In September 2011 I had the amazing experience of travelling to China with the National Geographic Channel. After successfully winning the infamous Nat Geo Trivia Night, we were joined by a group of aficionados from Mitchell Media. They battled with their wits to win and now they would battle with their dumpling addiction as we visited Beijing and Xian for the trip of a lifetime.
Here are some highlights from the journey.
Day 2, 5.23am, Juyongguan
A door slams and I jolt out of bed. I explicate loudly, I’m late and I’m going to miss it. &%#! Dressing in the clothes closest to me on the floor, I squeeze toothpaste into my mouth and run through the giant empty red house. Luckily I’m saved by Tara from Nat Geo and I grab a lift down to the bus. Today is going to be a big day.
Meeting the other half of those mad enough to get up before dawn on a junket, we take a short 5 minute drive to the base of what appears to be an ominously dark jungle. It’s 5.30am and I’m traversing rocks up a steep hill with toothpaste smeared on my cheek. Nobody is speaking, it’s earthly quiet. Remind myself I signed up for this and chased the bus to get here.
What feels like 2 spin classes later we reach the small summit, which turns out to be a remnant end of the Great Wall of China. It’s overgrown, the steps are barely legible and the sun is still nestled behind the distant mountains. We made it in time. A scramble over dusty steps, we hit the peak watchtower and we wait.
There’s an expectant calm over the group, cameras poised. In the distance we can already hear the never-ending rumble of a freeway full of lorries, a dog barks, and I’m sharply in awe that I am in the middle of China, on a wall built over 1000 years ago, before dawn and apart from the media agency and colleagues I’m with, so very, very far removed from my world. It’s stunning.
And then to the east, over the tallest mountain, a sliver of light breaks free and crawls its way up the hillside until it hits the wall, illuminating the seemingly endless trail of glimmering bricks from peak to peak to horizon. It’s breathtaking and surreal and totally worth the make-up free, toothpaste faced, pre dawn rise.
The National Geographic guidebook lists the Great Wall as ‘ultimately a spectacular failure in its military design’, but my god it makes for a spectacular photo opportunity.
At 7am we head back down the mountain, elated and hungry for the day ahead which will no doubt include dumplings and another once in a lifetime opportunity from National Geographic.
Living curiously rocks.
Day 2, 6.30pm, back in Beijing
It’s crazy hat day and I think it’s affecting our ability to get a taxi in downtown Beijing. Panda hats are hidden in satchels as we successfully hail a taxi and make our way through bustling evening streets. The map, written in Chinese, may as well be written in another language as our destination seems a mystery to our driver. The group ahead of us have the clever idea of signaling with these panda hats so we know when to pull over, which turns out to be only two major streets away from our hotel.
We’ve spent the last two days hiking the Great Wall, so back in Beijing, scrubbed and beautified we are looking forward to a drink and a bit of fun, Nat Geo style. I was surprised to learn China does a formidable white wine called Dragon Seal, and although it can’t compare to the grapes of our homeland I was smacking my lips in preparation for a giant glass to ease the aches of our trek.
We arrive at the Hutong Cooking School (first surprise) and are greeted by our guest Christine Lee (second surprise) who is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Christine is one of the most interesting people I have ever met and as a Bio-Archaeologist, she dedicates her life to deciphering secrets from skulls and shared with us some stories from a China long forgotten to the west. A royal Mongolian cemetery unearthed, a race that prompted the construction of the Great Wall, or a 7ft man who fell from a horse in battle and survived with half a skull in absolute warrior reliance, the truth would ‘start with a tooth’ as Christine would say.
Christine then joins us in a Chinese cook-off that saw tofu salad battle it out with beef and black bean only to be pipped in the competition by the coconut chicken curry. Great company, great food and great wine, the fascinating evening showed us the network of diversity National Geographic has worldwide and keeps us wanting more.
I raise my glass of Dragon Seal to the lovely Saarika and Tara from National Geographic for an amazing evening.
Day 4, 11am
This is our second day in Xi’an where we’ve ventured to see the Terracotta Warriors. Yesterday started off at 6am (again!) with an internal flight to one of the oldest cities in China. Xi’an is also known for its dumplings, which for a group of people who are suffering from ODD (Overdosing Dumpling Disorder) makes for a dangerous situation.
We arrive in Xi’an on one of the few rainy days of the calendar and head straight to the local speciality dumpling house; it’s our tour guide’s favourite. 15 of us squeeze around a table and before we can split chopsticks Susan is buckling under the weight of tray after tray of mini delicacies. It’s a 16 course meal of dumplings; sweet dumplings, fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, duck dumplings shaped like ducks (insert drooling sounds here).
The next day, with a dumpling hangover, we jump on the bus and head out to see the Terracotta Warriors. Only recently discovered on farmland in 1974, the warriors are burial art for the First Emperor of China (3rd Century BC) built to protect his afterlife. Excavation has estimated that there are 8000 life size warriors, horses and chariots buried here, and quite clearly it is a devotional destination for the Chinese themselves. It is amazingly constructed and is one of those experiences, along with the Great Wall, that make me feel tiny and awed of the vast and diverse history of the world.
A Few Days later:
Upon arrival home, as I sit down and flick on Nat Geo Adventure to overcome my mild jetlag, I reflect on how lucky I have been to have my own personal Nat Geo Adventure. I got to be on the other side of the screen and it was amazing.
Thank you National Geographic Channel.