DEEP AUTUMN: Visitors appreciate the scene of red leaves surrounding the Great Wall (XINHUA)
Typically, when China's weeklong National Day holiday rolls around on October 1, I cringe at the thought of traveling anywhere outside of Beijing. Doing so requires battling crowds of unimaginable scale, when seemingly everyone in the capital, all 20 million, packs up a few suitcases with clothes and instant noodles and makes a mad dash for a train or bus station.
During the past Golden Week, at least 100 million Chinese took to the rails, roads, and sky for travel. The resulting traffic jams, queues, and general chaos in all public arenas is enough to crush the travel plans (soul) of even the most intrepid explorer. If you get caught up in the crowds, it doesn't take long for a relaxing vacation to morph into a nightmare.
So, this year, when my girlfriend suggested we travel somewhere during our Golden Holiday, just a week or so before it began, I reacted like she'd asked for the moon. "Impossible," I told her. "You've seen the crowds, we'll be waiting for ages. Plus the tickets are sold out." She persisted, reminding me that we don't have many holidays away from work and that we'd be wasting a perfectly fine break by staying in Beijing, drinking tea and scratching ourselves.
I'd learned my lesson from previous disagreements. Arguing served no purpose. We were going somewhere. The only question was where. I wanted to stay close to Beijing; she wasn't opposed to a longer journey.
In the end, we chose to venture less than 100 km away from Beijing, to stay in a villager's restored guesthouse courtyard home near an unrestored section of the Great Wall in north China's Hebei Province. We'd heard about the place from a friend who'd enjoyed staying there, eating platters of locally-sourced meat and vegetables, and hiking the ragged Great Wall nearby. With the help of a South African expat who has befriended the owners, the guesthouse, called Great Wall Fresh, has even established a website. Imagining blue skies, long hikes, and starry nights, I'd warmed up to the idea of traveling, albeit close to the city, during the holiday.
On paper, getting there was simple enough. We'd go to Deshengmen Bus Station, one of Beijing's busiest hubs, catch a bus in the direction of the Badaling Great Wall, and get off in a far-flung suburb. Someone would meet us there and drive us to the guesthouse, where cold beers and freshly roasted almonds awaited. But, when we got to Deshengmen, at about 9:00 a.m. on October 2, the line for our bus was unreal. Like the biggest Apple product launch of all time, it stretched hundreds of meters, snaking across metal holding rails, onto a street, over a bridge, and then down the stone-steps of the same bridge. It moved at a grinding pace, as the impatient and entitled-feeling jumped the barricades and cut the cue, as the more honest of us (me and my girlfriend included) jeered at them. But finally, after three-plus hours of waiting, in addition to a four-hour bus ride on a traffic choked highway, we arrived at the stop where our host's car was waiting.
Immediately after leaving the main highway and hitting a barely-paved path with heavy construction on either side, the stress of the day's many inconveniences melted away. Before long, we could see the Great Wall cresting the top of a mountain on the horizon.
After about 20 minutes, we'd reached the small village, populated by about 400 people, almost all surnamed Chen. Our driver, the courtyard's owner, Mr. Chen, led us to our room, which was centered around a vegetable garden packed with heads of lettuce, tomatoes, fat cucumbers, and budding rose bushes. In the distance, the Great Wall crowned a mountain peak, before twisting away, out of view.
For the next two days, we took long, mostly solitary hikes on the Great Wall, so worn down at points that it was hard to even trace, and returned in the evening to meals cooked in the Chen family kitchen. At night, we sat around a bonfire with a group of German expats and English teachers, and walked out into the dark village road to gape at the starry sky. With the exception of a few loud, beer-fueled conversations, it was beautifully quiet. Twice on our hikes we scared off pheasants that shot out of the tall prairie grass like flapping rockets.
When it was time to return to Beijing, I wished we could stay longer. From dreading the idea of traveling during the Golden Week, I'd begun to cherish it. The key to traveling at peak times in China, I'd learned, is avoiding the typical tourist sights—Tiananmen, Forbidden City, Huangshan Mountain...—and thinking a little more outside the box. For me, a few days of quiet, an escape from the city, was exactly what I was looking for.
The author is an American living in Beijing