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Ventures of Shang‘high’ and the Greatest Wall on Earth

Wow - what an incredible couple of days!
We have spent the past few days hiking unrestored parts of the Great Wall from a little ancient village called Gu bei kou.

After visiting a popular section of the wall with a tour last week we really wanted to see more; only outside of the popular tourist areas and somewhere which was still untouched from its original form. Gu bei kou, a small village 120km’s north-east of Beijing and surrounded by an ancient and completely unrestored section of the Great Wall was the perfect place to visit.

We stayed in a cosy little hostel, the only one in the village in fact run by one woman and her 11 cats, with Great Wall all around us in every direction we looked. One of the courtyard walls was actually part of the Great Wall. We met a nice guy from the States the night we arrived and made plans to hike the wall together over the next few days.


Day 1 we dug out our thermals ready to face the chill of the sub-zero temperatures, made our way to the local ‘supermarket’ for supplies and set out on our hike from Gu bei kou to a small tourist town, Jingshaling. Our hike consisted of winding ridge trails, vertical wall climbs and low valley passes through snow as we walked along the wall, through small villages and around the outskirts of a restricted Military Zone. We came across only two other people on the wall all day, other than that it was just the three of us. The sights were absolutely spectacular!!


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After a good 7 hours of climbing; feeling tired, cold and pretty hungry, we made our way off the wall into the town of Jingshaling. We were able to able to ask a local for a lift back to Gu bei kou where we found a local restaurant serving ‘hot pot with lamb spine’ (it was actually delicious) before heading back to the hostel and knocking back some rice wine and home-made lotus flower/mulberry wine (65% alcohol), to warm ourselves right up.


Day 2 we set out on our journey to the top of Crouching Tiger mountain; a steep climb to a watchtower on the high peak, spending most our day trekking up a thin rocky path next to the wall as it is in such ruins and almost impossible to walk directly along it. The hike was super intensive. Knowing that every step we took up was further we would have to climb down was a scary thought. I swear I could feel my calve muscles toning with every step I took! Climbing to the top was bittersweet; for every step we took up the view was even more amazing, but the higher you climbed the colder it became with the winds cutting straight through our thermals. Unfortunately it was a little hazier than the day before but the view from the top was still incredible! By the end of the day we were all very sore and exhausted and passed up the rice wine for an early night.


Day 3 it was time to make our way back to Beijing. After catching a hazardous taxi ride through the winding mountain roads to the bus station we boarded the 980 express bus back to the city. We were lucky this time round in managing to board the correct bus as on our way to Gu bei kou we accidentally boarded the slow bus stopping at every bus stop in every village along the way, taking an extra couple of hours to get to our destination... It’s relatively impossible to know when ‘express’ is written in Chinese.

Before Beijing we spent four days in Shanghai. We visited the main sites including the Bund and the Shanghai World Financial Centre tower (known to all tourists as ‘the bottle opener’ – see pictures) with its observation deck currently the highest lookout in the world. For those not aware, Joel has an irrational fear of heights so ascending this tower took much courage. We made it up to the 100th floor and walked along the skywalk with its half glass/half tiled flooring. I even managed to get Joel near the edge – he was very brave :-) After our short stay in Shanghai we caught the bullet train to Beijing. At an average speed of 300km/hr it took us just under 5 hours to arrive!

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I would have to say that China, for me, has been one of the biggest culture shocks I have ever experienced. Being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it almost feels as though the country is developing too quickly for its population. You find yourself amongst large well developed cities, contrasted by people who still live as though it’s the 1800’s.

As we quickly discovered, few Chinese speak any English so getting around can take twice the amount of effort trying to communicate with body language or the few phrases we’ve tried to pick up along the way. As a result of the 2008 Olympic Games, we have found Beijing to be easier to navigate our way around – there is English translation on many street signs and in all the subway stations. Menu’s however are mostly always without translation and we rely heavily on pictures or pointing at other peoples meals to order ourselves some tucker, hoping that what looks like meat in the picture will turn out to be meat and not cow intestine or pigs blood soup – that almost happened to me!

Hailing a taxi is a difficult task. Most taxi’s simply refuse to stop for us, waving their hands at us in a ‘no sorry, I’m not working’ kind of manner as they drive by, only to stop less than 200 metres down the street to happily pick up a local. When we do manage to stop a taxi we will show them our Chinese translated directions, of which they will study for a moment, take another look at us then say ‘NO’ before driving off again. I don’t understand?

If we thought the ‘Hong-Kongians’ could be quite pushy, they have nothing on the Chinese. Getting on or off a train can be a nightmare with crowds creating a bottle neck at each door trying to ensure they are the first ones on, before anyone already on the train can even think of getting off. At first we tried to take the polite approach, waiting our turn to board, being ‘good role models’ if you will.. but after only a couple train rides we knew that was not going to work and adopted the phrase 'if you can’t beat em’, join em’!

Waiting your turn seems a completely foreign concept here. When ordering food, buying tickets or standing in line at a grocery store, there is no etiquette toward how long someone else has been standing in line or whether they were there first; if someone sees an opportunity to push in front they will seize it. Should they merely miss their opportunity to get in front of you the tactic of breathing down your neck while you pay seems to be regularly used combined with maybe an elbow to the ribs in hope that might get you out of their way sooner?

Being a white foreigner, everyone stares constantly. If I hadn’t come across so many foreigners working and studying here I would have assumed no one had ever seen someone of fair complexion before. On the train almost everyone stares at us unblinkingly – sometimes I feel like I’m famous, other times it’s just plain awkward. Some people will point at us and mutter something about us to their friend before laughing… it’s so odd.

Everywhere you walk people are hocking up ‘lurgies’ (as Joel calls it) and spitting them on the pavement. Not only are the sidewalks covered with spit but a fair share of vomit and number 2’s also! Restaurant floors and/or toilet cubicles are not spared from this unpleasant habit either.

The food throughout China is delicious! I’ve often heard that ‘real’ Chinese food is very different to what we typically expect from Chinese at home and not as nice… I have to disagree. The dishes here are very similar to what we may order at home only much more appetizing with more varieties, richer flavors and no MSG.


Our last few days in Beijing were spent visiting the Forbidden City and Silk Market. I had another ‘celebrity’ moment at Forbidden City, only this time instead of people staring I had a little girl come up to me and ask something about taking my photo… I kindly said no, thinking she was maybe trying to sell me her ‘photo-taking services’, and as I turned to walk away I was suddenly swarmed by about 20 children all wanting to have a photo taken with me, posing and pulling out their mobiles trying to get a million pictures of me saying ‘beautiful, you are beautiful’ over and over… it was so surreal!
One of their group leaders came up to me and explained the children were from a small town outside of Beijing and had not seen many foreigners before. They had gotten so excited when they saw me and asked him if they could get a photo with me because they thought I was pretty – I felt very flattered :-)

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I had an interesting experience at the Silk Market also, only this time with the loss of ones iPhone. Public ‘western’ toilets are as rare as gold here and so I usually try to avoid the need to wee until we get back to our hostel. Unfortunately today I had to go and paid a visit to the unpleasant Turkish squat toilet. With no locks on any of the cubicle doors you had to lean forward and hold the door closed while you went and as my luck would have it, as I leant forward to hold the door my iPhone slipped out of my pocket and fell straight down the chute. Talk about super unlucky!


My experiences in China have bestowed a new appreciation in me for the luxuries we have at home. Appreciation for the ability to speak the same language with people, appreciation for our western cultural norms, for social etiquette and good manners, for fewer people and for toilets you can sit on!

Though I have struggled at times with the various discomforts of being in such a different culture, I can confidently say it has been a great adventure and worth the experience. And hey, that’s what travelling is all about right – learning about ALL different cultures!


Posted by Joel-Renee 09:52 Archived in China

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Wow! Love your description and your insightful comments and especially love the pictures of you with all the little Chinese kids. Just gorgeous. xoxo

by Mum


Loving every moment

lv Jo

by Jo

All i have to say about this is WOW! I have never stopped to imagine what it must be like in China but thanks to your description i can understand how amazing it must be.
Don't know how your coping with those toilets, EEW EEW and...EEW haha!!
Joel - well done on facing your fear of heights. To date, the trip up to our bungee was enough for me haha!
you did well!

Loving hearing all of your stories, I miss you both heaps and heaps. Continue to have fun and look forward to skyping soon. Lots of Love x x x

by Kails

Am totally enjoying your blogs, the descriptions, the stories and all the amazing experiences you are both having and like mum love you and the little kids. xoxo

by Grandma

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