Gubeikou (古北口) fits the bill perfectly. It's one of the easier sections to hike, it typically draws few tourists, and the surrounding landscape is spectacular. It's only a few short hours from Beijing, so if the Great Wall is on your travel radar, Gubeikou is a great section to consider visiting.
After leaving Iceland, Katie and I went to Finland for about a week. We spent most of our time visiting our friends Fei and Tapani, as well their daughter and Fei's parents. We managed to pack in many small adventures in Helsinki, including taking a ferry to an island that was once a fortress, sampling some of the country's best micro-brews, and making several trips to the sauna. We also spent three days bicycling around Turku (Finland's old capital), and we even squeezed in a day trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Last week, the friendly folks at The Hutong invited me to return to Gubeikou (古北口, or “Ancient North Pass”), a section of the Great Wall of China about two hours northwest of Beijing. Jeremiah and Simon, the trip's leaders, brought a wealth of knowledge of this region's history and natural setting. They did a great job of explaining the circumstances that led to the wall's construction in the 16th century. When I went to Gubeikou without a guide, I simply hiked on the wall. But this time, I could really envision Manchu armies invading from the north, and Chinese troops taking positions to defend their homeland.
Having lived in Beijing for the last three years, Katie and I have visited the Great Wall many times. Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall isn't one continuous wall. There are many sections; some have eroded to almost nothing, others remain relatively intact, and still others that have been completely restored to their former glory. My favorite sections (as you probably guessed) are un-restored, yet still hike-able.
At the end of our disastrous bike trip through Yunnan (read more about it here), Katie and I had one last day to spend around Dali's old town. We decided to rent a bike and pedal around nearby Erhai (洱海) Lake. Shaped like an ear (“Erhai” means “ear-shaped sea”) and at 1,972 meters (6,470 feet) above sea level, the lake is the second-largest highland lake in all of China.
Katie and I headed out with several friends to Panjin, to check out the “Red Beach.” Suaeda Salsa is an algae that thrives in highly alkaline soil, such as that found in parts of northeastern China. The algae is green for most of the year, but for around a month in the fall, it turns a Martian red. Around the same time, the tourists arrive in droves, including us. To explore the area, we rented 3-person bikes, which were a lot of fun but not very fast. (Wouldn't you think they'd be three times faster than a normal bike?) We spent the afternoon avoiding the throngs of Chinese tourists who were rolling up in buses, and checking out the beautiful landscapes.
Katie and I had been planning to get married for the last few months. And now, we were both back in the States for the summer. We spent a few weeks making our final preparations, then our big day came. And what a day it was! I don't even remember it very well, it went by so fast. But everything seemed to go smoothly. And this was a great chance to get caught up with friends and family we hadn't seen in a long time, especially considering that we live on the opposite side of the planet.
My plane took off from Chennai, and I was on my way home for the summer. But I had one last pit stop to make – a three-day layover in Dubai. I was excited – this was my first trip to the Middle East. But when I booked my flight, I didn't think about the consequences of being in a Muslim country during Ramadan.
The Dalai Lama spoke for an hour; his message was mostly about creating peace on Earth. He seemed to be winding down his time on this planet – he made it clear that he was from the twentieth century and now it was time for the twenty-first century folks to take over. He was humble, too. At one point he said that if he thought of himself as the Dalai Lama, he felt lonely. But if he thought of himself as a human, then he had seven billion others to share this life experience with. He spoke in English for this whole hour. During his speech, monks walked through the crowd, passing out bread rolls and pouring cups of yak milk tea. It was savory, not sweet, but still delicious, and a nice gesture.