Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Days 180 and 185: Some Walls: Mutianyu and Huanghua

Mutya Buena (born 21 May 1985) is an English recording artist who rose to fame as a member of girl group the Sugababes. With the Sugababes, Buena had four UK number one singles, an additional six top-ten hits and three multi-platinum albums. After leaving the group in December 2005, she released her debut solo album, Real Girl, in June 2007. In October 2010, Buena released a compilation album dedicated to British singers, titled Sound Of Camden: Mutya Buena.

Mutya Buena should not be confused with the Mutianyu section (built 1569) of the Great Wall of China, which is, of course, an entirely different thing.

I've never met Mutya Buena, but I had the good fortune to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China last week. Located about an hour north of Beijing, it is one of the most well regarded of all the sections of the Wall, being a mixture of the restored and the crumbling, and featuring a high concentration of watchtowers along its length. As per all the classic images of the Wall, it clings to the tops of mountains and meanders about as though its entire construction was planned and executed by drunkards. Regular straight lines and corners are what we've come to expect from buildings, wherever we are in the world, so seeing something that's just all over the place confounds the eye and our expectations. It's only really in the modern age that architecture has gone for the irregular and the unexpected, made possible, largely, in advances in engineering; we just don't expect ancient constructions to twist their way up and down mountains with sudden changes of direction and acute angles. Of course, the Wall was simply built step by step to follow the mountains, and so break it down into segments and it becomes a lot more sensible and regular, but stand upon it and witness the whole thing disappear into the distance in two directions leaving an erratic stone trail behind and it just seems so... improbable. Improbable, and incredible.

What is also incredible is the lack of easy transportation to Mutianyu. This isn't an obscure Wonder in an obscure country, this is one of the most regarded sections of one of the most famous landmarks in the world, just a short distance from the highly modern and efficient Beijing metropolis. Arrive at Mutianyu and you'll find yourself greeted with a not dissimilar sight as that of tourist-favourite Badaling: cable cars, and dozens of souvenir stalls and over-eager vendors. I was surprised. My impression had been that Mutianyu would be more remote and less commercial than Badaling (and so it proved, ultimately), but it cost the same to enter and had much the same tourist set-up, albeit on a smaller scale than Badaling's madness. The crowds were less, but there were still quite a lot of tourists milling around the Wall's entrances. But where Badaling has loads of direct buses, Mutianyu has none. In peak season, I believe, there might be some operating on weekends and holidays, but for half the year this world famous landmark has none.

This made reaching Mutianyu a frustrating one. If I'd stuck to my plan and taken the correct bus - the 916 - to the nearby town of Huairou, then got a cheap taxi, I'd have been fine. But I fell for a minor but irritating scam. At the bus station, a woman in uniform approached to help. I had the names of my destinations written in Chinese, and she directed me to a different bus, the 980, which also went to Huairou - or so she said. To get to Badaling, I'd taken a different bus than expected, and it had been fine; for Mutianyu, this was not the case. The 980 went to an entirely different town, called Miyun, and waiting for me there were some taxi drivers. Sure, they could take me to Mutianyu, but it was far away and would cost more. Having developed a sense for scams, I immediately realised what had happened, that is the bus station woman had misled me, put me on the wrong bus, and contacted the Miyun taxi mafia to let them know. This has since been confirmed by checking and seeing similar tales online. Annoyed, I was all set to get on a bus straight back to Beijing, which had the effect, at least, of bringing the taxi price down until it became a little more reasonable. But I was still irritated upon finally getting to Mutianyu, a hour later than it should have been.

No matter. Because the great Wonders have a way of making the irritations of normal life seem trivial, and the Great Wall quite literally rises above most of normal life. Eschewing the cable car, I made my way on foot beyond the vendors and up a sharp incline to reach an entry, via a watchtower, on the Wall, finding myself pretty damn exhausted even before I was standing on the Wall: Mutianyu is perched on a rather steep slope. But already - and this was far from the Wall's peak - I was up high and the small frustrations of the morning and the rest of the world were far below.

Mutianyu means, literally, "Admire Fields Valley", though this seems a clumsy translation despite being the one widely given. But you get the point. On the Wall, on the mountain, the rest of the world, and its fields and its valleys, stretch out before you. I can't say that this is a feature particular only to Mutianyu, but perhaps in summer it becomes more pronounced. During winter this part of the world sees little in the way of precipitation: it is a very cold and dry season. Summer is a different story, with heat and rain and lots and lots of greenery - a noticeboard by the entrance to Mutianyu proudly announces a surrounding forest coverage of 96% (not sure where this leaves the fields though).

The part intended for tourists in Mutianyu is as restored as that in Badaling. The condition is therefore good and is all that would be seen by the casual visitor. If you're feeling a little lazy, or simply pushed for time as your tour bus isn't waiting for long, it would be pretty easy just to take one cable car up, walk along a five hundred metre section, then take the other cable car down. The crowds are much less, the experience a lot more relaxing than Badaling, and the views offered are superb. A pleasant and gentle hour's stroll.

Of course, that is absolutely not the way to do it.

The Great Wall is very long and is meant for walking. And Mutianyu rewards a walk. Like Badaling, it can be alarmingly steep at times, and some parts left me heaving for breath, but keep going and suddenly you reach... the end. No, not the end of the actual Wall, but the end of the restored part. A lacklustre sign informs you that the tourist part has ended, but it's placed almost apologetically next to the pathway, and a couple of vendors are hanging around just beyond, so it's not a Badaling-style enforced stop. You can just keep on going. And the Wall changes... no longer is it well-kept and manicured, it suddenly turns to a big pile of rubble.

It's eminently charming. There's something very evocative about ruins, bringing with them the sense of age and time passed, as though a life has been lived. That's not to say the facelift given to the restored sections aren't great, though the critics might claim they lack authenticity, but the more natural, untouched parts are very appealing, having a kind of rugged, rustic good looks. Perhaps unique among the world's Wonders, the Great Wall is lucky that by virtue of its massive size, it can afford to have some sections entirely reconstructed, and some left to the elements. A little work appears to have been done at some time to the further reaches of Mutianyu, such as bushes cut back or small areas rebuilt, but the effect overall is one of natural weathering over the years.

Even before reaching the unrestored part, the light crowds had thinned to the occasional person, but by the time I'd clambered up another steep, gravelling slope, and made my way through clumps of bushes, I was the last man standing. And for an entire hour, I saw not a single other soul, even in the distance. It was a calm winter day, and once I stopped clambering and my breathing had died down, there was absolute silence. Just silence. Alone on the Great Wall of China without a sound.

There's not much more I can say. Here's some photos.

It's something I'll repeat because it's worth repeating: the Great Wall is big. It's one of the most obvious statements in the world, but until I'd actually been on it, walked for hours upon it, and then seen it continue into the distance and beyond, perched precariously and ludicrously on top of mountains, I'd never fully appreciated it. It goes on and on and on. Every time I'd staggered up a new ascent, heaving for breath, a brand new panorama would unfold, always with the Wall clinging to the peaks and ridges. Every time I saw more I wanted to keep going, fighting through my exhaustion, because although in the end it's all just more of the same, more Wall, more mountain, the novelty never faded. It never grew less incredible. It only whetted my appetite. I want to see more Wall. I never wanted to stop. Give me it restored, give me it ruined, I don't care.

It was at Huanghua ("Yellow Flowers" - makes more sense in summer), on a bright and sunny day suggesting at warmth, that the reason for the Wall's appeal snapped into focus. Previously, my visits had always been in very overcast conditions. For Huanghua, the day was light and the mountainside beaming. The Wall did its usual winding, clinging, climbing sort of thing, zigzagging and twisting up and down steep slopes, but backed by a blue sky it had an extra clarity. Not only was it running along the spines of mountains, it enhanced the spines. The defining appeal occurred to me: the Great Wall augments the natural world. Despite my man-made Wonder mission, I'll be the first to admit that the natural world wins hands down on scenes of breathtaking scope and beauty. Take a mountain vista, an arcing beach, a cascading waterfall, a plunging gorge, a seeming infinity of desert dunes - it's difficult for mankind's humble efforts to really compare. Only our very greatest manage it, our Wonders. The Taj Mahal and its sublime beauty succeeds. And the Great Wall? It doesn't try. Instead, it takes a mountain and it makes it better. It becomes like a natural feature, like a river running through a valley - but the opposite. It is inverted, an anti-river, running along the tops of mountains as though on its natural winding course.

For the best in scenery and evocative ruins, with a little bit of restoration but without any crowds whatsoever, the Huanghua section of the Great Wall will be hard to beat. It was straightforward to get to as well - this time I correctly managed the 916 bus to Huairou (that uniformed woman at the bus station again tried to mislead me, but I just looked at her and said "NO!" loudly at her), and easily negotiated with a very friendly taxi driver who drove and waited for me at the nominated entrance. However, had I been inclined, I could have waited a little and taken a bus that went right by it.

Despite being a little easier to get to, Huanghua is considerably less developed as a tourist destination. In fact, signs as you approach inform you that it is closed for tourism, and vaguely imply punishments for offenders. There are no souvenir stalls, no cable cars, no people in fact anywhere trying to sell stuff or make money. My taxi driver dropped me off at a small reservoir, across the dam of which I went, walking by the side of the wall until a man appeared and charged me 2 RMB (20p!) to enter. I meandered up a slope and found this.

Yes, a ladder is required to get onto the Huanghua section of the Wall. Usually the entry point is through a stairway inset into a watchtower, but this stairway is only ever entered via the original Chinese side. The other side would have been where the barbarians were - and clearly the Chinese didn't build a convenient stairway for them. And for all my talk about beauty, arriving at the barbarian side of the Huanghua wall reminded me that the the remit of the Wall was never about beauty, it was about defence. This big series of walls rides the top of mountains not to impress us, but to make it bloody difficult for the invaders to get by. Never mind that the politics of the situation these hundreds of years ago made the Wall somewhat of a ruinously expensive folly, the function of the Wall was defence, to keep the other side out, and being around eight metres high and on top of mountains made this pretty effective. Even if you had a ladder - you try climbing that with a bunch of guys swinging swords and firing arrows at you.

There was a Chinese guy a little ahead of me, but it appeared he was there just for a casual look and quickly turned back. After that, I didn't see a single soul for another three hours. On my way back, I encountered a Russian guy and a group of three Chinese guys, but that was the grand total of all the people on the Huanghua section during my time. That's the joy of the Great Wall. You've got a small section at Badaling, and to some degree Mutianyu too, and they soak up the bulk of the tourism. At Huanghua the Wall is equally as gorgeous, it spans the mountains with equal glory, but you've got it all to yourself.

This sense of absolute peace and isolation, added to the terrific bright weather, helped the Huanghua section to be my favourite so far. The initial part is fairly restored, but quickly it deteriorates into a joyous pile of rubble. Some of this is treacherously steep and I was clinging to the side as I inched my way down. Some sections had collapsed entirely and I had to do a small amount of actual climbing.

Towards the point where I had to eventually turn back due to time, the Wall just gave up at point where the mountain was too steep, and I had to do a respectable amount of rock climbing to meet the Wall again. This was fine going up, but climbing back down was pretty damn scary, with not much in the way footholds, an icy wind gusting, and a sheer drop that wasn't wanting to show me much mercy. I could see why the tour groups of old folk didn't bother with Huanghua. The view though, once all this clambering was done, was just incredible.

If I'm to continue describing Huanghua, I'm just going to descend into strings of superlatives. It might have done my legs in - two days later and my knees are still recovering - but it was a delight from start to finish.

After I visited the Taj Mahal and proclaimed it the best thing I'd seen, I couldn't imagine anything possibly bettering it. I didn't expect the Great Wall to even come close - to be honest, I was prepared for a creeping sense of disappointment. Well, it turns out that the Wall is right up there. It's a staggering creation. I've still got some sections to visit and still got my official review to write, but already I've got an idea as to where it'll be ranked in my ever-growing Wonder league table. I thought that the Taj Mahal was firmly cemented in first place, but 6000 miles of the Great Wall of China have come along to vigorously shake loose these supposed solid foundations. Whether or not it can topple the Taj Mahal from its lofty podium position is not a discussion for now though - it can wait until I've seen a little more and written my review. For now it's enough to know that "Great" is only one of many such words to describe this Wall; here's some more, take your pick (I'm a fan of the "Brobdingnagian Wall" personally).

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