Festivals: Everyone's gone to the wall

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The Independent Online
The Great Wall was there on the mountain tops, decked in mist and threatened with clouds. The problem was that we were not getting any closer to it ... Louise Jury's visit to China coincided with the country's biggest national holiday.

If you have endured the junction of the M4/M5 on a Bank Holiday Monday, then picture the traffic. Double it, then triple it for the full effect around Peking on the day I was there earlier this year. The Chinese, perfectly at home on bicycles, appear to lose all sense of etiquette once in a motorised vehicle. In fact, they lose all sense.

Should you ever expect to be in China on 1 October, adjust your travel plans. The Chinese take their national holiday, a testimony to Chairman Mao and the foundation of the People's Republic, very seriously.

They are building a giant new road towards the Great Wall, one of the world's greatest cultural treasures, but it isn't finished yet. Our coach was squashed in the jam and did not move.

In the cities, the streets throng with holidaying Chinese, many visiting from the countryside, some apparently wearing their blue Chairman Mao suits as if they were Sunday best. Like the Japanese, they want you, the Westerners, to pose alongside them in their holiday snaps. Red flags fly in the streets, red Chinese lanterns hang from pillars and doorways, fairy lights bedeck the trees. Even the po-faced military enjoy a day out, posing in uniform in front of memorials to the appropriate state heroes - Mao and Sun Yat Sen.

And the Chinese are as fascinated by their cultural heritage as we are. Thousands of them take the opportunity of a few rare days off to absorb the beauty of the Summer Palace and the audacity of the Forbidden City. In Tiananmen Square, a thousand plants bloom in pots, bringing a militaristic grandeur and prompting a scatter-gun of camera flashes (though failing to erase the image of a lone protester standing bravely before a tank). Leaving Peking, thousands more head for the jaw-dropping vastness of the Great Wall.

Travelling in a party of 20 or so, we had spent the morning at the Ming tombs in the valley where 13 of the 16 Ming dynasty emperors lie buried. After lunch our organised tour group was cheerful as we travelled onwards to the wall. To the surprise of the local guide, evidently unaccustomed to Western spontaneity, some even burst into song. But after two hours spent barely moving, the prospect began to dawn that there was a risk that the Great Wall of China would remain a snake on the horizon.

Drastic action was taken. Our guide had a quick consultation with the driver and a colleague and decided that some wall was better than no wall. At a key junction, instead of turning left towards Badaling, one of the widest sections, fabled for its capacity to hold five horses prancing abreast, we turned right to a more obscure section. We were there.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the sight of the magnificent fingerprint of man that is the Great Wall. As you stare up from the coach park, it winds and twists steeply towards the sky, then curls round the mountain top and down before rising again. Even here, dozens upon dozens of visitors, mainly Chinese, were puffing their way up knee-challenging steps, clutching the prop of the handrail whenever offered, to look out towards the north and imagine Genghis Khan and his hordes arriving to terrorise the border guards. (In fact, he is supposed to have bribed them to let him in.)

At every tower, a gaggle of visitors would be haggling for a good price over the "I Climbed The Great Wall of China" T-shirts, the guidebooks and the signed certificate of your mountaineering success. There is even a camel to be clambered on and photographed with. But climb far enough, and even on this, arguably the busiest day of the year, the crowds disappear behind you.

The wall has been restored at most of the points where you are likely to arrive. But it is almost more magnificent where it stands crumbling, with scraggy weeds forcing their way between the cracks, but a still solid testament to the builders who began their work in the fifth century BC. It is difficult to comprehend the thinking behind such an astounding attempt to defend China's borders.

As I began the walk back, large, determined spots of rain fell. Figures began to don macs and head for their coaches (nearly all arrive by coach), but there was no mad rush to leave the wall. I guessed that perhaps the majority of visitors would see it only once in their lives, and intended to make the most of it.

Yet back on ground, the adventure was barely over. If the traffic on the way there was bad, the return to Peking was unbelievable. The worst London roadhog has nothing on the Chinese. Absolutely no one would give an inch to another driver, even if that meant no vehicle moved. A breakdown caused an impasse that was resolved only when the engine finally decided to function after all. In the absence of any other route, we had to journey home through Badaling, our original destination.

I have never seen so many coaches, not even at Wembley. Hundreds in rows, unmoving, beneath vast walls illuminated, as darkness fell, with fairy lights and spotlights. Compared with the stern majesty we had witnessed earlier, Badaling seemed a Santa's grotto, a tourist creation. Though the sight was impressive, there was general agreement that we had been lucky to see the wall bleak and unadorned.

Once moving, the traffic was terrifyingly reckless, overtaking on blind corners, travelling the wrong way down the other side of the road. The front coach seats, initially much favoured for the view, became tarnished with the horror of watching overtaking cars veer towards the side of the coach in late, desperate bids to avoid the oncoming traffic hurtling towards them. We arrived back in Peking three-and-a-half hours late, as the national day was drawing to a close. Other parties did not arrive back until even later, at 2am or 3am, when we were already dreaming of overreaching emperors, invading Mongols and Genghis Khan.

A good way to avoid the crowds in China is to travel there in winter; you also benefit from extremely low prices. In January, for example, the China Travel Service (0171-836 9911) is offering fully inclusive nine- day tours based on Peking for pounds 659, including non-stop flights from Heathrow, accommodation, transfers and all meals. The only extra is a visa, costing pounds 24-pounds 35.