Well, I made it back safe and sound from Chengde. I have to say that overall it was an interesting adventure. It all started at about 8:30am on Saturday morning. Making the mistake of not buying food the day before, I rushed to take a shower, get dressed and get everything organized before I rushed out the door to grab snacks for the road. Although the program was providing some meals for us, the rest we either had to bring or buy ourselves. Unfortunately our convenience store was not fully stocked that morning so I ended up with some cookies and cranberries. Nutritious lunch, huh?
By 10:30am our whole group had clamored onto the busses and we were on our way. For the first half an hour of the ride, excitement filled the air in the bus. However, when people started realizing that it would be a three hour drive to our first stop, the excitement dulled and sleep overtook most of the bus. I personally spent most of the time reading and listening to music. Part of me is happy I did not take a nap as I probably would have been groggy when we got to the Great Wall but another part of me still wishes I had taken that opportunity as it might have given me more energy.
I believe it was around 1:00-1:30pm by the time we reached the JinShanLing section of the Great Wall. This section of the Great Wall had very few tourists. The benefits to fewer people being that it was relatively quiet, one did not have to fight for picture space and the walk was a lot easier. The stairs on the Great Wall are uneven, there is no pattern to the steps and at times, the stairs are simply rocks from the mountainside the wall was built upon. Needless to say, not only is it a long climb, it is a difficult one. Yet, when you make it to a tower and you can climb up and look around, the view is breathtaking and completely worth the climb. The wall stretches as far as the eye can see. It lines the mountain tops and dives into small valleys. It is unbelievable to think that this was built without modern technology. Few people understand the sheer magnitude of the wall until they have been there in person.
I think that my group probably walked along the wall for about two hours. It was probably the most exhausting thing I have done in a long while. By the time we finally sat to rest, my legs were shaky. I consider myself, for the most part, in pretty good shape. I worked out all summer and I went on many long walks and hikes but there was something about this wall that drained my energy. I will say that the people who walk the wall on a daily basis are probably some of the most in shape people in this world. You may wonder why the Chinese are so tiny. Well, here is your answer: stairs. Everywhere we have gone so far has had stairs. Stairs, stairs and more stairs. I am starting to think that perhaps the people here in China think that Americans are fat and lazy and thus, they are taking us to these places to help us lose some weight (I say that jokingly of course).
When it was finally time to head back down and meet the rest of the group for dinner, we met up with this little old lady who led us down a windy trail through the woods. Oh, and when I say trail, it was more of a deer trail: a small, unkempt dirt path that had just enough room for one person to squeeze through the bushes. But hey, we all survived, thanked the lady and went off to dinner. After only having approximately ten cranberries and two cookies for lunch, you can rest assured that I ate my weight in food for dinner. I do not know exactly what I ate but whatever it was, it was good.
The rest of the night was spent hanging out at the farmers’ compounds. There were a group of about ten people in each compound. I have to say, before I left, I was imagining myself sleeping on bales of hay with pigs snoring next to me. This was not what it was like at all. In fact, it kind of reminded me of a dorm. Each compound had a two story concrete building and within each building there was a common room that led to some bed rooms. Although others were not so lucky in the bedrooms they got (they had concrete slabs for beds) I got a bed that was probably the softest bed I have slept on thus far. As for the burning question that is probably on all of your minds, yes, I conquered the squatter. It actually was a pretty nice one considering the environment we were in. It was a porcelain bowl and everything! Exciting, huh?
That night we all went to bed early as most of us had plans to get up early. We were getting up at 5:00am to climb the Great Wall, once again, and to watch the sunrise from one of the tall towers. It was gorgeous. As we were just reaching the tower, the colors of first light were starting to paint the sky. On one side, I could see the moon lighting the wall as it slowly disappeared over the mountains and on the other side, a sunrise was lighting up the wall in a golden hue. It was a sight that few have probably experienced and I feel extremely thankful that I was able to see it.
Over the course of the rest of that day and the next day, we visited two Buddhist temples and a mountain resort. Guess what? All of them had stairs. Despite this, the temples were extremely interesting. Not only did I get to see the world’s largest wooden Buddha, I got to learn a lot about the Buddhist faith. The temples were a place for people to go and pray but it was also an information center in which visitors could learn about the different Gods and practices of those in the Buddhist faith. At one of the temples, I was able to sneak in on a tour of a main hall in which the Buddhist monks used for mediation and schooling. It was interesting to hear the monk talk of the different paintings, histories and symbolic meanings of the hall. I feel privileged to have been let in on this seemingly secret world.
At the second temple we visited, there was a chain link handrail running up the side of a hill that was filled with locks. Apparently it is a tradition that when a person visits this place, they are to leave their mark in the form of a lock. By putting a lock on the chain, you symbolize a hope for good luck, happiness, fortune, or whatever lock you happen to pick. I picked the luck lock. I figured that luck was an encompassing idea that would cover various aspects of my life. Thus, I carved my initials, my fiancé’s initials into the lock and hung it on the chain. I do not know how long it will stay but I saw a lock on the chain from as early as 2002 so my hope is that my lock will stay on there for years to come. With any luck, if I ever come back to China, I can visit this temple and find the lock.
As mentioned before, we also visited a mountain resort. It is not exactly what it sounds like. The mountain resort was actually a place that emperors and others would visit during the summer for relaxation. The resort itself was not that interesting but walking out the doors, I was greeted with the sight of a beautiful lake. There were pagodas surrounding the lake, small but intricate bridges crossing the smaller water ways and a grassy strip near the lake’s edge that allowed for relaxing. Lucky for us, the weather was extremely nice that day and thus, a big group of us decided to take some time to relax and enjoy the sun and fresh air (yes, there was actually fresh air here). We did not explore as much here as we did other places we visited but I think sitting by the lake was the perfect way to spend our time there. I loved every moment.
Overall, I believe the trip was a success. Although I was exhausted when I got home, I enjoyed my time away from Beijing. This trip made me realize that although this experience has been difficult at times, I will never have a chance like this again and I need to take advantage of every moment.