We didn't expect to like Beijing and we certainly didn't anticipate developing an attachment to it, but we did. If it wasn't for the air pollution, we'd say this mega-city could be pleasantly livable. Disturbingly, according to several people, we had not seen anywhere close to the worst air quality compared with the other seasons when more coal is burned as a heat source. Nonetheless, this day was down right gloomy, perhaps a sign telling us it was time to go.
It did not take long to cycle out of the affluent core of Beijing into the industrial outskirts, which felt like we had been teleported to a different planet. Out came recently purchased pollution masks for their debut. We had spent half of a day tracking down some pricey sports-model ones with ridiculous prints (mine is an open shark jaw…stylin'!) and refillable filters. This is a case of cross our fingers and hope that we get what we paid for!
Having gotten our traditional late start cycling that day, we opted to stay at the first farmhouse accommodation that looked open as it got dark, a little before our intended stopping point of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall north of Beijing. This was our introduction to some of the quirks of budget travel in China. While we did have a private bathroom with a sitter-toilet, as opposed to the more common squatter-style, the shower head was located directly above the toilet (for multi-tasking!?!) and it was BYOTP.
The next morning we "chatted" with the owners while waiting out a rainstorm, then made it up to Mutianyu. Exploring the wall late in the day was truly magical as the crowds had left and we walked along the wall in solitude with it bathed in golden light!
Heading west, we also visited the Lakeside section of the Great Wall, not realizing until after paying the admission fee that you can't actually walk on the wall here and the main attraction is seeing the where the wall was submerged by filling a reservoir. Yes, we love to support the intentional destruction of cultural relics! Well, you win some and you lose some...
Day three of life on the road brought us to the Ming Tombs, and ridiculously close to our starting point in Beijing had we chosen a more direct route. With thirteen tombs and other significant sites spread throughout the surrounding area, it has great historical significance, and a separate entrance fee for each attraction. Therefore, we visited just one tomb of the third Ming dynasty emperor, but not being able to see anything actually tomb-like, it seemed repetitive to the other Ming-era sites we had explored in Beijing. Oh well, you lose some and you lose some more. This is travel.
The next day had intensive climbing as we cycled past the section of Great Wall we had visited via tour bus with the Global Explorers group and past another crazy touristy section called Badaling. It was sizzling hot to the point where we were grateful for the breeze created by the constant stream of large tour busses passing us on the curvy narrow access roads.
Then we reached a several-kilometer long tunnel with a prominent sign prohibiting bicycles. Here we trusted a couple of bystanders who emphatically insisted it was okay to go through, based on our observation that quite consistently wherever a sign is posted, the reality is that everyone does the opposite, and seemingly without any consequences. On the other side of the tunnel through the hills, and free of consequences, it finally felt official that we had left Beijing behind as we faced a dry open landscape heading west.
Pulling in to a small roadside community a bit before dusk, we picked a multi-story building with a row of identical rooms above to begin the search for lodging. A man walking toward the main entrance saw us and paused, looking a little confused, and asked if he could help us, fortunately in English. I explained, "We are looking for a hotel. Is this one?" Nope, it was a government building. When we turned down his suggestion of a brand new 5-star Holiday Inn that looked quite out of place with the rest of town, he then dropped whatever he had going on to drive 20 minutes down the road to help us find some farmhouse accommodation. We cycled behind him as fast as we could while he coasted with his hazard lights on. We have since learned that his generous actions coming from a sincere concern for our well-being were no anomaly in this country, but we will still remember him as a humbling first in a series of acts of kindness from strangers we've randomly met along the way.
As a bonus, we ended up quite close to the historic site we planned on visiting the next day called Guyaju. It is a fascinating site of an abandoned cave dwelling village of which relatively little is known and for now at least, seems off the beaten path enough to avoid the masses we came to expect at other tourist sites. I suppose all that could change with the establishment of a huge and bizarre upscale resort that we cycled by to access the site, also dominating the view looking out from the narrow valley where the caves have been carved in the granite domes. The name of the resort is...Jackson Hole. I kid you not.
Besides the inevitable pain that comes with suddenly kicking your own butt into shape, after a few days in to the cycle tour, we felt like we were starting to get in to the groove of things. Each time we begin, we have to relearn some of the tips and tricks forgotten since the last time, both the concrete and more abstract lessons taught by this form of travel. At the same time, we were coming to terms with some of the challenges that are new to us. Correctly identifying a hotel would only be one of many more to come...