For once, our bus ride was relatively short. We headed out to the Juyongguan Section of the Great Wall, which was a mere 30 minutes drive from our hotel. Unfortunately, it was a heavily overcast and showery day, so our views of the Wall, as we approached, were very muted. Far from being an imposing barrier, perched on rugged ridges and set starkly against a radiantly blue sky, we were presented with brooding peaks, vaguely seen through a grey curtain, with the occasional glimpses of towers, looking lost in the mist. Unfortunate, yes, but somehow still impressive.
Our view improved a bit as we parked outside the entry to the Wall and mercifully the rain also abated. We did have a near mutiny as we were about to set off on our exploration of the Wall. Our guide informed us that the bus would be leaving in 90 minutes, so that was all the time we had to look around. With some of our group being older and less fit - therefore slower when it comes to walking and climbing - we told the guide firmly, but nicely, that that wasn’t good enough and a compromise of two hours was agreed, and we set off.
Dear readers, if you ever plan to visit the Great Wall, make sure you have at least six hours available, especially for the Juyongguan Section, which is a closed loop that can be done in under a day. One of the constraints of a packaged tour is that you rarely get more than what the operators allow, so we had to be satisfied with our renegotiation. So, off we went, determined to maximise our Wall time!
On the Western side of the Juyongguan Section, the wall slavishly follows ridge lines, resulting in some very steep parts with steps that vary wildly in height and depth. Some treads are quite shallow, meaning that you had to be extremely careful about foot placement, while others are so deep that two steps are required to cross them. Still, the views and the experience were well worth the effort. The mist lifted a little, as we climbed, affording somewhat improved views across the valley, but the views of the part of the Wall we climbed were most impressive - see the photos!
In the time available to us, we managed to make it up to the West Mountain Watchtower (West Arrow Tower). From our starting point at the South Pass Tower, we ascended four steep sections of steps, broken up by four towers. Ray also continued up one more section to Watchtower 10. It was tough going, but we were pretty pleased with that effort! The climb back down was just as strenuous, given our ancient knees and the much increased crowd climbing up against us. Still, it was a great outing and, even if the pictures are not great, we have terrific memories.
After the Wall, we were bussed off to a nearby complex for lunch. We had the usual banquet, which was fine, but then came the reason for the guides desire to get us off the Wall in a hurry - the complex also housed a government shop and now we had less time available to spend our money there! After watching (but not buying) some excellent engraving artists at work, we moved on fairly quickly as we had a rather long drive ahead of us to visit the Temple of Heaven, south of the city.
Our drive was broken up with a few brief stops to admire some of the sites from the 2008 Bejing Olympics, but only from afar. Time precluded internal visits. Eventually, we arrived at the Temple of Heaven. By this time the rain had returned, so a bit of water dodging was involved as we moved amongst the many beautiful buildings.
The Temple of Heaven was built around the same time as the Forbidden City and became a very important part of Imperial ceremonies, as the Emperor prayed there annually for good harvests. During the latter part of the Imperial period the Temple was occupied by the Anglo-French Alliance (second Opium War) and the Eight Nation Alliance (Boxer Rebellion). Both periods resulted in significant damage to many buildings, which were not repaired during the period of nationalist rule, after the fall of the last Emperor. The Temple was again occupied - and further damaged - by the Japanese during the Second World War.
In more recent years, considerable effort has been made to restore the Temple and now it is a major tourist drawcard, offering insight to both the Imperial times of Beijing and the recent history of the Temple. As with the Forbidden City, most of the buildings are sumptuously adorned with carvings and artwork, and the museum displays are fascinating.
So finally, to dinner. Some of our group elected to wait until returning to the hotel for their meal, as a break from the twice a day banquets. Being tight-fisted travellers we, and four others of the group, elected to go for the included meal. Everyone was happy with their choice. We enjoyed perhaps the best banquet meal of the tour and our companions appreciated the opportunity to eat a la carte. Win-win, all round!
Our Odyssey to China is almost done. However, we are not due to fly out until very late tomorrow night, on our direct flight to Sydney, Most of the others are leaving in the morning, with a domestic flight to Shanghai, a five hour layover, then on to Melbourne. However, Barry and Marlene* are on the same flight as us, so we have decided to book a car together and visit a couple of extra sites tomorrow. It should be a great postscript to what has been, on the whole, an outstanding trip. Looking forward to our daring, unescorted trip into Beijing!