While the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China is one of the least known parts of the iconic landmark, its culture and the amazing surrounding scenery are surprisingly untouched by Western society. Even after 1300 years of existence, the Great Wall still remains one of the most original and traditional features of China, and has been kept in pristine condition in spite of the numerous attacks made on it over the last millennium.
By Kit Lindgren
When the taxi finally rattles to life, and I’ve grown accustomed to the pungent smell of decayed cigarette smoke that appears to seep out of the seats, I finally begin to appreciate the beautiful scenery around us. The glistening white snow, freshly fallen last night, is the clear attraction for Western tourists like me. But it also brings about disadvantages of its own. Already, through five layers of clothing, the cold still manages to reach me. A quick glance at the thermometer on my Chinese watch confirms my thoughts – the air outside is 15 degrees below zero. The minute taxi driver who we have hired for the day (for about $60 AUD) does not seem to feel this penetrating cold, despite his light jumper and jeans; a sign that he is used to this bitter weather. The engine now is rattling consistently, obstructing the strange Oriental music emanating from the radio, and averting all thoughts of sleep. Besides, a 75 kilometre drive through the countryside of Beijing is no reason to fall asleep. Another look outside gives me my first glimpse of the Great Wall, shimmering on the peak of the mountains. The distance between us indicates that another two or so hours will pass before we reach it.
Upon arrival at Mutianyu, what first meets my eye is a surprisingly simple Chinese village, despite the constant flow of tourists who pass through it every day. Old women clad in warm shawls and scarves are crouched outside their crumbling homes, desperately trying to sell multicoloured garments. A bird is squawking in a cage that hangs above a pile of clothes featuring every colour of the rainbow. Heavily scented spices waft through the air, giving the little town a sense of warmth. The saddening part of this scene is the fact that no tourists appear to have helped the families living here, in spite of their wonderful culture and willingness to share.
I find the chairlift going up to the wall, pay the seven dollar fee, and sit on the cold metal seat. When the lift starts up, I hastily bring down the safety lever so I am not thrown out by an unpleasant lurch in the wire. As the thin little chair leaves the enclosed shed and moves out into the open, the view is absolutely breathtaking. The mountains do not even appear real; they are simply as if somebody has thrown down a great lump of vanilla ice-cream from the sky, and dumped a pile of crushed Oreos all over it. And best of all, the Great Wall is looming ahead, perched on top of the ice-cream ridge, waiting to be visited. A woman in front of us swivels away from the mountains and looks down towards the ground, giving an unexpected shriek of terror. I cannot resist the temptation, and I mimic her action. The ground is quite far below, and covered in shards of ice and rock. To fall from such a height would mean certain death, but it is nearly impossible to feel concerned about this when the thing you have been waiting for is a mere 20 metres ahead. The chairlift touches down on solid rock, and I immediately move to the stairs, leaving the poor woman who was in front of me to lie on the ground, relieved.
The only feeling that one could describe when situated atop such an iconic place is being on top of the world. The mountain range upon which the Great Wall is perched is far higher than the surrounding ones, giving the viewer an illusion that they are above everything else in the world. Along the length of the wall are various structures, ranging from outposts and rooms to cannons and stone ladders. Early this morning, someone must have cleaned off all the snow on the thousands of steps in this two-kilometre stretch, allowing access to most parts of the wall. Occasionally I can see a hermit operating a stall, trying desperately to sell packets of chips, chocolate bars and soft drink to feed his family. But I know that the price he is offering for this merchandise will not attract any customers, as the exact same products can be bought at a local Carrefour in Beijing for half the cost. Oddly, no rice fields or terraced crop farms are visible across the landscape, a sure sign that the people of this area rely almost entirely on tourism to support their community. There are no people in the countryside, except for a small group ice-skating on a pond far into the distance. I walk through all this scenery, oblivious to the outside world, simply embodying the peace and quiet of the Great Wall of China.
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