As Inner Mongolia blended into North of Beijing, our experience took on a richer and more flavoured hue. The mealtimes became increasingly flamboyant, hotpots and table-side barbecue's burst the gastronomic tension that had built up through Mongolia. As we fell further south the sleeping bag was shed during the nights, and was replaced with a sticky glean of sweat each morning as the humidity boiled up from the crops around us. The arid steppe crinkled up into fertile hills, agriculture and industry encased us more o the time often. We were leaving a geography that had been with us 5000km from Kazakhstan, Xingjiang and the Mongolias, we had set sail across the sea of grass, and had reached the far shore of the Central Asian Steppe. the civilisation around was no longer transitory but static for thousands of years, and so remnants of history emerged in the cities, showing age well-beyond the brand new expansionist cities of Inner Mongolian. Here we started to delve into China's history, and, much more interestingly, it's relationship to it's own history.
Since on our steel steeds we were following precisely in the hoovesteps of the Huns, Mongols and other so-called barbarian peoples, the first clear part of Chinese history we came across were long irregular mounds of compressed earth. Depending on definition, these mounds were our first if unimpressive sight of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall of China is one of the world's greatest misnomers, it is really a series of often unconnected walls, the earliest built in 2000 BC whilst the Ming Great Wall was 'only' built 500 years ago or so. The earliest versions were built before China unified, and were as much to defend from other regions as northern hordes. These walls were less visually and architecturally impressive, and like we saw were built more often by tramped earth than as great limestone or granite edifices. These early sightings would sometimes criss-cross through farmer's fields or were buried beneath petrol stations; as we progressed east of Ulanqab and the terrain cut into jagged-edged valleys, humped extinct watchtowers could be seen on the skyline.
The wall proper began for us in Zhangjiakou, where we rode through the Dajing Gate. This is one of the four major passes of the Wall, and was where the Northern tribes would come to trade their horses and animal skins for Chinese manufactured goods. Because of this funcion, the pass towered above in sheer black bricks, the structure had to impose the apparent sacred might of the Chinese empire upon the tribal traders. It was said that various Chinese Emperors (look up) had disguised themselves as commoners and tried to pass through the gate, to ensure the guards were observing their strict checks. A very risky effort for an emperor to make before the age of photography or dna tests, where a well timed usurper could paint the true emperor as a mad impostor. We had made quite an effort to get to this pass, and added a few km in doing so, the pass was large as gates go, but neither of us seemed especially inspired to the other after viewing. A George Bernard-Shaw quote rung true here: XxXxXxXxXxXxxXxXxXxx.
We worked our way South-East along the Yang River, we were aiming for the primary Great Wall viewing complex at Badaling. As the sun cast it's last reddish rays across a reservoir and surrounding industry, we sped along the hard shoulder of the Expressway in the knowledge a long night's ride would be needed to reach our goal. (note - having to negotiate expressway spider sacrifice for speed). We were to camp in a nature reserve at a the foot of the Great Wall, admittedly illegal but we were quite past this by now. A steep mountain path and several roadblocks led us up there, cloaked by the night we used our covert red lights. I felt a subtle and pleasurable detachment, it took a while to work out what it was. Eventually I realised, this was the first time in over a week that we had been out of earshot of a main road.
The ever-present instant noodles were supped gazing up at the cliff-line, trying to discern in the dark whether we could see a faint crenelated edge of stone against the stars, hearts said yes but the eyes remain unconvinced. We spent the net morning working our way through bemused busloads up to the Badaling Wall site, it's the most touristy and developed part of the wall with a Museum and other accessories. Nevertheless, it's done well and does the monument justice, managing the huge crowds of mainly domestic tourists in and out for their obligatory identikit catalog of 'I'm at the Great wall' selfies. En masse, it is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world, but that is en masse, in any one place only a few km of the edifice can be appreciated and thus it can underwhelm. The imagination must complete the rest of the wonder down the whole wall. Massive museum, done well, and yet the most interesting part at the end Xi Jinping Belt and Road initiative brand new exhibit not quite cleared for tourists, most fascinating part conspicuosly bypasses out of Mongolia. Philip Hammond viewed in a group leader photo in the back row 3 from the right with the other European leaders. Xi next to Putin surrounded by the dictators from all of the Silk Road countries we have visited en rout. shows how the new Eurasian A-team is shaping up.
On diving in to the best English language podcasts the wall has to offer, I gleaned some key observations
1. Originally sign of tyranny for Chinse in construction, men from south dying in Far North, mother's saying - don't have a son he'll only die on the wall.
2. Wall was fairly unsuccessful in it's key purpose, Khan dynasty.
3. During Qing period, Manchu emperors used it to keep people from South from diluting the superior ethnic ppurity of Manchuria, reversed he membrane.
4. During the early modern period Chinese official guides and escorts were seriously unimpressed or careless over wall, most european travelers who were fascinated with it reported how chinese couldn't care less.
5. It was only in the 80s during the post Mao national revival that interest resumed, 3 20yo men privately undertook to be the first people to walk its full length and inadvertently by end they were treasured national celebrities. Then it was used as a symbol of Chinese strength steadfastness and national unity, and brands cashed in on the act, with alcohol, cigarettes and even cleaning products using the name.
6. Now become an obligatory part of chinese domestic tourism, in fulfilling one great china nationhood. revival in history.
Cycling into Beijing, first use of facemasks, but there have been worse times on tour, Beijing seems to have cleaned up its act. took full 3 hours to enter the city, the birds nest lit up at night in pink and purple hue hitting us again to show we were really this far down the line. Inevitable puncture 15 km out from hosts Lucy and Jacob. 9 million bicycles in Beijing. Chunk from Lotus to Beijing was discrete in our mind, and we were jubilant for taking those vast km out.