Monday, December 16, 2013

Autumn In Beijing

Asked anyone anywhere what they know about Beijing in China and the first thought that crossed their mind would very likely be "the most polluted city on earth" and rightly so. There are days when the sun is totally hidden behind this thick smog and where the obsession of the people, foreigners in particular on a daily basis is to check the pollution index, to decide the type of activities to plan.

A huge city densely packed with so many residents which continues to grow every year, both via the migration of locals from other cities in China, hoping to find a better life as well as the influx of more foreigners, hoping to tap into the huge business potential of the China market. Despite measures taken by the government to curb the volume of cars on the road each day, there is still a steady increase of number of new vehicles added onto the already congested roads around Beijing, spewing more carbon fumes into an already very polluted city.

The reason as to why environmental friendly vehicles such as electric or hybrid vehicles are not aggressively encouraged or enforced escapes my simple logic.

With the winter's arrival, pollution would be expected to be even worse with more small businesses and household switching on their heating systems, many of which still uses huge amount of charcoal.

But Beijing can be beautiful too. On days when the air is clear, the skies are blue and the sun is out, a walk in one of their many public parks early in the morning can be a wonderful experience.

Beautiful reflections of the autumn leaves ..

Such was my experience during one autumn Sunday morning. I had wanted to capture some shots of Beijing in autumn. My wife woke me up early one Sunday and told me that the weather looks excellent and encouraged me to take a walk at the Chaoyang Park, located just opposite the place where we are staying.

A view from Chaoyang Park, and one of the city most iconic building, the CCTV building (on the left) can be clearly seen. I did not realise that I am living so near to CBD ...

Clear blue skies is something that is rather rare in Beijing ...

Lovely trees in autumn with their reflections on the artificial lake at Chaoyang Park ....

Chaoyang Park is the largest public park in Beijing and taking a walk early in the morning can be a rather peaceful experience....

While many flocked to Fragrance Hill, located near to the Summer Palace to view the beauty of autumn in Beijing, resulting in massive massive traffic jam, a simple morning walk around Chaoyang Park during a clear bright sunny autumn morning proves to be equally rewarding ...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Crouching Tiger Great Wall Hike

After spending a night on the watch tower in freezing temperatures and howling wind at Gubeikou and hardly any sleep, our legs and bodies were still aching from the hike the day before. But we were excited with the itinerary before us. We were going to hike up a section known as the Crouching Tiger (Wohu Mountain) 卧虎山长城 at Gubeikou.

The Crouching Tiger Great Wall from a distance. The hike to the peak from the foot hill is approximately 8km.

Our driver drove us for a quick breakfast at a nearby restaurant near the Crouching Tiger. We could see her from a distance and it definitely DOES NOT look like an easy walk in the park. In fact, our guide was telling us that it is going to be even much tougher than the day before, because it is so much more steeper and the path more rugged. We simply do not have enough time or probably the energy to hike all the way to the peak and down again that day. What we could do is hike as far as we could go with the time that we have since we have to be back in Beijing by 3pm at the latest.

By 9am, we were already at the foot of Wohu Mountain, getting ready for our hike. We were not the only ones. It seemed that this particular location is rather popular with the locals because we saw other hikers already half way up while there were more groups gathering at the foothill getting ready for start.

After crossing a railway track, we commenced our climb upwards. The path is definitely more rugged and steep. It is also more slippery with lots of loose gravels making the climb so much more difficult. Our guide was right. This was definitely a hike that demands more stamina and fitness, something that both of us are seriously lacking. However, we were determined to climb as far as we could since we had come this far.

After 60 minutes of climbing upwards, our guide scouted for a path to cut across the hill and a valley to get to the wall to reduce our climbing time needed. 

A view of the valley as we cut through the hills, taking a shorter route to access to the wall. As it was autumn, the slopes were `painted' in orange, green and yellow and you can see a watch tower some distance away.

The state of the wall here is even more crumbled than those at Jingshanling or at Gubeikou where we hiked the day before. Most parts lie in ruins and deteriorated, beaten by time and forces of nature. There were many parts where the wall could no longer be seen. What is left is just a sandy rugged walking path of loose gravels. There were sections where the walking path was as narrow as 1 foot with steep banks on both sides where extreme care has to be exercised.

This is not even one quarter way up to the peak. We do not have the time to hike up the peak and had to start our hike down from here ...

With clear bright blue skies and the sun beating down on us, we were sweating even in the cool autumn temperatures.

Part of the trek that we took to hike down ...

The hike down was not strenuous as we took our time taking some breathtaking pictures of the landscape and the watch towers against backdrops of layers of mountains...

 A broken watch tower and very narrow wall or whatever that is left of it against the backdrop of mountain ranges ...vast and majestic....

A crumbled watch tower in the foreground and you can see the great wall on top of the mountain ridges snaking into the horizon, as far as your eyes can see...can you trace where it ends?

Here, at the Crouching Tiger section, you can, at certain vantage point, such as the one in the picture above, see the magnificent and awesome great wall on top of mountain ridges for as far as your eyes can see and the feeling is simply indescribable. Just imagine, smoke signals going out from one tower to another during the ancient times, signalling an imminent attack by forces from the north, and how the watch tower soldiers rushed the news to their superiors, generals frantically drawing up defensive moves and hundreds of troops moved along the great wall to their defensive position. 

This is just some samples of how narrow and broken down the walking path on this section of the Great Wall. There were some other sections where both sides have completely eroded, leaving only a 12 inch path to the one below ....

The Great Wall, since it stretches over 8000 km across China, over different terrains, mountains and valleys, the materials used to build the wall also varies. While some areas were built of mud and clay, most of the sections here at Crouching Tiger seemed to have been built using rocks and stones held together by clay.

With one final glance at the watch tower and the deteriorating wall, crumbling under the pressure from time and forces of nature, we made our final descent. By the time, we got down to the foot hill where our driver was waiting for us, it was close to 12:30 pm. We were hungry, tired and thirsty and we were yearning for that cold bottle of Tsingtao.

After a quick lunch, we made our way back to Beijing, trying hard to avoid the massive jam every Sunday, created by thousands of Beijingers and tourists getting back to Beijing after a weekend away. I did not pay much attention to the traffic jam on the way back as we were both so tired that we dozed off barely 10 minutes into the journey home.

Our legs and backs were aching the next day. 

"My piku (backside) hurts so much!" Yuki texted me the following day. "Let's do it again!"

It was a tiring adventure but one that I am glad that I did. Now, I am busy planning for my next hike to another section of the wall ... the section that have been submerged in water. Just got to wait till April when spring is here.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Great Wall Hike (Part Three)

We picked up our pace as the sun began to set at the horizon. Our legs were growing weary and heavier with every step we take. Some of the paths were rather narrow, steep and slippery due to the loose gravels. We have been walking, climbing, hiking, crawling (yes at certain stages because the climb was a little too steep) for over 3.5 hours by now.

"Andy! How much further?" I shouted.

"Over two more hills!" he replied

"WHAT?? Two more hills?" I puffed.

"Yes. You guys better hurried up. Otherwise, we would have to hike in the dark." he replied.

Now, that would be the last thing I wanted to do. We summoned whatever strength we still manage to muster and push our butts forward. We could see the section of the wall at Jingshanling some distance away as we hiked past some local villages and some empty parcels of land, littered with dried corn plants, which would very likely be the last crop to be harvested before this year's winter.

An empty corn field that we walked past on the way to Jingshanling. You can see the wall and watch towers some distance away and although they seemed near, they are still a good 1.5 hours hike away.

The sun was setting fast as daylight faded. Soon, it will be winter where the sun will set by 4:30 p.m. I was a little disappointed, with the thoughts that we would miss photographing the sunset over the Great Wall, something that I have also been thinking of doing when I first visited Jingshanling late last year. We were still one hill away and although we could see the wall from here, we still have to negotiate our way down from the hill where we were and climb the next one before we could reach the nearest watch tower.

The sun was setting behind us as we picked up our pace, racing to reach the nearest watch tower at Jingshanling.

When I took the picture above, I realized that there was a high possibility that we would miss the sun set on the wall. I looked back, into the sun and there she was, the sun setting behind the wall. Yes, I was NOT on the wall but what I really wanted was to see the sun setting over the wall. It does not matter whether I was on the wall or not. I yelled out to Yuki to get her to turn around.

The sun setting at Jingshanling...

The valleys and hills at Jingshanling, basked in the golden sunlight of the setting sun ...

We had some pretty decent pictures of the sunset after all. It was indeed an amazing experience, watching the sun slowly setting behind the wall, even better where we were, away from the crowd of other photographers at Jingshanling. There were only us on that remote hill top and we had the entire sun set as if to ourselves.

A section of the wall and a watch tower some distance away at Jingshanling as the sun sets over the horizon beyond the mountains.....

By the time, we reached the nearest watch tower at the section of Jingshanling, the sun has set but we were hopeful that we could still catch a glimpse of it. The last steps climbing up that watch tower were agonizing for me at least. However, Yuki who has been panting and puffing for quite a while now, suddenly sprinted like a deer up the watch tower, eager to catch a glimpse of setting sun. The burst of energy and the sheer will of her determination to see what she has come to see was simply amazing. By the time I caught up with her on the wall, she was already busy clicking away with her brand new Nikkor 14-28mm wide angle lens, that she has bought just for the trip.

I set up my tripod because the skies were too dark now to get any good shots without the stability I needed. There were so many other photographers on the wall, some with equipment and lens that I can only dream for a life time. I trained my humble Nikkor 18-105mm kit lens towards what I initially thought was the sun. Then it dawned on me that we were not looking at the sun setting.... we were looking at the full moon rising from the horizon!

The full moon rising over the horizon and over the great wall that stretches toward the section at Simatai....

What more could I ask for. I came to the Great Wall of China, expecting to see the sun set and the sun rise the following morning. And the heavens gave me a bonus, the chance to see the arrival of the full moon. I might not have the best gear or lens required to capture the true beauty of the moon in all her clarity but for now, the experience and the memory that stays engraved in my mind and heart will last me this entire life time.

One parting shot before we hike down the wall at Jingshanling for our dinner, a bath and get ready for our hike to our camping site at Gubeikou ...

The full moon rising over the mountains and the great wall. At a distance, on the upper right, you can see a recently rebuilt section at Simatai all lighted up. This section was still closed to the public when we did the hike, scheduled to be reopened soon ...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Great Wall Hike (Part Two)

I was as excited as a kid who just could not wait to open his first Christmas present on Christmas morning, when I reached the crumbled watch tower where we were to begin our  5 hours hike from Gubeikou to Jingshanling. After all, I have been dreaming about this hike since I heard of it's availability when I arrived in Beijing. I scrambled up the broken steps as fast as I could. As I walked out from the watch tower, the Great Wall before me was everything that I had expected and more, definitely nothing compared to those pristine conditioned walls found at sections in Mutianyu and Badaling.

There were not proper walking paths. There were no retaining walls as these have probably crumbled and fallen down decades ago. The walking path were not well laid out stone slabs. The path was just a sandy path overgrown with scrubs and weeds on both sides. One wrong step and one could end up several meters straight down below the wall, probably with some rather serious injuries.

The walking path on the Great Wall at Gubeikou where we were to start our hike towards Jingshanling. No nice rebuilt walking path or retaining walls. Rugged and wild, just the way I have imagined her to be...Simply amazing.

And something is noticeably missing here when compared to Mutianyu and Badaling or even Shanhaiguan. No souvenirs peddlers, shoving things right into your face. No huge LOUD mainland Chinese tourists scrambling for the best spot to have their pictures taken, in totally mismatched outfits and clothes they called fashion, complete with the bright red, pink or orange umbrellas to protect their `delicate' fair white skin from the harsh sunlight.

Yes. There were still some other local hikers and they were still loud, even from some distance away but far and few in between.

Some sections of the walking path were so narrow and broken down and great caution is necessary to navigate, to prevent any unnecessary accidents.

The sections between Gubeikou, Jingshanling and Simatai are reputed to be the best and most scenic sections of the Great Wall and probably the most photographed section as well. In fact, if you ever see a picture of the majestic wall in her natural grandeur, chances are that it was taken somewhere along this route. Without a doubt however, the Jiankou section, located at the Huairou District approximately 80km from Beijing is still considered the best section of the WILD GREAT WALL. Due to the nature of the landscape, the great wall at Jiankou were built on ridges with steep cliffs on both side. (Jiankou in chinese meant Arrow Nock). Sections like The Nine Eyes Tower, The Beijing Knot and the famous Stairway to Heaven were reputed to be some of the most beautiful and captivating sights. However, they are equally dangerous to hike and required a good degree of fitness. There is a section known as the 38 Big Steps that reaches up with no good  foothold on an 80 degrees angle. There have been many reported injuries and death over the years from those who attempted to scale this particular section.

Gubeikou is the section that had seen many battles over the centuries. The most recent being the invasion of the Japanese with high casualties reported on both sides. Gubeikou is located at the Miyun county, approximately 125 km from Beijing. Stretching 20km, the Gubeikou section consists of 148 watch or beacon towers, averaging one each at every 156 meters apart, the closest being just 30 meters.

As I have mentioned in my earlier post, the storm clouds that rolled in gently as we began our hike proved to be a real blessing in disguise. Instead of clear blue skies that would render our pictures a little dull, the storm clouds gave our pictures an added dramatic twist and created more visual excitement. 

Sometimes, in our travels, we can be so engrossed with what that is before and in front of us that we forget to look around us. In fact, sometimes, the best scenes are those behind us. Such was the case as I was hiking forward towards the section at Jingshanling. 

As I stopped to take a breather, a little voice told me to turn around and have a look of what lies behind me. I saw the wall snaking downhill from where I was standing and disappeared over several ridges and peaks in a distance. The skies were overcast with interesting storm clouds formation. Then, my eyes caught sight of this magnificent moment. Suddenly, the bright sun rays broke through an opening of the storm clouds ahead, shining down on the valley and the Great Wall below her. It was as if heaven just opened a little window and with her light, presented this magnificent structure in all her grandeur and charm.

I could not have ask for more. These are the very pictures I have come for. These are the very pictures I have envisioned in my head even before I start and the Great Wall was posing for me in her own very unique way, in all her glory and charm.

The last visit I made to Jingshanling was in winter where the slopes of the mountains were bare and still covered with snow. I have always wondered what it would be like to be standing on the broken ruins of the Great Wall during autumn, where leaves were changing colours, preparing for the onslaught of winter. I was a little too early when I went in mid October. The leaves have indeed started to change colors but they were not red yet. I was told that the slopes will be covered in orange and red by early November. I have to be contended with the following picture .....

The hike between Gubeikou to Jingshanling would normally take around 4 hours and not considered to be an overly difficult hike. The hike will start at one of the watch towers of Gubeikou, upwards past several watch towers on the way to Jingshanling. From here, we left the wall and hike below the wall, past through several small local villages and over several ridges and valleys before joining back the wall near Jingshanling.

However, we took much longer than the normal 4 hours. Firstly because, both of us have not hike much before this particular trip and secondly, we were just too busy taking pictures, at almost every turn, which was one of the main reason that I have turned down the offer from the tour company to join another group which would be cheaper. The last thing I wanted was some strangers who do not understand the true passion of photography to put unnecessary pressure on me to hurriedly finish the hike in record time. I wanted a hike where I could stop and pause wherever and whenever I wanted, just to catch that one picture that speaks to me.

Our aim was to reach Jingshanling by sun down to catch the sunset there. But days are much shorter now  as winter approaches. The sun sets much earlier. 

"You guys better pick up your pace and walk faster if you want to see the sunset at Jingshanling" Andy, our tour guide reminded us.

Despite our best efforts, we could not reach Jingshanling in time to see the sunset but that does not mean we did not witness the beautiful golden sun setting behind the Great Wall. We did and not only did we see the sun set, we witness the full moon rising over the horizon.

Stay tuned for more ....

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Great Wall hike (Part One)

When I first heard that I had a lateral meniscus tear on my right knee back in October this year after doing an MRI scan, and the only apparent recommended remedial action was to do a surgery that could take well over 3 months to fully recover, the first thought that came to my mind then, was "Oh No! How on earth am I going to do my dream hike along the Great Wall now? Am I ever be able to do that hike again?"

I told the specialist that I was preparing for my hike in mid November and asked him if that would be alright for my knees. His answered without giving an answer! 

"You tell me." he replied. "Huh" I went on.
"You tell me. If it hurts so bad, then obviously, you are not going to or can do the trip. But, if the pain does not bother you that much, then you could do it...It's up to you..." he said nonchalantly...

Well, I was determined to do it because I reckon that if I do not get this done now, while the pain is bearable, I might never be able to do this if and when my knee situation deteriorates further. With that in mind, I rested my knee as much as I possibly can and bought myself a good sturdy knee protector to get ready for hike.

The night before the hike, I felt as if I was a teenager going for my first ever overseas trip. I was excited and kept checking my gear over and over again, making sure that I had all the necessary items packed, in particular, my camera equipment. I went over my memory cards and batteries several times, just to make sure that the memory cards were empty, ready for my highly anticipated pictures and that my camera batteries were fully charged to last my two days trip.

The driver finally came to pick me up around 10:30 in the morning. We had a pleasant 2 hours drive to Gubeikou, made one stop along the way for my hiking partner, Yuki to get her mandatory morning coffee fix before proceeding for lunch near the foot of the Crouching Tiger Section of the Great Wall. I made a request that we include that as part of our hike the following day.

I was not really hungry or maybe I was just too excited to eat. I was just too eager to get started. Besides excitement, there was also a element of fear, the fear that either my knees or my fitness will give way somewhere along the hike as I have not been doing any serious hiking nor exercise for ages.

After a hurried lunch and my bottle of Tsingtao to quench my thirst, we got back into our car and by 2:30pm, we were driving along a narrow dirty village road, passing by small local village houses, towards the foot of the hill where we were to commence our hike at Gubeikou.

The path up to the Great Wall took us past some local villages and houses of those who lived just beyond the Great Wall of China. Here, were dried corn plants, uprooted from the fields after being harvested in summer and autumn.

The car finally stopped at the end of the dirt road. "We go by foot from here" Andy, our tour guide said.

As I put on my backpack, I looked around for the sight of the wall but there was none to be seen. "Where is the wall?" I asked.

"Another 20 minutes hike up that way!" Andy said pointing towards a small muddy path that leads into some bushes some distance away.

Winter has started to kick in by the time we start our hike in November. Corns which were aplenty during the summer had mostly been harvested. What that was left were hard dried corn, stacked up as seen here, ready to be used as seedlings once the winter is over.

I have learnt from my many photography trips that there are always good photography opportunities everywhere, as long as your eyes are opened to observe and to appreciate them. With my trusty Nikon d90 ready, my eyes were peeled for any good picture. This might be my one and only hike, considering my age and my bad knee. I am not going to let this opportunity slipped by me.

Piles and piles of cut dried tree branches, neatly tied and bundled up and stacked along the walking path we took as we hike up to the Great Wall.

Soon, we leave behind the village and civilization, as it were, and began our climb up a hill towards our destination, the Great Wall of China. As we started our hike, I noticed that the clear blue skies that greeted us had slowly but surely turned grey and storm clouds were coming in fast. I was fearful that the weather will dampened any good photo opportunities that I was so looking forward to. Little did I realize until much later, that the storm clouds were a blessing in disguise, a special gift from the heavens above, to make every picture so much more interesting and captivating.

Our spirits were high as we marched on, hiking upwards. "This isn't so bad." I shouted.

"Of course NOT!" Andy replied. "We have not even started!"

Now that was comforting but we were determined to finish what we have started and conquered the Great Wall we will.

Leaving behind the villages, we started our hike uphill towards the Great Wall, as storm clouds started to form overhead.

After a 20 minutes or so hiking upwards, I could finally see the crumbled sections of the Great Wall. Words just cannot describe the excitement that welled up from within. All this while, after experiencing the Great Wall at Mutianyu and Jingshanling, I have been dying to see the wall in her natural state of despair. And there she was, just meters away, waiting for me. She was everything I envisioned her to be and more, much more majestic, much more enticing, beckoning me to climb on her back and take me places where I have never been. Yuki was feeling pretty much the same way.  I could tell because she was practically running the last few meters to get to the wall.

We finally made it to one of the crumbled watch tower of the Great Wall at Gubeikou. From here, we will start our 5 hours hike from Gubeikou to Jingshanling.