Touts and Toilets...
Trip Start Sep 15, 2009
23Trip End Ongoing
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A. Due to my limited knowledge of proxy servers here, I have found myself pounding keys in frustration to get around the bureaucracy for several hours now. Other people in this hostel are beginning to stare. This could be because of the bottle of Bai Jiu (Chinese licorice-like vodka/whiskey) or that I have begun to munch on tea leaves from my tea glass to handle the frustration.
B. I have created another blog that I cannot get to, it took me two hours to accept that fact.
C I've added photos to flickr to get around the photo sharing. All photos can be found here:
First, let me begin by saying, I love China, and I find the organized sort of chaotic atmosphere here enchanting
I will try to summarize our first two days before launching into our Great Wall experience. So I will stick to the highlights.
1. Imagine my surprise and delight when I realized that I would be sitting next to a small, older, adorable Chinese lady for the 12 hour flight to China. Now imagine the ensuing disappointment and dismay when she scurried off to the back of the plane after realizing she would have to sit by me. (I guess all of you back home would classify this as a fail on my part…)
2. Mom decides on her health card to check the runny nose symptom box- without telling me. As we're trying to clear customs the next thing I know, a guard is whisking my mother away, and I am not permitted to follow. Lucky for us she was allowed to clear customs and deemed Swine-Flu-free; which meant she would not have to be quarantined, but would have to wear a mask.
3. Meeting Liu Qihe, a wonderful and patient man who dutifully waited over an hour for two Americans he had never met, all at the request of a friend.
4. Dealing with an antagonized taxi driver, who could not figure out where the place was that I was supposed to meet with an interview for an English teaching position. The interview was also an interesting experience. (And yes I am now a 英文老师!!) The rush of enthusiasm from snagging a job in Beijing soured to a disappointment in not being able to find a room in the student dorms at BLCU. I was persistent that surely a room must be available, but the clerks insisted I go to the Conference center and reserve a single room there. (So I now have a room in a hotel-apartment-like place on the edge of my campus. More details about the room when I go and register for classes, and pay school fees on Monday.)
5. Our first subway experience: I could read some of the characters, yet managed to get us on the right line going in the WRONG direction. I am still amazed by the fact that Mom can read absolutely no Chinese and still figured out we were going in the wrong direction. This does not bode well for me.
Now Chinese driving and traffic is another subject that will require its own entry entirely. Which leaves me with the Great Wall. (Be prepared for tons of superfluous detail…)
Mao Zedong once said, "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man."
After yesterday, I believe the man. The realization that the visions of one cannot be carried out without the cooperation of others, and that through unity we can leave a greater impact than through acting as individuals alone- and all of this “cheesy” sort of thought, that you would normally shove to one side in the realms of the subconcious; well it all sort of transcends on you during the drive towards the Wall. Speeding along the mountainside, driving in a way that could only be safe here in China, there is where you experience a brief glimpse into enlightenment.
I should pause now and tell you that we took a tour from Jinshaling to Simatai, one of the more beautiful, and less crowded sections of the Great Wall. (Most tourists seem to go to Badaling) From Beijing, our section of the wall was a three hour bus ride into the mountains, with a break half-way to use the bathroom and get a snack. (I will now break to chase a tangent on squatting toilets as I have finally found the means of using such a different…plumbing system. If you do not follow simply type into google images: squatter toilets. And oh yes, you better believe they are everywhere. The Secret? Conquer the squatter toilets, and don’t let them conquer you. Sure laugh, I may sound crazy, but when you find yourself forced into such an awkward position remember- low expectations, byotp-bring your own tp, and hand sanitizer, and somehow, surprisingly, you make it through. That’s one step away from American luxury one step closer to becoming assimilated into a quasi- 中国人)
And so the Great Wall experience began with bathroom breaks, and thought-provoking scenery. What I felt is near indescribable. The views wake a part of you that you never knew was there, a dormant and altogether transcendent piece of you that seems to be greedy, selfless, inspired, humbled, and numbed all at once. Your mind races, you are on visual sensory overload, there is so much to take in that if you don’t concentrate on one side of the road your head will spin about in an excorcist-like manner. I think about demanding being proposed to here, maybe living there in the clay-roofed hutong-like neighborhoods nestled into the mountainside, wondering what the Chi-ovs would do if they found me camping beyond that peak, or if it would be legal to spread my ashes in the mountain breeze- because here I have found the closest thing to visual serenity. (Of course, I also skip over the Chinese gas stations at every couple of kilometers. In a way, this adds to the charm, to the cycle that is inherent in every ancient society- that the present is constantly intruding on the past. Take from it what you will.) The views are overwhelming, stimulating, and exhilarating at the same time. Around the time I find myself pondering the technicalities of heading straight into the sannyasi stage of life and renouncing the “concrete jungle”; I begin to notice a series of snores piercing the silence of the bus-ride. Reality dawns on me, not everyone else is under the spell of drug-like enchantment, that maybe the hour rather than the scenery is the cause of the resonating silence in the cabin. Perhaps this is because I am from Florida- factor in the altitude difference and the fact that anything over the size of a sand dune invokes a sense of awe; and these mountains are the recipe for rapture. Besides… proposal, becoming a sannyasi? I have no desire to marry, I’m not even Hindu, and I’m not sure how Hindus would feel if I just invited myself to become an ascetic/sadhu… Not to mention what the locals or Chi-ovs would do if they found me roaming the hills in loincloth-wear, a staff, and a bowl…
Which is why, an hour later, I find myself in the front of the tour group, leading the way through treacherously beautiful steps, haphazardly winding their way along the mountain towards the Great Wall. Why a Floridian should happen to lead the way up the mountainside is still beyond me. Of course, when everyone is behind you, the pressure and obligation to press on despite the fact that your lungs are on fire is immense. Yes, I bluffed my way up the mountain-side, I pretended it was no big thing, carried a quick pace making sure no one would have to wait on me, and pretended as if mountain climbing was something I was born to do, something that came natural to Floridians. (ha! BIG joke)
Along the way, a Chinese lady came up to us saying hello. I responded eagerly in Chinese, which apparently was an invitation for her to join us on the walk. We carried on in small conversation, she stated she was a farmer who walked along the wall everyday and proceeded to walk with us, warning us to be careful, and walk slowly. (Parts of the walk were disintegrated and steep. For a good part of the journey you were either crawling up or stumbling down.) Now a tall blonde American, able to speak broken Chinese quickly becomes a neo-tout-cult sensation. Not long after, I gained several tout-followers. (Believe me, this was more a plague than a blessing) The problem with Great Wall touts is that you find yourself in a catch-22. They can climb faster than you can, so you can’t out-run them, and if you stop and urge them to go on then you only let them rest and pester you to buy stuff. There is also no finagling your way out once they know that you know Chinese and are from America. As if the situation isn’t sticky enough when crossing every tower you are bombarded with more hawkers trying to sell you water, coke, and beer. The beer part is beyond me- the whole walk makes you dehydrated and getting tipsy would lead you to a most precarious downfall. So I found myself with several touts in tow, and one lady loyally beside my mother.
The whole experience was rather akin to being a bloody carcass in shark-infested waters. Believe me, touts are like sharks and with their terrifying ability to smell indecision and find pushovers they are not a threat to be taken lightly. (I think as a rule of thumb they tried to hassle Americans) While walking, I noticed two French guys having similar problems. I blundered through in broken Spanish about the situation; all the while our touts eyed us suspiciously. The guys were fully aware of the circumstances but did not know how to rid themselves of our unwanted guides. (They eventually left their touts to walk with me!!) Around this point Mom decides to go off with one of the ladies to take a short cut through the mountains as the steps and climbs were getting to be a little much. You can imagine my dismay and hesitation, (she took my second ticket I needed to pass onto the next section of the wall as some sort of insurance) As we split ways, I left her with a little money (and our loyal tout) while I set onward.
Fast-forward for another hour or so, to Jaime vs. the Touts. In this sense Mao’s quote can be read in more ways than one. Brave-facing touts takes a different kind of courage- you cannot fathom the mental number they work on you, if not frustration and annoyance, than guilt and obligation, or even moral discomfort. You’re literally put through an emotional wringer. It was in the shadows of a rather desolate tower that I found myself forced to reconcile with my knick-knack-packing disciples. I knew I was being worked once they began telling me how great my Chinese was- there had to be underlying motives for such bold-faced lies. As I approached the tower in question, my tout begins to explain that this is the last tower she can go to, as the next one requires a second pass; and therefore, I should buy some of her bric-a-brac. I smile and shuffle about in a painfully awkward manner as she declares her prerogatives. How do you make such a situation even more cumbersome? Add several more to a gathering of touts (I swear at this point it felt like they were crawling out of the walls)- all looking onward expectantly; and complete with water/coke/beer hawkers eyeing you up and down, sizing you up. Suddenly, I realize I am cornered in a tower by a semi-circle of aggressive touts; my only offer at escape being the window with a death-jump to mountainside. The logic of saying no to this many people begins to shake. I am forced to face the accusing eyes of my tout as she smiles and explains to me that I am American, therefore I can buy anything. I smile back and explain that I am a student, a poor student, and that American is something that just sort of happened to me. This argument doesn’t satisfy her and she insists that I am obligated to buy her stuff. The dialogue goes back and forth for a bit; even several Chinese tourists stop to look-on before laughing their way down the steps. I notice several of my fellow tour-groupers took the opportunity to slink away unnoticed as every hawker within fifty feet is watching me stand-off to a champion tout. Let me just add, you do not know pressure until you have faced a small mob of angry, persistent, touts who feel you OWE it to them to buy Great Wall picture books. I open a pocket to show I only had 11 kuai. (Hoping she wouldn’t demand my bookbag) The lady shakes her head distastefully and I offer her money for her help. She is appalled, and instead tries to get me to buy a postcard for 20 kuai. I show her the 11 kuai again, we go through the American bit some more, and finally in pure disgust she gives up. She was too good to take tip money but wasn’t beyond bullying me to buy t-shirts, postcards, or chopsticks. At this point, the hawker lady steps forward to offer me water at half price- I take it and run. Well, running is not plausible on this section of this wall but I get the hell out of dodge as fast as I can. The walk down seemed even more dangerous as I could feel the silent wrath and rage of my eschewed tout willing me to fall after all the trouble I put her through. I was a bit fearful of how the laws of karma would factor in such an action.
…. Two towers later I find myself facing a Chinese soldier trying to explain how my pass is with my mother who seems to not be here, and asking if he knew of her where-abouts. The soldier found my hopping about with broken Chinese rather amusing and laughed- explaining that I should just go on, my mother was at another tower. (So far I have been rather delighted by the Chinese army, they are very polite, and try to be quite helpful.) I meet Mom and we continue along the wall. As we near the end and cross a bridge we happen upon a French woman from our group, separated from her children, and with no money. (There was a 5 kuai fee to cross the bridge) We pay for her and insist she stick with us. At this point we are all rather dehydrated, especially this poor woman who has no water bottles on her. We had one more treacherous tower-climb before we got to water, and our friend ends up collapsing on the steps. We wait for a bit, Mom gets her talking, and we urge her onward to where there are some hawkers selling water. As we get to the top and slump into the rickety stools under faded coca-cola umbrellas, greedily drinking Chinese spring water, I realize: 1. Water never tasted so good 2. Although perhaps the whole experience was only a mild pain, this was a beautiful place to suffer in 3. I would be damned if I walked down hill- the stress does a number on your knees, and instead I decided for the three of us we would take the zip line.
There was never a more glorious zip-line ride. Sure in places like Costa Rica you can zip through the jungles, but after a 12 km hike through ancient ruins; zipping across a river from an ancient Chinese wall, snaking its way along the mountains is one of the most satisfying things I have committed to memory.
In the end, our friend found her kids and we made our way to the restaurant. I was so exhausted and dehydrated I did not want to eat. Instead, Mom and I swapped tout stories and her adventure through the hills of the Great Wall. I quickly found a better alternative to watching others eat when I was feeling rather nauseous, there happened to be an older man outside playing ping-pong by himself. And since one of the few things I can say clearly in Chinese is “Hey! Could I play ping-pong?” Well, it only seemed natural to ask to play. Everything was going along smashingly, until I broke the guy’s ping-pong paddle… In my defense the paddle was already slightly broken when I got ahold of it. The man goes inside while I stand there mortified while a table of onlookers laugh and click their tongues at me. The man comes back smiling and insists to carry on with the game, and takes the paddle without the handle. And so we play back and forth commenting with a 好 here and there until its time for me to catch the bus back home…