In Search of Mongolia

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By Debby Merickel

Two days by train from Beijing would get me to Mongolia. However, I only had four days overall; it wasn’t going to happen on this trip. My second journey to the capital of China in six years time caught me by surprise, as I didn’t recognize much other than the ancient landmarks like the Imperial City. The numbers of hotels, automobiles, western-style restaurants, shopping malls and signals at street crossings have increased significantly. The number of people spitting, thankfully, has decreased, along with the horrible smog from all the motorized rickshaws and other old vehicles that used to disgrace their avenues. New, new, new, everywhere one looked. Some of the older neighborhoods with their abundant shopping stalls still exist but the innovations are rapidly expanding. The old Silk Market is now doing business from a pre-fabricated multi-storied building close to a yuppy neighborhood with coffee shops and Italian restaurants. The avenue parks, pedestrian streets, subway system and incredible architectural edifices are evidence that the Chinese have been busily readying themselves to not only host the next Olympics but also to become the future capital of capital.

After revisiting the ancient sites, parks and temples of the city I decided to see more of the Great Wall, specifically the parts travel magazines had referred to as the “Wild Wall”. Any part of the wall that has not been refurbished, has maintained its pristine aura and is less frequented by throngs of tourists is considered wild. Visitors were also advised that it was a difficult venture and somewhat dangerous. I was overwhelmed the first time I experienced The Great Wall, knowing that it was the one man made structure actually seen from outer space, knowing how ancient it was, and somehow absorbing the reasons why it was built when I stood upon it. This site I did not want to miss. Since I was not part of a tour it was somewhat of an endeavor to find someone to help me decide just where I would go and how to get there. I was looking for an inexpensive but expedient way. One of my researched sites advised that I board a local tour bus, but the bell hops at my hotel advised against that. All of the international tour buses go to the Badaling (non-wild) section of the wall which I had climbed before. The bus that used to make the jaunt to the wild wall from a backpacking hotel no longer did so.

The tour secrets were not out of the bag yet. A taxi, while expensive, seemed to be the only alternative to assure getting back without the ability to speak Mandarin. Since I expected to climb at least 7 kilometers I needed to hire a driver for the day. There was a lot of discussion among the young men behind the reception desk deciding where I should go first and how much I should expect to pay. Finally, one took charge, talked with a driver and I was on my way for about $100. I am still not sure where I was dropped or where I was picked up but it was an incredible journey encompassing at least 120 kilometers one way. I believe the driver stopped at Jinshanling. There was some confusion as to where I was to meet him but with the help of a local translator, I was left with the impression that he would be at Simatai in four hours.

About 3 kilometers of this section has been rebuilt and readied for tourists; however, there were many more sales people there than visitors. All were selling the same items: hats, books, candy, soda, water and t-shirts and each expected me to buy something. Well stocked, I took off, amazed with the beautiful surroundings; there was a huge reservoir with a cable crossing allowing visitors to glide from one side to the other at a formidable price. There were natives seated at every tower selling replenishments and I encountered climbers representing all parts of the World. The steps led up and up over some of the tallest, craggiest mountains in the region. I could not imagine why they would need a wall as the rocks themselves struck me as impenetrable. There was little conversation as I rarely heard any English. A commonality we shared was the fact that we were all wearing ourselves out.

After an arduous, most picturesque hour, I noticed that there was no longer anyone in front of me but was still surprised when a guard, impressively uniformed, stopped me and indicated that I was to go no further. Without understanding why I turned around and questioned everyone I encountered. It was about a thousand steps later that I ran into someone who was able to explain that the rest of this wall was not opened to tourists. Panic set in. How was I to meet my driver? My English speaking friend smiled and calmly told me that Simitai was the other way. I no longer had time for repose. Weary or not, I had a difficult journey ahead of me and the clock was ticking!

I retraced my steps and crossed the water on the swaying pedestrian bridge, paying small tokens to everyone who asked. I kept saying Simitai and pointing in the direction I was now climbing, and people nodded either out of politeness or agreement; again uncertainty accompanied me. Soon I was joined by a local woman who spoke enough English to comfort me in my quest. She stayed close to my side, assisting me when she thought I needed it. I came to understand that I now had a guide. When I discussed my time constraints, she said we could take a shortcut.

The Author with her Three
The Author with her Three “Guides”
She told me the names of the towers we encountered, the distance in time and steps ahead of us and also briefly about her life. She said she was a poor Mongolian farmer who worked the wall in addition to her other duties. My ears perked up about two things. First was the mention of Mongolia and secondly, how much would I be expected to pay her? I quizzed her about her homeland. She pointed to the side of the Wall and said “there it is.” I was so excited about the prospect of seeing another country that before I knew it we were joined by two of her compatriots. Now I had three “guides”. They were teaching me the words for “be careful”, “go slowly”. They grabbed my elbows whenever they deemed it treacherous. After paying yet another toll we were off the wall and scampering through the countryside, much like the Mongols of days gone by. The thought crossed my mind that trust could be nebulous but time was of the essence and my deadline loomed.

I could no longer see the wall or a village but we ambled at a quick pace, mostly all down hill. Soon the pace slowed and my nerves sharpened. They told me they would be leaving me here in order to get home before dark and that if I continued in a straight line I would come to the village in ten minutes time. I finally asked what I owed them and they quickly pointed out that they were not to be paid but they would certainly appreciate it if I would buy something from them. I was in no position to barter. I have another beautiful book about the Wall, a few t-shirts and more postcards. And memories of a possible trip to Mongolia!

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