meal. The only other guests was a couple from Australia who were making their way home through Asia after having lived and worked in London for the last three years. The food was delicious, or at least I think it was delicious because I couldn't really taste anything by that stage. There couldn't have been a better time for me to get a hearty home cooked meal as well as several cups of steaming hot green tea. The hostel is owned and operated by a husband and wife team and some of their extended family. Apart from the wife who spoke almost perfect English, the rest could only speak a little, but they were genuinely friendly, hospitable and obviously very keen to make their guests feel comfortable.
After dinner, I excused myself and headed back to bed so I could get as much sleep as possible. Unfortunately that night my body begun attempts to detoxify so I woke up in the middle of the night suffering from a dripping cold sweat which is not the best thing when you're away from home and unable to change the sheets. Luckily I was in a double room with two beds so I just changed beds instead!
The next day was a little overcast but with only the slightest of breezes. I don't know what temperature it was, but it was definitely in the double figures below zero. Having no wind was the important part because that day I planned to visit the Great Wall of China and I didn't want to get hypothermia at the same time as having the flu which would probably have meant the end of me. Now, usually common sense would have told me that going out on a long walk in the freezing cold whilst suffering from the flu would have been a rather stupid idea, but I thought I travelled all this way and this was probably the only chance I would ever get to see the Great Wall, so in the end it was an easy decision. Actually, originally I was planning on taking a tour to one of the more remote parts of the wall, but this involved a bit of a hike and most of the tours had been cancelled due to the deep snow and now because of my flu I had no choice but to take the easier option.
I had a huge breakfast at the hostel, then geared up with several layers of clothing, including thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, two pairs of trousers, a t-shirt, two long sleeve tops, a jacket, insulated gloves, a scarf, a hat and a thermus (hot water bottle) full of boiling water. By the time I had walked to the entrance about 2 kms from the hostel, I was actually sweating so I had to remove one of my long sleeve tops and tie it around my waist.
The Badaling entrance to the Great Wall of China seen from the section before the first tower
The first part of the wall was quite crowded, though I was told it was very quiet compared to what it's like in the high season. The views were quite spectacular, especially with the snow around the hills and you could see the wall zig zagging up, down and side to side far into the distant hills. Walking along it became a cycle of punishment (long steep climbs) followed by rewards (excellent views and easy downhills).
Along the side of the Great Wall near the entrance
Yes, I was really at the Great Wall of China
The poor girl that took the above photo was almost a bit reluctant and I knew exactly why, she had to take her glove off to press the button and even a few seconds without gloves became quite uncomfortable.
After a couple of hours, I reached the highest point on my walk which was a tower on the tallest hill in the vicinity. There I rested for a while gazing at the views - actually, I rested at every tower that I reached. I would lean against the wall of the tower, sheltering from the chilly breeze whilst sipping hot water poured from my thermus.
Me standing at the highest point that I reached on the Great Wall of China
Almost everybody that reached this high point, took a few snaps, then promptly turned around and doubled back the way they had come. Luckily I had insider knowledge after talking to the Australian couple from the hostel the night before. They had already visited the Great Wall and they told me that you could continue along the wall until you reached a large red flag with Chinese characters on it, and this flag marked a small underpassage that led to a different entry point to the wall. After that you could walk along the main road for a couple of kilometers before linking up with the main Badaling entrance where you had started. So I set off on my own down the empty section of the wall, and this definitely became the highlight of my walk. I was virtually on my own and I was confident I would make it back before it got dark because I spotted something red on the side of the wall in the far distance. It was extremely quiet and peaceful and even though there were still a few steep climbs, the majority of this section was now down hill.
An isolated part of the Great Wall, I was the only one around in this section for several kilometers in either direction
Parts of the wall were really steep and had no steps, I would have been sliding down the icy path if it weren't for the hand rails
Even though I was at the most popular and touristy parts of the Great Wall, it actually felt like I was in one of the remote parts. It was really peaceful and the only sound you could hear was a slight breeze whistling through the wall's turrets and my shoes crunching the small amounts of snow still left around the edges of the wall. I reached my last tower where I took a long break just gazing at the wall which went on and on into the distance.
The view down the empty wall from within one of the towers
Strangely enough, throughout most of my walk, I didn't feel that bad and I almost forgot that I was sick. Perhaps I was distracted by the incredible views or the concentration I was putting in while negotiating the tricky steep steps.
I got back to the hostel just as it was starting to get dark outside and I headed straight to bed after taking a long hot shower. My mission had been accomplished and I could then get on with relaxing and just trying to recover. I slept for a couple of hours before I heard a gentle knock on my door. I opened it to find the young niece of the owners inviting me for another one of their free home cooked meals, this time a traditional Chinese "Hot Pot". How could I say no? Once again it was nice to have a hot, home cooked meal, as well as a couple of beers!
Our Chinese Hot Pot dinner - The couple who owns the hostel are on the left, their niece is in the middle and the Australian couple on the right (unfortunately I forgot everyone's names except for the woman owner who's name is Nie)
This hostel was probably the best place I could have stayed at considering how I was feeling. It was hands down the best hostel I stayed at in China. It had plenty of character, the rooms were very comfortable, the staff were genuinely friendly and to top it off, we got free home cooked meals every night I was there. They quite justifiably got a brilliant review and top marks from me on the hostelworld website (I forgave them for the bad directions).
So that was it for my Great Wall adventure, though my sickness continued for a few more days, but don't worry, I'll try to keep the complaining and feeling sorry for myself down to a minimum on my next blog.
And mum, don't worry, I'm fine now.
Hui tou jian!