Category Archives: China

The Great Wall of China

Before we begin let’s be clear on one thing: the Great Wall was not successful in any way whatsoever. Although the first parts were built over 2,000 years ago in order to keep the Mongols out, the Mongols discovered time and time again that riding around the wall or bribing guards to look the other way was a much more effective way of invading China. In fact the Qing, the last dynasty in China which ended just over a century ago, were actually Mongol overlords who found a disgruntled general in the 17th century to open the gate for them.
So why do we bother with the Great Wall then? I think it’s for the similar reason we like things like the Eiffel Tower- they might serve no real purpose, but they are pretty cool in the “stuff people can build” department-

This would be neat enough if this was all there was, but the fact of the matter is the Wall in its heyday stretched nearly 9,000 kilometers (~5,500 miles) beyond what you see here and had a million people manning it. (To compare, the US-Mexican border is 3,169km or just shy of 2,000 miles. Conclude what you will about whether we should build a giant fence.) And like anything cool and windy, a hike along it is rather irresistible, no?

There’s a big discussion when you find yourself in Beijing about which section of the Great Wall to visit exactly, but we ended up heading for Mutianyu because it’s known for being less crowded and very scenic compared to other sections in exchange for being a 2 hour drive away from the city. It’s also famous for having quite a few watchtowers than the other sections, 22 in 2.5 kilometers (ie 1.5 mi), making for good pictures even if the smog creeping up from Beijing means you don’t have stunning panoramas on your visiting day-

I should mention though that while the distances above don’t sound too much, firstly realize you have to double the length because you have to walk back and secondly realize some sections are seriously steep-
Seriously, I climbed up the above section like it was a ladder because it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do, and this picture doesn’t show you the 400-odd steps before this which were so steep the walls were pitched at 45 degree angles on either side of us! So the hike took us about 3.5 hours sprinkled with liberal photo stops and tower climbing because hey, I don’t exactly come here often!

By the way, as an astronomically inclined person a lot of people like to ask me whether the Great Wall of China is actually visible from space. In short, no, it’s pretty thin and the same color as the terrain so astronauts in low Earth orbit (ie space shuttle or station) have tried to spot it, but more often than not end up “finding” a nearby river. Apparently the claim that it could be seen from space originated in the 19th century because it was assumed if we could see the “canals” on Mars then they could see the Great Wall. Because we knew what space was like in the 1800s, right? Like how there were intelligent Martians building canals?
Anyway, it turns out if you hike at Mutianyu there is one additional benefit the other sections don’t have- the toboggan ride! (Though before I continue, Patrick decided in Beijing that we didn’t stand out enough as the only white people in China and bought the panda hat for 20 yen.  Well we can’t complain we’re being ignored!) See, you know how after a long hike up mountainsides you get tired and start wistfully thinking how great it would be if there was a slide going down the mountain so you wouldn’t have to walk it?  Well this is China where they are more capitalist than Americans in many senses, such as the one where the fact that it’s an internationally historic site doesn’t get in the way of putting in a toboggan ride to charge tourists to use!

Now that I think about it, when you add up how much tourist money the local villages get which would otherwise be in impoverished obscurity maybe the Great Wall is a success after all…

Wandering through History in Beijing


Beijing is a giant, chaotic sprawl of a city allegedly the size of Belgium, and we ended up staying a week here altogether to do and see everything we wanted. And because our hostel was right in the middle of Old Beijing on a hutong (road/alleyway so narrow you can’t drive a car down thm) let’s start with the historic sites, shall we? Continue reading

The Longji Rice Terraces

With almost any country you travel to, it’s impossible to not carry a preconceived notion with you on what that country will be like. Often they’re completely wrong of course- Ireland is not one giant pub, Australians don’t all have pet kangaroos, stuff like that. I figured China would be similar, but then we visited the Longji Rice Terraces two hours from Guilin and I realized this would be different. This is one of the most spectacular scenic places I’ve visited, and the fact that it was pretty similar to what I imagined rural China to be like didn’t hurt either! Continue reading

Yangshuo and Surrounds

Have you ever looked at the random painting of impossibly steep mountains at your local Chinese takeaway restaurant? I have on many an occasion and was surprised to find out those mountains weren’t a flight of fancy at all but instead very real and found in around the town of Yangshuo located deep in southern China near the Vietnamese border.  The mountains are eroded limestone karsts formed fairly recently on a geological time scale, and while I’ve seen the occasional mountains like this before it’s impossible to believe how many of them there are here-

The view from the famous boat cruise on the Li River between the city of Guillin and Yangshuo.  Guillin is a rather generic big brother city and Yangshuo is rather touristy, but honestly I’ve never seriously minded very touristy places because a. lots of people tends to mean it’s something worth seeing, and b. I always find it the height of irony to complain about tourists when you are one yourself, no?

Anyway, if you ever find yourself in this corner of the world I can highly recommend the boat ride as it was quite pretty, but I will warn you the English commentary certainly falls into that “so awful it’s beyond entertaining” category.  To fully understand why, look at this photo above which had this commentary verbatim in a bored, monotone voice over the boat’s loudspeaker-

“Look-to-the-left.  Look-to-the-left.  Here-you-can-see-a-cliff.  The-cliff-has-a-yellow-mark.  The-cliff-has-a-yellow-mark.  It-looks-like-a-fish.  We-call-it-“Fish-Cliff.”  It-is-highlight.”

This commentary essentially explains everything you need to know about Chinese tourism.  Well that and most of the people participating in it are local Chinese with matching red and blue baseball caps following someone around with a flag, but I digress.

Anyway, because we are not cool enough to have our own matching headgear like everyone else in Yangshuo Patrick and I were left to entertain ourselves, which according to us meant renting mountain bikes for 20 yen for the day (read: just over US$3) and exploring the countryside.  Here’s me with a field of yellow flowers- they’re called rapeseed, which is an unfortunate name for such a pretty flower but there we are-

(This was actually taken right next to a great  place we stopped for lunch down a muddy path which we never would’ve gone to except there was a geocache hidden here and I am a dork.  Yay!)

The Li River isn’t the only river around here actually, and just a few miles outside town we found the Yulong River complete with some local boys fishing-The thing to do on the Yulong River is go for a ride on a little bamboo raft (well traditionally bamboo, lots of the rafts these days are made out of large PVC pipes instead), but we did not.  I don’t know whether you can notice in the pictures but it was actually quite cold in southern China- seriously, the temperature never got above the low 10s (50s in Farenheit) for a few days- so bamboo rafting didn’t sound tempting.  This was to be fair the very end of the rainy season and unseasonably cold even for that so Yangshuo is usually much more pleasant- good, because most of the hostels and restaurants do not have central heating!

But hey there are always advantages to the off season, namely we didn’t have half as many tourists to share it with as what come through here in high season.  Which is good because Yangshuo was already touristy enough, I have no idea where everyone stays in summer!

One Day in Macau

No, we did not fly to Venice within a week of touching down in Hong Kong- my understanding is you can no longer feed the pigeons there anyway so I suppose this photo doesn’t make much sense anyway.  Plus the astute will notice that the tower on this St. Mark’s Square has an escalator going up to it, so where are we anyway?! Continue reading

Hong Kong Wanderings

Bad news: we’ve been in China for about two weeks now but last week my camera became missing and by now presumed stolen… with all my pictures from the week spent in Hong Kong still on it. This had just about as great an effect on my mood that you’d expect particularly as I liked Hong Kong as it was so photogenic- I always thought Chicago was the best city in the world for skyscrapers but no, it turns out Hong Kong wins by a mile. Particularly at night when all the buildings light up, you’ve never seen as beautiful a modern wonder as the Hong Kong skyline… Continue reading