Postcards from Mutianyu

20140725-183426-66866052.jpg The village of Mutianyu (慕田峪) is located about 80 kilometers northeast of Beijing. It sits at the foot of a restored section of the Great Wall and is a popular destination for international tourists and Beijingers seeking some fresh air.

20140725-184055-67255537.jpg Mutianyu is no longer just a sleepy village of farmers. The boom in tourism has brought lots of new development to the area. These buildings, located in a welcome area for visitors to the Great Wall, didn’t even exist when I visited a couple of years ago.

20140725-185327-68007756.jpg An old basketball goal outside a home in Mutianyu. Basketball is one of the most popular sports in China, and NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant visit the country every year.

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As the ankle turns

I sprained my left ankle over the weekend. I wish I had a good story to go with it — that it happened as I pushed a child out of the path of a moving bus, or dove to catch a 500-year-old Ming Dynasty vase that was falling from a shelf.

The truth is I injured it while walking out of a video game-themed bar. It was dark. I had been drinking (a little). I was angry, after inexcusably losing a few games of Connect Four, and worst of all, not paying attention.

I missed a step and heard a crunching sound. Within a half hour, my ankle had swollen to the size of a baseball. Since then I’ve been on a steady diet of Advil, and tomorrow I’ll go to a hospital to have my foot X-rayed.

That I would injure myself while living in Beijing is not surprising. This city is full of broken-legs-waiting-to-happen for the inattentive. Pedestrians locked into their cellphones ignore bikers when crossing the street (I’ve dodged, and cursed at, more than a few). Motorists routinely drive within inches of bikers and pedestrians to get them to speed up (That might be OK in Grand Theft Auto, but not in real life).

Beijing's mean streets aren't for the timid.

Beijing’s bustling streets aren’t for the timid.

Many old homes in Beijing have an elevated doorstep, which — according to traditional belief — helps keeps the evil spirits out (Never really understood how this one worked, unless evil spirits are 6 inches tall).

Beijing subway, where pushing is never optional.

Beijing subway, where pushing is never optional.

Underground, cleaning crews at the subway station in my neighborhood have an odd habit of mopping the floors around rush hour, as if they have a sinister streak and are trying to invite disaster. Getting on and off the trains can be dicey during peak times, as pushing and shoving are the preferred means of getting through a crowd (Even old ladies can be vicious).

A couple of years ago, I hiked an unrestored section of the Great Wall. The stairs were crumbling in many areas, and it was easy to trip if you didn’t watch where you were going. How horrible would it be to turn an ankle out here and then have to hobble back to civilization, I thought.

At least it would have been a good story.

The Great Wall, where if you're not careful the next step could be your last.

The Great Wall, where if you’re not careful, the next step could be your last.

Where there’s a Wall, there’s a way

One of the first places I visited after moving to Beijing was the Great Wall at Mutianyu. It sits above a charming village that has benefited greatly from tourism. Group buses from Beijing, only 70 km away, whiz past farmers carrying wood and crops on narrow roads all day long.

The road that leads to the Wall has been taken over on both sides by vendors hawking T-shirts (I climbed the Great Wall!), Chairman Mao hats, poster prints of the Wall and dozens of other souvenirs. There’s even a Subway restaurant, but sadly no McDonald’s or Starbucks. I thought about turning around but kept going.

To get on the Wall you can either walk a steep trail or ride a ski lift. I chose the ski lift and as I waited in line, I walked past pictures of foreign dignitaries who had visited Mutianyu. One of the pictures was of a sweaty Bill Clinton boarding the lift (“Must have been sitting behind some young co-eds,” an American in front of me quipped).

It was a clear day, and the views of the mountains were spectacular. But the Wall, still intact in most places, had a sanitized feel. Many of the towers and bricks at Mutianyu have been restored. I wanted to experience the Great Wall in its natural, crumbling state.

View from a tower window.

Sunset at Mutianyu.

Several months later, I went with three friends to an unrestored section called Huanghua (Yellow Flower). We hired a cab driver named Mr. Li to take us there. Our only request was that he get us to the Wall before dawn so we could take pictures of it at sunrise. Continue reading