The iconic Great Wall of China attracts thousands of tourists every day.PICTURES: MOTSHWARI MOFOKENG
The iconic Great Wall of China attracts thousands of tourists every day.PICTURES: MOTSHWARI MOFOKENG
The streets of Beijing come alive with people and traffic as the sun sets.
The streets of Beijing come alive with people and traffic as the sun sets.
Cycling is a popular mode of transport in Beijing.
Cycling is a popular mode of transport in Beijing.
A friend who visited China last year had only one word to describe the Great Wall - and I recently found out she wasn’t exaggerating.

For someone who had never been outside, an assignment to cover the Brics Media Forum, held in Beijing last week, gave me an opportunity to explore the city.

The country’s capital city Beijing, which is translated as “north capital city”, is one of the world’s most populous city and boasts a population of 21 million. In China, only Shanghai is bigger, at 24 million residents.

So when Georgian-British musician Katie Melua sang, “There are nine-million bicycles in Beijing”, it was based on fact because there were bicycles everywhere you looked.

This is not because people don’t own cars, but cycling probably saves them time because traffic appeared to be an ongoing challenge for drivers.

The locals won’t admit it, but I think the cycling and their diet contributes to their glowing skin and well-toned bodies.

The people were friendly and polite, most were fascinated by the colour of my skin and my dreadlocks so I was occasionally asked for permission to touch my hair and pose for pictures.

“Your hair is so cool, I like it very much,” one of the teenagers gushed, after nervously walking around me in circles until I finally asked him if I could help him with something.

He wanted to know where he could also get his hair done like mine and I unfortunately had to burst his bubble and tell him that he would have to travel for thousands of miles outside China for that to happen.

Beijing is home to seven Unesco World Heritage Sites, including the Great Wall, Grand Canal, Temple of Heaven, Zhoukoudian, Ming Tombs and the Forbidden City, which was less than 500 metres away from the Beijing Hotel, where I stayed during my visit.

There is always a long queue outside the Forbidden City, the famous castle which was the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties between 1368 and 1911.

Owing to time constraints, I wasn’t able to visit the 8 886-room museum, but I was told that I would need more than a week to explore all of it.

Before going to Beijing I read up on the air pollution concerns posted online by those who previously visited but what I found was that while there was a light haze over the city, it was definitely not as bad as the reviews claimed and my life-long sinusitis problem was not exacerbated in any way.

As a Durbanite, I’m mostly exposed to African and Indian cuisines and would occasionally eat what I previously described as Chinese food but I now feel that I’ve been misled because the real thing tastes so much better.

My travel mates - Independent Media chief of staff Zenariah Barends, IOL news editor Lou-anne Daniels and photographer Motshwari Mofokeng -also visited the crowded food market, situated behind our hotel, to see what the fuss was about.

They sell freshly made food and drinks and, while it was all healthy, not all of it was appetising.

“Come see the scorpions, they are alive!” exclaimed Motshwari as he pulled my hand, while we made way through the crowd.

We watched as people enjoyed birds, scorpions and even spiders, as I would a mouth-watering steak.

The visit to the Great Wall had always been a distant dream, but the real experience felt like a dream because I could not believe I had made it there.

Our host, the Xinhua News Agency, hired a professional tour guide, Claire Jones, to take us to the iconic landmark.

She told us the 5 000km long wall received thousands of visitors every day.

The first section of the wall was reportedly built in the seventh century, with the aim of protecting the Chinese empire against invasions from neighbouring states.

“The Great Wall is very long and it will take you more than a week to see all the sections but the Americans were not telling the truth when they said you could see it from space, although what they said did help to boost tourism in the area,” she said with a giggle.

Some sections of the wall have been renovated to preserve the structure but Jones said the management had been forced to close off some parts because the bricks had become unstable, making it dangerous for hikers, while thousands of kilometres of the wall have collapsed or completely disappeared due to sandstorms and erosion.

We went up through Badaling, which is one of seven Beijing entrances to the Great Wall.

“Don’t take selfies while you are walking or you might injure yourself.”

That was Jones’s advice as we went up the stairs for a two-hour hike.

My excitement made me forget about the strain on my legs as the slope became steeper as we ascended.

Coming down was no easy feat either, and the rails on the sides came in very handy.

The view from the top was magnificent and, from there, one is able to see not only the town below but also dozens of kilometres of the Great Wall as it snakes across the hills.

What fascinated me was the large number of locals who we met on the trail and some said they came to the wall at least once a month.