The Other Side of the Wall
and surprising insights into what we had thought of as ordinary.
But, if we’re being real honest, Beijing in the winter is not the most ideal time of the year in which to stroll around. The grey mist that famously stifles the city managed to rear its ugly head on more than a couple of our outings to Lonely Planet favourites like Forbidden City, Houhai, Tiantan, and other famous sites. However, in a thankful ( but bitter) twist of fate, we had yet to visit the majestic Great Wall, which on the one hand meant we had not tainted its image with thick haze, but on the other hand meant we were more than a little disappointed in our hesitations to visit the most famous site in Beijing. To pass the time constructively, we agreed that perhaps taking day trips outside of Beijing would give our visitor a better exploration purpose while we waited for finer weather.
After researching day trip ideas, we stumbled onto the brilliant idea that the Great Wall is not just a Beijing based site, and that the marvellous twisted barricade indeed had a point to it lying just a few hours East of Beijing, which uniquely began (or ended?) in water. Our search had stumbled onto Qinhuangdao, and with it, the fantastically translated Old Dragon’s Head (Laolongtou). A mad rush to Ctrip to secure train tickets, as well as frantic hotel searching, confirmed we were off to visit the oceanic point. While we were joyous at the idea of escaping Beijing, we were saddened by the presumed fact that it was going to be amply busy even during winter. Nevertheless, we proceeded onwards.
Qinhuangdao greeted us with slush on the roads courtesy of a snowstorm that rolled through the city the night before. Our taxi driver swerved like Michael Schumacher before dropping us at our mediocre hotel in a nondescript part of the city. We rested, we ate, and we waited for morning to make our way to the throngs of people we were expecting to meet.
The morning view that greeted us was crisp, blue, sunny. We choked down a stodgy breakfast before securing a driver (not before some aggressive taxi haggling went down), and then we were off. After twenty minutes of driving by ocean horizon edged with cargo ships, our driver pulled in slowly to the large, but mysteriously barren carpark edge of Old Dragon Head. We told him that we must be in the wrong place, and that the wall, the wall that draws millions in by their curiosity, must be elsewhere, for there was no one around. He barked his goodbye, and drove off.
With only the echoes of our footsteps bouncing in front of us, we walked to the ticket office expecting it to be shuttered. When the door opened, I’m not sure if it was my visiting party, or the two tourist officers who were more shocked. They exchanged our money for tickets, and wished us pleasantries. As we walked to the official entrance, we glanced over our shoulders and kept our ears perked, expecting the hawking cries of tourist guides to be just around the corner. The ticket officer ripped the ticket tabs away, and disappeared back to his crackling radio, without giving us a second look. We had yet to meet another tourist, but just knew they were beyond. But as we went deeper into the quiet calm of Old Dragon Head our hesitations lessened, and we became overwhelmed at the magical idea that one of, if not the most famous landmark in all of Asia was ours and ours alone. Around each corner was endless, serene space, unmarred by people. We walked alone to the climactic point where the ocean hugs the wall, and stood overlooking the wondrous, complete site. With each wave that brushed the wall before meeting the shore, our sadness at not visiting the wall in Beijing eroded, and in that moment I fully understood the mindfulness phrase “find calm in the chaos” brought to life in front of us.