There stretches a long beach, deserted on this windy afternoon. At its southern end the Head of the Old Dragon, the easternmost end of the Great Wall, juts out into the Bohai Sea. To the north the beach reaches the shipyard docks in the Economic ＆ Technical Development Zone.
Both, however, are veiled today in a shroud of sand, raised by the gale that sweeps the coast. The same strong wind is challenging Volker on his solo ride to Shanhaiguan right now. The forces of nature once again proved stronger than the dynamics of our overloaded tandem. Earlier this day I had to take the kids and our luggage for one hour ride on a hard-seat train to Shanhaiguan. The good old hard-seat, on which I spent much memorable time during my student days in Beijing, has been upgraded during the last twenty years. It is less crowded now, much cleaner, the seats have textile covers and there are even curtains. Only my old habits have not changed – I still tend to arrive at the station more than an hour ahead, with enough time and courage to withstand the queuing crowds, only to find out that there are neither crowds nor queues anymore. In five minutes I have my ticket for the next train with more than an hour to spend in the waiting hall.
Our hotel is on the coastal street right in the middle between the Great Wall and the Economic Zone. The glory of the Gloria Villas has somewhat faded in the last twenty years, similarly to the crumbling lettering on its façade.
The hotels, hostels and bungalows, lining the beach are almost empty so early in the season. So are the few restaurants, which compensate the lack of customers with exuberant prises, as we are to discover in the evening.
We rush to the beach, to take in one of the most spectacular views of the Great Wall: the fortifications of the Old Dragon’s Head. This is the point where the Great Wall rises up from the sea – as the name suggests, like a dragon, its body twisting for thousands of kilometres into the west till the Goby desert. The wind swishes along the abandoned beach; the excursion boats are docked; their operators loiter around, cigarettes in mouth; a herd of sheep huddles in the shade of the Wall; few horses and an apathic camel – the ubiquitous photo paraphernalia at the Great Wall, – wait in vain for customers. But where are the tourists?
We find the tourists on the next day: on the other side of the Wall. A 30 min track leads us away from the beach to the huge parking space, from where the tourists are supposed to enter in orderly fashion straight from their buses. The original wall and its fortifications were destroyed in 1900 by the 8-nation allied forces, who intervened in China during the Boxer uprising. An extensive rebuilt section has been put up in 1992 – together with a reconstruction of a garrison town, soldiers’ barracks, commanders’ offices, models of siege machines, sculptures of Ming soldiers and photo stands with historical costumes. The horses and camels are here much busier than their mates on the other side of the wall. We enter a huge labyrinth designed on the basis of the eight trigrams, only to lose our way in it, similarly to most of the other tourists. Few nonconformist spirits nonchalantly stride atop the labyrinth partitions towards the central platform. Here, at the last few hundred meters of the Great Wall, Sarah finds the perfect background here to re-enact the lore of her fairy tales with castles, knights, pirates and lonely islands. No Ming soldiers or nomadic invaders are involved, though.
The final stop of the day is the temple of the Sea God, built on a pier above the sea. In the late afternoon the last Chinese tourists hurry away towards their buses, the temple personnel is engaged in flying a remote-controlled airplane and we are left alone in the empty temple to take a final glance at the Old Dragon’s Head in the distance.