I was in Beijing a few years ago and can only describe my primary emotion as awe. It’s one of the most incredible places I’ve visited in the world to date. 23 million people binding together in a paradoxical mix of wealth, poverty, culture, ancient history, modern living, beauty and pollution.
There is never enough time to see all you want to see of course, but I had absolutely no intention of leaving Beijing until I had experienced China’s Great Wall. 2,500 years old and over 4,000 miles long, it is the greatest example of human construction in the world.
The young Chinese lady who had offered to be my guide that day, arranged for us to meet at one of Beijing’s bus terminals to take the 1.5 hour bus ride to one of the best spots at which to appreciate the wonder that is the Great Wall. But on arriving at the terminal, we were advised that buses were not permitted to travel to The Wall that day, nor over the following few days. It transpired that several political world leaders, including Barack Obama, were due to visit the ancient wonder in a few days and visits were being minimised for security reasons.
But before despair and disappointment could claim us, we were approached by a rather shifty-looking man, who proceeded to converse with my guide. He was, I was advised, an off-duty bus driver who, sensing a commercial opportunity, was prepared to drive us to The Wall in his private Mercedes for a small consideration.
A fistful of Yuan immediately changed hands (a mere £15 for the entire day’s hire) and we were led of to the rear of the bus terminal.
In fairness, the driver had been truthful about his ownership of a Mercedes, but had, in the best tradition of salesmanship, created a perception far removed from reality.
The vehicle we approached looked like it had taken part in a demolition derby. The way it was angled down at one corner made it clear that the suspension had collapsed over one of the front wheels and the look and smell of the interior gave evidence to the fact that this gentleman’s once-luxury vehicle was now used for the regular transportation of livestock.
But feint hearts never won fair maidens and so into the vehicle we climbed, my guide taking the rear seat usually occupied by the livestock and I the front passenger seat, closest to the collapsed suspension.
With a cheery smile and a pat on the dashboard (I was unsure whether this was meant to imply a love for his car or a misplaced confidence in its reliability) the driver hit the accelerator hard, spun the rear wheels and propelled us forward in a cloud of dust and burning rubber.
We pulled straight out onto one of Beijing’s numerous overcrowded motorways, where at least 10,000 vehicles stood stationary, horns blaring. Undeterred by the immobile traffic, our driver made straight for the hard shoulder, accelerating rapidly to 70 mph as I reached desperately for my seat belt, only to find it jammed and unusable.
So along we sped, the only vehicle on the hard shoulder, frequently swerving dangerously to avoid potholes and traffic cones, at speeds now approaching 90 mph and I with no seat belt on. The heady smell of animals and damp straw filled the interior of the car, mixed with clouds of acrid smoke, courtesy of our chain-smoking driver who, at one point, was observed puffing merrily on two cigarettes simultaneously.
(Anyone who has visited Beijing will know that there are two things impossible to avoid in China – cigarette smoke and the sound of car horns).
About 30 minutes after our departure, we were out of the city and 40 minutes after that we reached our destination. We left our driver napping in the car and spent the day exploring and absorbing the most incredible man-made accomplishment on earth. China’s Great Wall is a breathtaking spectacle that weaves its audacious path through some of the most inaccessible and ruggedly beautiful landscape on earth and it is difficult to articulate the emotions that this Ancient Wonder stirred in me that day.
Our fortunes continued and we survived a similarly hairy return journey back to the city, where we later enjoyed a well-earned dinner at Bianyifang, Beijing’s oldest Peking duck restaurant. I could write further about bowls of steaming duck bone soup and a chef wrestling an escaped giant eel, but I’ll leave that for a further narrative.
So what lessons can we take from my Beijing experience?
Travel as much as you can, it’s a beautiful world in which we live…step out of your comfort zone whenever possible…and never be afraid to take risks.
And our Chinese chain-smoking driver? He always reminds me that there is an entrepreneur in all of us and that no matter how limited your resources may be, you can always find a way to make them work in your favour.
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