It was a leisurely morning prior to packing the bags, getting the truck off the forecourt and setting off for the first time.
It was quite exciting entering Penelope – our vehicle and constant companion for the next three months. After initial briefing on the truck and it’s features, or lack of them – there is no air conditioning, no loo and no seat belts – we were told of our initial allocated tasks. Keith (and his vertigo) is the roof monitor and is required to go on top of the bus to stow rubbish and get down camping equipment and I, with a couple of others, are responsible for keeping the truck interior clean for this sector of the journey. (On my texting this news to my sister the quickest reply ever came back saying ‘Oh dear’. I am not certain what she was implying ……!)
Roles rotate so who knows what is to come.
The next issue was getting the truck off the forecourt of the hotel. No mean task with very little room to manoeuvre and a narrow busy street to turn into! Simon, one of our two man crew and driver, was amazing but it caused some consternation to all who watched this enormous vehicle effectively do a three point turn in a road little more than one car’s width! However, the impossible happened and we were off into the Beijing traffic.
As we travelled along it became clear that Penelope attracts more than just the passing glance. On several occasions we saw car passengers on one occasion a driver take photographs as we passed. Scary!
One of the things we saw as we travelled towards the outskirts of the city was the birds nest arena that was built for the Olympic Games. In daylight it appeared as a sort of cats cradle of concrete, but Ken our keen photographer, went to the stadium one evening and took photographs when it was all lit up and it took on a whole new persona. It was magical in his pictures. Not so in daylight.
Leaving the city behind us, a 3 hour drive took us to our overnight accommodation at Jinshanling a small village at the base of the hill leading up to the Wall. After checking in we took the cable car (another challenge for Keith and his vertigo) over the valley and up to the Wall. How amazing life is. I walked for five days on the Wall of China about twenty years ago on a charity walk for a local hospice. That was a very special experience and I never expected to pass this way again – and here I am. Older but probably no wiser and certainly less agile! As we walked along, constantly going up and down with the contours of the hills, I realised that I would find it difficult now to keep it going for any length of time.
What an incredible structure it is. Stretching off into the distance in the sunlight softened by the heat haze (this term has now taken the place of the steam of the city in my vocabulary!) the Wall meanders towards the horizon in both directions. The two to three kilometres we covered was all restored. They have obviously seen the tourist attraction this wonder provides and have restored more of it than when I walked it. This section now has its side walls in place and the various gates and watch towers are more or less rebuilt. My memory is of walking on unrestored sections with no side walls and where the width had eroded to about 18 inches. If my memory serves me correctly I believe it was built to accommodate 6 horses riding abreast…..
It is also said that the bones of all those who died building the Wall were used to good effect as they became part of it. Waste not want not, I suppose.
We had the Wall almost to ourselves as it was early evening. There were a few Chinese, the occasional intrepid drinks seller and at one point a management programme taking place – complete with flip charts!! I know my friend Chris Howe gets involved in this sort of training on the Wall of China which I have always thought very impressive. Thinking about it I guess it takes team building on the basis of the shared experience to a whole new level! Perched up on the top of the world (that is how it feels) you cannot help but share a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience and see things differently.
After celebrating Sarah’s birthday with a cake, card and singing Happy Birthday to You at one of the watch towers (much to the amazement of a passing Chinese family), we continued our stroll with some taking the opportunity to walk back to the hotel at the first available opportunity to get down, while a few others of us opted to extend the experience by another kilometre to the next exit point. It was a lovely evening with a refreshing cool breeze. Excellent!
Descending the exit point steps and passing a stylised statue of the dreaded Genghis Khan on his horse and a large freeze depicting his entry into China we left the wall behind and walked down the road. It was not long until we reached a road side shop where cold beers and a drink provided a jolly self congratulatory refreshment.
It was more or less time for supper when we got back to the hotel so we marched off to the neon lit dining room and shared yet another interesting selection of food. Our two vegetarians, Wendy and Sarah (of the birthday fame) did not do quite so well as they ended up with just broccoli and rice as their chosen pea dish proved to be garnished with meat. It was a good job that they had a slap up Italian meal the night before in Beijing just in case things proved tricky on the road……. Thank goodness for the cake!