Me and Chairman Mao
  The Great(est) Wall.
Saturday, accompanied by Holly, my sister, and some other visitors from various Microsoft locations around the world (well, Redmond and Hyderabad, at least), I made my way to yet another section of the Great Wall: Simatai. I'd been wanting to go there for a while because I'd heard it was supposed to be the best section. It's three hours away from Beijing--but just under 80 miles, which will give you a good idea of the road and traffic conditions around here--so it's the least crowded part by far. In addition, it's also the least restored section, meaning that it actually looks the way you'd expect a 500-year-old wall to look like. Unlike, say, the Badaling section, which looks like it was built in the 1950s instead of the 1450s. (Mostly because it was pretty much built in the 1950s, but thatÂ’s beside the point. Apparently "restoration" was a foreign term back then in China.)(Oh wait, it still is.)(Ha!) In fact, the Simatai section is so unrestored that they actually had to close parts of it off because too many people were dying. Seriously.

In any case, the three-hour drive over roads that were good when they were only bumpy was completely worth it--Simatai is by far the best section of the Wall that I've seen. (Even if we had to walk a kilometer up a long, windy footpath to get to the Wall itself because the chairlift that would have taken us directly up to the Wall--thereby letting us save our energy for the walk on the Wall--doesn't start running until April. Jerks.) The Wall itself wound up and down over these craggy cliffs that were so steep they looked more like teeth than mountains. In fact, the Wall was so impossibly steep in parts that if I had seen a shot of it in a film or a picture of it in a magazine I would have sworn it was fake, for the simple reason that, even if someone could conceivably build a wall in such an impossible location, why would they? I kept thinking it looked like--warning, dork reference ahead--something from Lord of the Rings, like maybe if I stood there long enough I would start to see fires appearing, moving from one tower to the next or something like that.

Anyway, without any further adieu than I have already adieud, here are some pictures, which--of course--can never actually capture how cool it actually was. So if you want to find out for yourself, you'll have to come visit us. No pressure. But you'd better hurry, since we won't be around Beijing too much longer--only a few more months. (For those of you who don't know, we are now staying until May 15 now instead of April 15.)(Surprise!)

This was the craziest-looking part of the Wall. I mean, why build a wall there at all? Did they think a lot of armies were going to be climbing over the mountains right at that very spot, and then going on to take Beijing. Because really, I'm doubting that would have happened. As far as I could tell, this part was also one of the sections that was blocked off--we could have gone to the first tower on the left side of the picture, the one that is partially cut off, but no farther. And you thought I was joking about people dying ...

A Bit on the Steep Side
All the Great Wall sections have steep parts, but this was pretty serious. At one point, on a different part of the wall, I did actually see people using all fours to scramble up the steps. And the worst thing was that this was the very first thing you saw once you walked onto the Wall. Nothing like an easy hike to start things off.

Scenic Overview

Holly, me, and my sister (in order--my grammar's not that bad) at one of our resting points--which were very, very frequent--on the Wall.

Scenic and Crumbly

As I said earlier, the coolest thing about the Simatai wall is that it looks like a 500-year-old wall should. You know, like this picture below. The farther away we got from the "entrance" to the Wall, the less restored the Wall seemed to be. Here, for example, they didn't bother rebuilding the tower or the sides of the wall (as opposed to the picture above of the first section of the wall), although--to be honest--given how steep the hillsides were on some sections, a retaining wall would not have been an unwelcome addition.

Also Scenic and Crumbly
I think the title above says it all? The last tower in the picture--you can see people standing on the top--was as far as we got, having taken over an hour to walk (as far as I could tell) less than one kilometer. From there, it wasn't actually too far to the point where you can't go any further--not without risking serious injury, anyway--but we all agreed that we had walked far enough, so we turned around. Which was just as well, because after walking back down my legs were not exactly feeling fresh. In fact, "shaky" might be a much better word for how they felt.

Also Scenic and ... Never Mind
What's more fun than walking up these steep, crumbling, uneven steps? Walking back down them, of course.

Evil Chinese Gangster. Maybe.
We couldn't figure out what this guy's deal was. For the first half of our walk, we were followed by a large group of Chinese people--who were, obviously, in much, much better shape than us--trying to sell us all matter of things, from Great Wall books to bottles of water to cigarettes. Because really, when you're tired, sweating, and completely out of breath, nothing could be better than puffing on a nice, smooth Panda or a Panda Light. Welcome to flavor country, indeed. But this guy never actually said anything to us or the Chinese trinket sellers--he just shadowed us the entire time. Based on that, and the way some of the Chinese peddlers seemed to whisper when we started talking about prices for postcards, we decided that he was there to enforce some sort of minimum price and make sure people didn't sell things too cheaply. But then again, maybe he was just bored. Either way, I like this picture.

The Reservoir
Did I mention that Simatai was picturesque? This reservoir--the water was a dark blue and completely translucent--bisected the Wall. The path on the left side of the picture that shadows the lake is the trail we had to hike up to get to the Wall. The best part though, was the zip line. Yes, the zip line. After getting off the Wall, if you so desired, you could--rather than walk down the aforementioned path back to the exit--zip line over the reservoir and save yourself five minutes or so. You can't see the start of the zip line, but it would it be just beyond the bottom right of the picture. You can, however, see the end. Look at the wall that stretches out into--but doesn't go all the way across--the reservoir. On the right side, you can see a little spur of land that juts out, and a building with an orange roof. (Although in the picture it just looks sort of like a shiny half-moon that is much lighter than the dirt and bushes that surround it.) Whatever the case, that is the end of the zip line, so you did actually go right over the water. Which was comforting, in a way, since at least if the line broke--safety standards not being up to US-standards here--you'd fall into the water. Freezing cold water, yes, but water nonetheless. Better than falling onto dirt or pavement, at any rate.

Holly on the Zip Line
Holly on the zip line, almost at the end of the ride. It was definitely fun, but to be honest, I liked the slide at the Mutianyu section better. It was more interactive. On the zip line, once you got over the initial five-second rush, you realized you were just sort of slowly--much to slowly!--floating along toward the end, and it stopped being exciting. With the slide--or nonirrigated farmland sled, as they called it--you were in charge of both the braking and the accelerating, so you could go as fast as you wanted. Which was not that fast--not after I slid way up the side of the ramp on the first sharp turn and almost completely wiped out, anyway--but it was still fun.

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