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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Simatai Great Wall
CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30
Simatai Great Wall, Beijing, June 30, 2003

China Flag A LAST LOOK

June 30. BEIJING "Visiting the Great Wall at Simatai" Our train ride from Shanghai to Beijing was a whole new experience for us.  We had read about the fancy new trains on that route but after the rattle trap trains we had been riding on it was hard to believe both existed in one country.  I guess after our "new China" experience in Shanghai we should have known better.   

The Shanghai - Beijing Orient "express" was new and had all of the amenities.  The hard sleepers were still three bunk compartments without a door but they had walls that wrapped around the foot of the bunks so it was more private, a bit like our sleeper to Kashgar but roomier.  The compartments also had a power outlet.  Ours was quickly snatched by one of our middle bunk compartment mates who used it all night to watch DVDs on his laptop.  The dining car was pretty nice as well and was accompanied by a small bar area where you could get a beer or cocktail.  I never saw the inside of the soft sleeper compartments but passed through one carriage that had card key door locks just like a hotel room.  It was certainly a good representation of the more modern image China wanted the world to have about its country. 

The passengers were a very different group than we were used to as well.  If someone had pulled out a laptop on one of our other trains people would have stared in amazement.   These were the the well educated and well employed group in China.  They didn't walk around the train car in their underwear!  One of our compartment mates immediately began talking to us in English, thrilled to have foreigners to practice with.  He had studied in London and Singapore but had little opportunity to use his English on a day-to-day basis in Beijing.   

Since our power outlet was occupied we went to the dining car to use the outlets in the bar area until it was time to close.   There were a couple of westerns there as well.  The laptop drew a little bit of attention as the waitresses kept peeking over my shoulder to see what I was working on.  They were the only reminder that China hasn't changed that much.  The dining car and bar were initially occupied mostly by train staff and no one made a move to give us a seat when we arrived. That wasn't in the job description. 

All in all it was a pretty comfortable ride. We arrived in Beijing early in the morning and took a coffee break before flagging down a cab to take us to a youth hostel in the same hutong area as our favorite cafe, the Pass By Bar.  Unfortunately, the hostel had not fully recovered from its SARS coma and wasn't opening until sometime in July.  The well spoken man who greeted us was happy to make a call to see if any other hostels were ready but the only one he found was a sterile dorm style place near Sanlitun.  We opted to go back to our old Dong Hua Hotel near Wangfujing Road.  They recognized us and gave us a better rate than our last stay so it worked out well.

Our taxi driver was a really good guy (helpful and honest) so we decided to use him to take us to the Simatai Great Wall for the day. He readily agreed to a pretty low price because he clearly hadn't done it before. So, at the end of the day, we tried to give him a good tip but had a hard time getting him to take it.  After being ripped off by more than a few taxis during our stay that was a new experience!

The Simatai Great Wall was our last benefit of putting up with SARS infected China.  The WHO had taken Beijing off of the restricted travel list just a few days earlier and tourists were starting to return but we still only encountered about ten other people while we were climbing around the wall.  It would normally have people swarming all over it and with the endless steep stairs that would have been nerve-racking.

Since we got a late start heading out to the wall we cheated and took the cable car part of the way up the mountain and then hiked the last few switch backs to the stairs.  It had been refurbished in parts but was still pretty rugged in others.  In the distance the really steep bits just barely seemed to cling to the rocky terrain.  On the more substantial part the wall was a good staircase wide and had sporadic dilapidated towers.  We walked along the wide part until we reached the a sign telling us to not go any further. When we reached the really steep and rocky part the wall was reduce to a single wall with smaller walls built perpendicular into it. These smaller walls had archery holes in them to act as shields so the Chinese defense could shoot down at anyone who managed to get onto the more substantial parts of the wall. 

The walk down the wall reinforced our decision to take the cable car.  It was steep, steep, steep!  Time wouldn't have been the only thing hampering our day if we had tried to walk up the wall from the bottom.  It just seemed to keep getting steeper as the stairs curved around the edge of the ridge.  By the time we were back to the pathway along the lake our legs were tired enough.  We were running late and rushed to meet up with our cab driver and get back to Beijing.  It was a quick trip but well worth it for the exhilaratingly steep stairs and breathtaking views of the Great Wall as it stretched off into the horizon.

For dinner we were eager to get back to our favorite Pass By Bar but sadly found it had gone up market in our absence.  The casual courtyard seating was now candle lit and cluttered with ferns.  And, to make things worse they changed to menu too!  No more sandwiches.  They recognized us when we entered and offered to put together a sandwich for us but somehow it just wasn't the same anymore.  Prices had gone up too.  The waiter looked at us apologetically.  It seemed that sandwiches and salads weren't keeping business hopping so the management had gone from Lonely Planet backpacker population to the more Louis Vuitton set.  Things are changing too fast in this part of China! 


*A side note on Hygiene, SARS, and Karma? After being in the predominantly Uyghur province of Xinjiang for about a week it became apparent that the habits of hawking and spitting in many parts of China were not as common in Xinjiang.  The absence of that frequent noise was evident and when you are traveling during a health epidemic you find yourself thinking about more and more.  One Uyghur man commented to me that hygiene was one the reason that the Uyghur people weren't as concerned about SARS.  He said that they blamed the bad hygiene habits of the Chinese for the birth and spread of the disease.  But, after that he also commented that in the Islamic religion they attribute circumstances to the will of Allah.  That was a particularly interesting comment after hearing someone in the Tibetan region comment that they weren't worried about SARS because the living Buddha is praying for them and that it was all about karma anyway.  Both also commented that their blood was different than the Chinese.  None of the comments were made with a vindictive tone and they expressed concern about those who were suffering from SARS but the underlying message that either Allah or karma was inflicting SARS on the Chinese, which struck me as an interesting coincidence coming from two quite different minority regions.

But, regardless of the ethnic group I have to say that hygiene in China is in need of a lot of improvement.  No matter where we traveled we saw far too many kids squatting at will to poop and pee.  Their slit pants or no pants made it all too convenient.  Babies were all together another problem as well.  I never witnessed what a parent does when their pant-less infant starts to pee but Rob saw one father basically cork his babie's behind like a bottle when he started to poop.  They just go find a gutter and let them finish up.  Combined with spitting and snot blowing these habits can't be good for disease control.  As one frustrated traveler posted on the LP website, "This spitting and shitting has to stop!"  Let's hope that they residual effect of the SARS epidemic is an ongoing improvement in hygiene in China.  With such a dense population it seems prudent that they continue their push for more education in this area.