Going Native

“It’ll be just like Swiss Family Robinson, but with more swearing! We’ll live like kings! Damn hell ass kings!”

– Bart Simpson

It irks me slightly that some foreigners come to Beijing and do exactly the same shit they’d do at home. Some people think it’s an achievement to learn the Chinese words for ‘coffee’ or ‘coca cola’ and then sit about watching Doctor Who or Coronation Street online. Don’t get me wrong, you can do whatever floats your boat, I just don’t understand why anyone would come here to see the four walls of a hotel room in Sanlitun bar street.

The writer Geoff Thompson often states that there’s ‘no growth in comfort’. It’s a philosophy I agree with, and I’ve spent the last few years trying to escape comfort zone after comfort zone, usually one baby-step at a time. There are some things I’ve already done in China that most tourists haven’t. Descending into the health and safety snafu that is the Shihua Caves is one. Urinating in front of a man who had his arse hanging out, a cigarette in his left hand and an iPhone in his right, was another. Last week I took a free kung fu lesson from an 84-year old man in a park across the road from Tian’an’men Square, a literal stone’s throw away from the Forbidden City. I’m pretty sure I will take some more lessons, but even if I don’t it was quite the life-changer.

Last night was also incredible. I went with two friends on a camping trip to the Great Wall of China. I am not a poetic enough writer to do our trip complete justice, but the basic Cliff Notes version unfolds like this:

It was a bugger to get to. Half an hour on the Batong Line, as always. Then Line 1, Line 2, and an hour on the bus. We stopped for lunch in Miyun County, technically still part of Beijing. If anyone there had seen a foreigner before then they were hiding it well. There were many excited gasps of “Wàiguóren!” and “Lǎowài!” as we wandered around. After lunch, it was another hour-and-a-half journey by bus, a short taxi ride and then a hike up onto the Wall. We each carried a rucksack full of bedding and a carrier bag full of food and drink. It was far too hot for tents. Every single one of us, to a man, forgot our toothbrush.

We trekked along a crumbling and unrestored section of the Great Wall, gathering some firewood along the way. I felt like a character from The Lord of The Rings (especially when we spent about an-hour-and-a-half climbing some bloody stairs). We found a stone watchtower where we dumped the firewood and the food, before heading onwards to the highest point we could find: a second watchtower, crumbling and roofless, that was propped up in three corners by metal scaffolding. The fourth corner no longer existed, and all of the others looked like a single swift kick would put them out of their misery. My two companions wanted to watch the sunset from there, but they were swayed by the token wiseass in the group when I said that there was no fucking way I was traversing the wall back to our food in the darkness with a single torch. Instead, we headed back to ‘our’ tower and started a fire.

We watched the sun go down from a hilly vantage point, sipping bottles of Yanjing. As my friends snapped some photographs of the incredible view, a thought occurred which I said aloud: “Guys, how easy would it have been not to be here right now?” Very easy, we decided. We spared a thought for all of the people not on the Great Wall of China that night, probably sitting in a comfort zone somewhere. Then we returned to the fire to tell some stories, cook some food (luckily one of us is a former catering student), and get down to some no-homo male bonding.

When the firewood ran out, we drifted off to sleep on the stone floor. The following morning we ate breakfast and then trekked back down the wall to answer the call of nature, before making the long commute back into the city. Within moments of getting off the bus I had an urban headache. In a way, it was nice to return to civilization and wash away the smoke and sweat and body odour, but in truth I would have happily stayed slightly outside of my comfort zone for a few more nights!

(If you want a slightly more practical account of our trip in order to plan your own, my friend Cameron writes a travel blog, which you can read here: https://cameronhackinchina.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/sleepy-great-wall/)