"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

Hiking The Great Wall of China Jinshanling Simatai

Goodness Gracious Great Wall of China!

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“Put your cookies in the bag!” I cried, addressing the group of pint-sized chefs gathered before me. Instantly their collective eyes shot to the assembled ingredients and they burst into action. “Put your cookies in the bag!” repeated Nini, performing the task herself for good measure.

It was the last week of February and another Saturday English Zone at school. Somehow, we’d broken the attendance record set by last year’s Halloween event. In fact, we had mums, dads, toddlers, aunties, uncles and confused looking grandmothers stuffed into every available crevice.

“Beat the cookies!!!” I ordered, swinging my rolling pin.

“Beat the cookies!!!” echoed Nini, kids erupting into a cacophonous orgy of legitimised violence. Each child’s bag reduced to a grisly battlefield of crushed crumbs within seconds.

Goodness Gracious Great Wall of China a short story.

English Zone cooking class with Nini. February 2010.

“Pour the crumbs onto the plate!”

“Peel your bananas!”

“Cut your bananas in half!”

“Dip your bananas in the yoghurt!”

“Roll your bananas over the crumbs!”

English Zone cooking class in Shangdi Beijing

“Dip your bananas!” That’s not a euphemism.

The table was an unholy mess by the time we’d finished. There were crumbs in Tina’s hair, bits of banana squished into the floor and globs of yoghurt splattered all over Happy’s sweater. However, it had all been worth it, because the parents seemed happy and the kids were delighted with their so-called Banana Lollies. Scooping them all up, Nini trotted off to the kitchen freezer where they were left to harden. 

Happily for me, banana and yoghurt shrapnel proved to be my only worries at school. After the chaos of December and January, things had finally settled down. S was content with life at her new school, Easy English, and I was enjoying the freedom that came from my peace treaty with Trudy.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

When off duty, S and I continued to explore as much of Beijing as we could. In March we checked out 798 Art District, a vast, red-brick compound of art galleries, studios and craft shops. Located in the hard-to-reach neighbourhood of Dashanzi in Beijing’s Northeast, it took several buses and a kilometre on foot just to get there from Shangdi.

Converted from an old industrial complex of disused factories, we enjoyed a fascinating morning discovering 798’s many quirks. This included reading the many Maoist slogans on studio walls and posing for photos with statues of stern, square-jawed soldiers.

798 Art District Beijing

798 Art District, Beijing.

Moreover, there were sculptures of snarling wolves , a harrowing installation about the effects of smoking on the human body and a fun gallery of colourful droog-like beings inspired by A Clockwork Orange.

In between, we joined a sizeable gathering watching a talented sketch artist at work and stopped at a charming little music café for coffee and cake. 798 had so much to offer we could have easily stayed the entire day. But of course we had to get back to Shangdi for our afternoon classes.

Visit 798 Art District Beijing.

798 Art District, Beijing.

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

In early April I managed to get a ticket for the final of the China Open Snooker Championships. I’d been a big snooker fan since I was a kid, but had never seen a professional game live. Having secured my seat online for a surprisingly reasonable 610 RMB, I shuttled myself off to the less-than-glamorous Beijing University Student’s Gymnasium for the match.

The final that year was between China’s most celebrated player, Ding Junhui, and veteran Welshman Mark Williams, a former world Champion who hadn’t won a major tournament of any description in years.

Goodness Gracious Great Wall of China a short story from China.

Ding Junhui.

Photo courtesy of DerHexer.

On arrival, the venue was buzzing. In the outer hall, I caught sight of a TV crew interviewing fans and a few beer tents with people playing around on snooker tables. Posters of Ding were plastered all over the place, while a giant information board detailing the tournament schedule proved so beautifully incomprehensible I simply had to photograph it for my own amusement.

China Open Snooker Championship Final Beijing April 2010

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

Inside, the seven and a half thousand capacity arena was dark and moody, while my tenth row seat had a great view of the spotlit table. From what I could see there were very few westerners in the audience to cheer Williams on. That said, I did find myself sitting next to a German man called Andreas.

“I zink Ding is ganna kill him” he predicted, with a dry chuckle.

Mark Williams and Ding Jinhui China Open Snooker Championship Final Beijing April 2010

Ding Jinhui versus Mark Williams. The China Open Snooker Championship Final, April 2010.

During the player introductions, there was an almighty roar for Ding, the home faithful whistling, whooping and drumming their hands on their seats for a solid minute. And sure enough, being on home turf seemed to spur Ding on. He made a strong start, rushing into a comfortable 3-1 lead in the opening hour.

Ding was like a robot: stiff, unsmiling and totally focused on the table at all times. In contrast, Williams looked tired, lacking in confidence and frankly a bit bored if his long yawns and glances into the crowd were anything to go by. It was 5-3 to Ding when the game stopped for an interval and Andreas and I made a dash for a nearby restaurant. The resulting beers and dumplings really went down a treat. 

Goodness Gracious Great Wall Of China A short story from Beijing

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

Back in our seats for the final session and it felt like Williams had been eating some magic dumplings of his own! Flamboyantly smashing home several key shots, he racked up three frames in a row to secure a 6-5 lead. And while Ding responded by winning the next frame to pull even at 6-6, this proved to be his last frame of the night.

From there Williams was unstoppable, scooping four consecutive frames to win 10-6 and become The 2010 China Open Snooker Champion. Soundlessly punching the air as a somewhat subdued applause rippled around the arena, Andreas turned to me and grinned the most German-looking grin I’d ever seen: “I vas wrong!”

Goodness Gracious Great Wall of China a short story.

Ding receives his runner-up medal.

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

April proved to be an amazing month of Beijing adventuring. Firstly, S’s parents came to stay for a week as part of an extended tour around the country. Hence pretty much all our free time went on ferrying them around the sights.

We took in the Han Dynasty era Drum and Bell Towers and the frenetic hustle of Sanlitun, with its branded boutiques, trendy cafes and gastro bars. We wandered the old hutongs, revisited Behai Park and sampled the culinary delights of Ghost Street, with its rows of hanging red lanterns. 

Ghost Street Guijie Beijing

Ghost Street, Beijing.

With S’s parents moving onto the next leg of their trip, our spare bedroom had been empty for barely a few days when our old friends Steven and Vicky arrived for a seven night stay. It was their honeymoon, not to mention their first time in China, thus we were back to running around the city again!

This time we made an effort to seek out some lesser-known spots. Such as the ancient Cow Street Mosque, Beijing’s largest place of prayer for residing Muslims. It was completely deserted, which gave us ample time to explore its two-storey pagoda, along with various courtyards and gardens.

Cow Street Mosque Niu Jie Mosque Beijing

At Cow Street Mosque with S, Vicky and Steven.

Among the Arabic signs, carved dragons and colourful roof gargoyles, stood an amazing little sign. Luckily, we had all left our tutus at home and our visit passed peacefully without incident.

Funny English sign Cow Street Mosque Niu Jie Mosque Beijing

Cow Street Mosque, Beijing.

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

At long last, following several failed attempts due to obscene queues, we finally paid a visit to The Forbidden City. Joining the throng of bodies outside, we filed through The Gate of Heavenly Peace under the disapproving, ubiquitous stare of Chairman Mao. “I’ve got my eye on you”, he seemed to whisper.


The Forbidden City, Beijing.

The sheer scale of The Forbidden City was amazing. Home to several dynasties of Chinese emperors, this is the largest palace complex in the world. I remember thinking that I’d never seen anything like it as we made our way through the numerous gates and squares.  

The architecture was every bit as impressive up close as we’d seen online. Each new balcony offering up handsome stretches of symmetrical wooden roofs. Furthermore, their orange-yellow glazed tiles provided an eerie contrast to the thick, grey afternoon smog. This struck me as a typical Beijing sensation. A Beauty and the Beast kinda vibe that felt magical and unsettling at the same time.

The Forbidden City skyline Beijing

The Forbidden City, Beijing.

At each of the so-called Three Great Halls, Chinese tourists literally fought each other for prime viewing spots of the interior from behind the security barriers. The old women were the worst, particularly one belligerent old bag who simply charged through the assembled crowd. Head first, like a human battering ram! 

The Forbidden City Beijing April 2010

At The Gate of Supreme Harmony, The Forbidden City.

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

In May we ticked a monster item off the bucket list with an ambitious ten-kilometer trek along a challenging section of The Great Wall. There were a whole host of routes near Beijing, from the charmless kitsch of Badaling to a number of more rugged, isolated sections further out. In the end, we opted for a hike that took us through the Jinshanling segment, boasting some of China’s most impressive Great Wall scenery.

The Beijing sections of The Great Wall of China Jinshanling to Simatai

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

Booking a minibus through our old friends at Leo Hostel, we headed out in a group of ten, including S and I. It was an interesting collection of people, including a young couple from Singapore and two twin sisters from Colombia. It was an 80-mile drive from the centre of Beijing and our bespectacled eighteen-year-old driver was keen to keep us entertained along the way.

“He who has not climbed The Great Wall is not a true man!”

he announced dramatically, turning briefly from the steering wheel to wink at me. “You know, Mao Zedong said that”. From there the nuggets kept on coming, thick and fast. “You know, wall so big they use one hundred cubic metres of rammed earth to form original core,” he shouted. “But later they realise bones of dead workers also good!” I guess that wasn’t exactly what the labourers had had in mind when they were offered the chance to “be a part of The Great Wall effort!”


Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

Eventually we arrived at a deserted car park deep in the countryside. Stepping out of the minivan, we found an idyllic scene of towering green hills and cheerful birdsong. “This is the path!” said the boy, pointing towards an ascending forest trail. “I will meet you in Simatai!” he told us all with a grin.

“Drink lot of water and take care along the way. Some parts are very crumble! Happy hiking!”

Making our way up the snaking path, soon enough the car park had been reduced to nothing more than a hand-sized rectangle, far below. After a while the route levelled out to the entrance of Zhuanduo Pass, signalling the official start of Jinshanling. There was an audible sigh among the group as the wall came into view, a twisting grey, snake-like structure stretching all the way into the horizon. Dropping slightly here, rising sharply there, winding around a dramatic portion of jagged mountain.

Jinshanling to Simatai hike The Great Wall of China Beijing

Hiking The Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai, May 2010.

Knowing it was going to be a long slog, we took it easy that first hour. And what a pleasant time it was as we chatted to our fellow hikers and soaked up the views from one of the watchtowers. The Colombian twins caused much hilarity when, quite unexpectedly, they whipped out a cardboard cutout of their father’s head and shoulders. “Can you take a photo? Is his dream to see Great Wall!” laughed purple sweater twin. 

“Now we can tell him he was here with us!”

Hiking The Great Wall of China Jinshanling to Simatai Beijing

The Colombian twins + dad on The Great Wall, Jinshanling.

The further we walked the steeper it got, the lush green terrain becoming more and more breathtaking. At some point the path descended into little more than treacherous rubble, followed soon after by an absolute beast of a staircase. It virtually killed us to scramble our way up, while at this point the group had become so scattered we could pick out the dotted forms of the others both behind and ahead of us.

Staircase Great Wall of China Jinshanling to Simatai hike

Evil staircase!

Fortunately, the way levelled out for a kilometre or so and we could get our breath back. There were very few people about that day, although we did come across a lone Chinese man leaning against a section of the wall. He was wearing a military jacket of some description and gave us a sagely nod as we passed, not a care in the world.

Hiking The Great Wall of China Jinshanling Simatai

The Jinshanling section of The Great Wall.

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China! A short story.

Sometime later, we met a plump and somewhat comical woman selling cookies, water, beer and I Climbed The Great Wall T-shirts. She was a contagiously jolly creature, chattering away to us in Mandarin with regular bouts of booming, toothy laughter. And she didn’t seem even slightly discouraged by the fact that we clearly weren’t going to buy anything.

T shirt vendor The Great Wall of China Jinshanling to Simatai hike

For all your Great Wall T-shirt needs.

The final stretch to Simatai saw us cross a long wooden bridge, hung high above a gorgeous, deep-green river. It was a fitting finale to one of the most memorable experiences of our ten months in China. When we finally reached the car park, we found our guide slumped in the minivan. Feet up on the dashboard, playing Angry Birds on his phone.

“So… how does it feel to be a true man?”

Hiking The Great Wall of China Jinshanling to Simatai Beijing

The Jinshanling to Simatai network, The Great Wall of China.

Our time in Beijing had flown by so fast that before we knew what had happened it was the end of May. One morning, over breakfast, we realised that our contracts would soon be up and we had no idea what the future held. 

Trudy had already started making noises about employing me directly after my contract with the agency finished. In fact, the offer she made me to stay on was quite lucrative. I was open to the idea, but S had her heart set on a return home to The Netherlands.

Goodness Gracious Great Wall of China a short story.

At White Cloud Temple, Beijing.

And so it was agreed. We would give notice at our respective schools and hit the road for another spell of cross-country travel. Hong Kong, we figured, would be a good place from which to fly back to Amsterdam. It felt both exciting and a little sad that our Chinese escapade was drawing to a close. Putting together a three-week travel itinerary, I felt confident that the final leg of our adventures would be a memorable one. 

‘Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China!’ is the fifteenth chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Memo

    I’m glad that I didn’t know about the worker’s bones in the wall when we walked part of it. It would have detracted from the vibe.

    August 18, 2020 - 10:37 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha!!! Yes…

      August 18, 2020 - 11:22 pm Reply
  • packers and mover in Hyderabad

    Thanks for sharing amazing post.

    November 7, 2022 - 10:50 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

      November 7, 2022 - 11:08 am Reply

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