Great (Wall) Expectations

Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
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Trip End Aug 16, 2009


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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

This was a day in which we were forced to eat at McDonalds, were stood up for dinner, subjected to a form of aural torture, and got caught in a torrential downpour. This was also my favorite day in China, and one of the highlights of our vacation.

In the morning, we struck out in the direction of a mall we'd passed several times thinking there would be a variety of breakfast options to fortify us for our trip to the Great Wall. Time was short (our driver was to meet us at 9am), and by the time we realized that all but the McDonalds were closed, we’d sealed our culinary fate…Nothing like fueling a day of hiking with a lump of egg, muffin and slick, sticky cheese in your belly.

Mr. Lee (our driver) was on time, and we began our 2-hour trip to the Wall. We were heading to the Mutianyu section, which we’d been told was far less overrun with tourists than the Badaling area, but not as remote (or rugged) as the supposedly stunning Simitai section. Mr. Lee was quite an enjoyable character, and only tried to sell us on one "Chinese culture site," which we declined, fearing another silk factory. The actual conversation went something like:

Lee: You like Chinese culture?

Joe: Yes

Lee: You have camera?

Joe: Yes

Lee: You see camera make. Chinese cultural. I take you, only 500 yuan [about $85, which is a fortune]

Joe and MB (in unison): No.

In the end, we were unclear if the camera was to take pictures, or we were to see a camera factory, but in either case, it didn’t matter. We had some real cultural fish to fry.

As we passed all 5 of Beijings “ring roads,” glass and steel gave way to vast stretches of new development, cranes, and earth movers; then to smaller villages. Our roads varied from newly paved, to half-paved—literally, east-bound traffic had asphalt and west-bound had a gushy mix of mud and gravel. Mr. Lee inserted a CD—which we called Music for Whitey—a short, eclectic compilation of musak versions of western songs. Since the CD was on repeat, these songs are now forever burned into my mind: the Godfather Theme, Amazing Grace, Lullaby, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Maria (from West Side Story), It’s Now or Never, and Music of the Night (from Phantom of the Opera). Mr. Lee never seemed to grow tired of any of the songs, and occasionally he would add his own—completely atonal—renditions of the songs in 5 to 10 second bursts. The music, combined with a slow-moving bobble-head style plastic flower toy stuck on the dash inexplicably titled “flip flop,” induced a sense of unreality.

As Lullaby rolled around for the third time, we pulled up to the chaos of the Great Wall. Here we found yet another gathering of tourist memorabilia in a ramshackle collection of stalls lining the only road to the ticket booth. These vendors were out to make a sale. As we passed through, we were accosted with all manner of waved t-shirts, hats, oversized pencils, Mao memorabilia, and cheap fake antiques. In a few cases, it seemed the bargaining didn’t even need a counter party, as we listened to one woman walk behind us, yelling, “Hello! Hel-lo! You want t-shirt. 10 for $1? Okay, 3 for $1. 3 for $10!”

This section of the Wall is high in the hills northeast of Beijing, so we took a cable car up 600 feet to the Wall itself. Upon seeing the it, all of the craziness of the morning faded away. The weather was warm and sticky, yet threatening to rain, so it was mostly uncrowded. Lacking a map, and being in a socialist country, we chose to walk to our left. It’s difficult to capture the scope of this structure, so, as has become our method, I’ll let our pictures do most of the talking. What I can say is that there is a kind of sublime beauty to it. As imposed and imposing as it is, it also gracefully flows with the land, snaking along ridges and hillsides, weaving with the contour of the ground. The Wall seemed endless. It’s also a bit treacherous, with uneven pavement, steep ramps, completely unstandardized step sizes, and a lack of guard railings, but this added to the charm.

The Wall itself is punctuated with a succession of guard houses, and, as the day rolled on, we headed into one only to realize the only exit was up a steep ladder to the roof. From there, we faced a massive staircase rising in front of us into the mist.  I was excited. Maribeth was not, but to her great credit, she humored me and we climbed the 453 steps to the top. The final 25 led to another guardhouse and were so steep that we had to scramble hand-over-hand to reach the top. The view didn’t disappoint. We were treated to a spectacular vista of the wall and the valley dropping off on either side. The only disappointment (to me) was that this marked the end of the section open to tourists, which didn’t stop some of our fellow French climbers. (MB: Joe, you can’t go there! Joe: Come on, the French get to do it!”)

On our way back to the tram, the storm that was threatening all day finally arrived. Our umbrella was no match, and given the slickness of the path and the need to balance, we abandoned the umbrella and all pretense of staying dry. While slightly annoying, the rainstorm did clear out most other hikers (they took refuge in the guard houses), so we had the wall almost entirely to ourselves. As far as I’m concerned, this made the soggy shoes and wet clothing entirely worth it. One of the only groups we saw turned out to be a memorable one: As we waited to climb one steep stairway, down upon us came a flood of fairly meaty Chinese kids. It took a moment for us to realize they were all wearing the same shirt featuring a full-figured Chinese child. That’s right, we ran into a fat camp. The sea of kids gingerly made their way down the steps, until finally one last guy trounced down, all the while shoving massive bites of a sandwich into his mouth. Good luck, my full-bodied friend!

Back at the bottom, we had a quintessentially American (and given what we’d just witnessed, delightfully ironic) lunch of 1 pack of Oreos, 1 Coke, and a bag of Gardettos. We gave those fat kids a run for their money. Mr. Lee was waiting for us and we headed back to town. On our trip, we discovered that Mr. Lee was also an inquisitive soul. He stopped his car 4 times (stopped: halting in the middle of whatever freeway or back road we happened to be on) to marvel at the following: farmers in a field (Lee: “What are they planting!”), army trucks (Lee: “Soldier!”), a bus of Chinese tourists (Lee: “Yellow people!”), and finally a small planting of daisies (Lee: “Flowers. Ha!”).

Our next stop was Factory 798, another Beijing Gem. This area was once a Soviet ammunition factory, and is now a sprawling (and growing) artist village. In our 2 hours here, we barely scratched the surface of this fascinating collection of galleries, cafes, sculpture studios, and photo exhibits. Outdoor instillations were everywhere, intermingled among the pipes, smokestacks, and industrial remnants of a very different era. The streets were filled with fellow revelers. It was so refreshing to see authentic and hand-crafted goods for sale. We also saw evidence of some countercultural ideas and even political criticism. It was fascinating, though I longed for a translator so we could discuss the meaning of the work. Our two hours were gone in a flash, though we got some great pictures.

Back at our hotel, we made plans to meet a friend of a friend, only to suffer from a miscommunication that left us waiting in a very different place from him (and we were all speaking English!). With the evening slipping away, we headed to a solidly good local dumpling place where we gorged on crispy, chewy pan-fried nuggets, some filled with an amazing egg and tomato mix, and others with a pork concoction. Finally, back to the hotel for must-needed rest.

Tomorrow: A Special Guest Star!
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