Monday, July 19, 2021

China - Part 4 - Hiking the Great Wall - Day 1

The real reason for my trip to Beijing was not to bicycle around the city - that was an artifact of scheduling constraints for what I really wanted to do: hike a remote section of the Great Wall of China.  

Note that I said "a remote section"; what I wanted to avoid was the Badaling section of the Great Wall that most tourists to Beijing visit.  That can look like this:

For more about this image see the TripAdvisor reviews of the Great Wall Badaling section:

Instead, I found Great Wall Hiking (, run by travel entrepreneur, Gary Lee, which offers a number of group and custom hiking experiences on a sections of the Great Wall about 85 miles north of Beijing.  Some of these experiences include camping overnight on one of the ancient watchtowers!

Many of the group hikes require a minimum number of hikers to sign up, or the hike won't happen.  Since my trip was a one-shot deal, I couldn't risk a cancellation, so I opted for one of the custom hikes that are guaranteed to happen.  In my case, I chose the "Small Group Iconic Great Wall Hiking" trip which includes 2 days of hiking on remote sections of the Great Wall and an overnight (with meals!) in a small hotel next to the Great Wall.

I was picked up at my hotel by Great Wall Hiking's friendly and professional driver, Jason (Liang):

Jason spirited me 85 miles north from Beijing in a pleasant 2-hour drive to the Great Wall Inn, just outside the village of Gubeikou.

One exterior wall, next to the stone ping-pong table, sports graffiti comments from previous guests from all over the world:

After a delicious lunch prepared by the inkeeper's wife, the innkeeper and Great Wall guide, Sun, and I embarked on the first day of hiking.  

Here is a photo of me at the "gateway" for this section of the Great Wall near Gobeikou:

We hiked up a moderately steep trail to the wall, where we checked in with the local official in charge of this section of the wall.  He checked our permit for hiking (obtained as we started the hike).  In this photo the guide, Sun, is on the right and the local wall official is on the left.

Remarkably, they pointed me toward the first watchtower and indicated that I could go there on my own!  Away I went.  Here are some photos from that first watchtower:

 (if you look carefully, you might be able to see Sun and the official standing outside the watchtower in the distance)

As I sat alone in that watchtower, I pondered where I was and the history of that place and was filled with wonder and gratitude that I should be there.  After a few minutes, I left the tower and hiked back to where I had left Sun, and we resumed our hike.

Here are some additional photos from that experience to give you an idea of the remoteness and the ruggedness of the terrain, both on and off the wall.

Here is a short video to give you a taste of what it's like to hike on the Great Wall:

Eventually, we hiked as far east as we were allowed.  To go further would be to enter the forbidden area of a Chinese military zone - which would be unwise.  

At this endpoint, there was a watchtower named "The 24-Eye Tower".  Here is a short video of the interior of that decayed watchtower:

From the 24-Eye Tower, we hiked back along the Great Wall to the Great Wall Inn.  Here is a short video of a Chinese Cicada we encountered along the way:

Here is a satellite map of the hike from my GPS log from that day:

You can see the full activity summary on Strava here:

Saturday, July 10, 2021

China - Part 3 - Bicycling in Beijing (day 2)

Like my first day of bicycle touring in Beijing, I met my guide at the subway station.  Today, my guide was "Emma" whose Chinese name is Xing Xing meaning "stars".  Here is a photo of us at the bike shop with our bikes:

My second day of Bicycling in Beijing was mostly through the back streets and alleys that make up the Beijing Hutong.  

What is a Hutong?

The Beijing Hutong is best described as a group of old, extensive, largely self-contained, multi-generational neighborhoods.  Some are quite old - some of the Hutong originate as far back as the Yuan dynasty (from 1267 CE -1369 CE) but some newer ones might have originated as late as 1908.

There is a good case to be made that the Hutong is the kernel of old Bejing's folk culture. The Hutong is where entire generations were born, lived and died.  Inter-family friendships and rivalries, once established, might last generations, decades or centuries into the future.

Here is a video of riding through a more affluent Hutong - likely containing the homes of government officials or military officers.  The ride ends at the Hutong Museum.

The Beijing Hutong once made up huge segments of Beijing; in old Beijing the Hutong were said to be "as many as the hairs on an Ox". As the city has grown and become more modern,  much of the Hutong has been destroyed and replaced with office buildings or businesses.  This destruction has been slowed some by a realization by urban planners that the Hutong makes up a vital, historical link to old Beijing and Chinese culture.  Subsequently, some portions of the Hutong are now protected by Chinese conservation  law.

Lining the streets and alleys of the Hutong are homes called Siheyuan.  Siheyuan homes often have a central courtyard with living areas for the various family members around the courtyard.  Often multiple generations of a family live within the private confines of their Siheyuan home.  The Hutong Museum is in one of these Siheyuan homes.  Here is a short video of the courtyard area of the Hutong Museum:

The Hutong is truly a labyrinthine network of narrow streets and alleys that wind through these self-contained neighborhoods.  It is quite easy to get turned around and lose track of where you are.  Emma noted that there is a saying related to this;  when one has become hopelessly lost, turned around, and confused they are said to be "lost in the Hutong".

Many times during the tour, we would be riding through a Hutong to get to a connecting street and we would encounter a wall at the end of the street with no way around it.  Emma noted that there is another saying corresponding to this; when someone finds that they are a dead-end or blocked from moving forward (either physically or figuratively) they are said to have "come to the end of the Hutong."

Here is a short video of riding through another Hutong, not quite as affluent as the earlier one, in the heart of Beijing:

You can read more about the Beijing Hutong here.

Beyond the Hutong on this second day of bicycling, we toured the old "Peking University" museum.  

Here is a photo looking down the hall toward the library at Peking University Museum:

It was at the library down this hall in Peking University that in 1918 a young librarian came to work and fell under the influence of a circle of radical intellectuals, principally Chen Duxiu, then Dean of the University, and Librarian Li Dazhao.

The latter two became founders of the Chinese Communist Party.  The name of their young librarian disciple was Mao Zedong.

Our final stop was the Beijing Urban Museum, which was not my favorite.  Here is a photo of Emma and me outside the museum:

From the Urban Museum, we rode back to the bike shop and turned in our bikes.

A note on riding bicycles in Beijing:

Many might think that with 12 million people and 13 million bicycles ( and who knows how many cars, that riding through the streets of Beijing would be hazardous.  I found that the bicycle and vehicle traffic wasn't the problem as long as I kept my speed under control and my head "on a swivel".  The most hazardous thing about riding a bicycle in Beijing is the same as any other city: Pedestrians looking at their phones and not paying attention to anything else! As anywhere, these entranced pedestrians will walk out in the street in front of you and, in many cases, will not even be aware of the braking and swerving required to avoid plowing into them.  Beware of the pedestrians!

Here is a visualization of my second day of bicycle riding in Beijing based on the GPS log of my ride:

Many thanks to Beijing Urban Adventures and their wonderful guides for two days of thoroughly safe and enjoyable bicycle touring in Beijing!

I leave you with the song Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing!

Friday, July 9, 2021

China - Part 2 - Bicycling in Beijing (day 1)

As I noted in my prior blog entry, after arriving in Beijing on the bullet train late on Friday afternoon, I took a taxi to my hotel.  I had arranged through Beijing Urban Adventures ( ) for custom bicycle tours of Beijing on both Saturday and Sunday, as well as a Beer and Wine tour on Saturday evening.  The meeting place for each of these tours was the entrance to a subway station in the center of Beijing.

Saturday Arrives!

I woke up Saturday morning ate a fine buffet breakfast at the hotel (included in the room price) and took a taxi to the subway station that was meet-up spot for the bicycle tour.  

A note on taking a taxi in Beijing...

While one might like to believe that taxi drivers everywhere speak english because it seems like it would be to their economic advantage, such a belief is ill-founded.   

I anticipated that possibility so, prior to leaving on my trip, I printed on small strips of paper, Mandarin-language versions of the addresses for my hotel as well as the meetup locations for my tours.  When I entered the taxi, I gave the driver the paper with my desired destination and all was well.

Here is a photo me at the subway entrance:

At the designated meetup time the tour guide, "Lily", emerged from the depths of the subway and seemed to have no problem identifying the person who didn't really fit in - me!  Lily led me to a local bicycle shop where we were assigned two rental bikes for the tour and we were off to the Forbidden City!  Here is a photo of Lily, and then of me as we began our tour, just outside of the Forbidden City:

Tour Guide - Lily

Ready to go outside the Forbidden City

From here we rode our bikes a short distance to where people queue-up to enter the Forbidden City.  Here is a photo of what we encountered:

The crowd was so thick we had to dismount our bikes and thread them and ourselves through the throng of people.

Once past the crowd, we were able to re-mount our bikes and carefully weave through the pedestrian traffic and make our way to Tiananmen Square.

We additionally visited a public square between the bell towers that in times past tolled in the day each morning and tolled out the day each evening.  It was in this square that I saw this group playing a game called Jiangxi (pronounced gee-on-see):

After this, we made our way back to the bike shop, returned our bikes and parted ways until later in the day when we would meet up again for the Beer and Wine Tour.

Here is a video visualization of my first day of Biking in Beijing based on the GPS log of my ride:

Beijing Beer and Wine

After the bike tour, I retired back to my hotel for a rest and then headed out again to meet Lily for the Beer and Wine tour.  We visited a small wine bar and sampled some excellent rice wine.  Prior to this experience, I never knew that rice wines, like their cousins made from grapes, have nuances and varieties but they do!

From there we walked through some back streets to a craft brew pub!  Here is a short video of the inside of that pub, which looks like the inside of about every other craft brew pub in the world - ha!