11 February 2007

A Day At The Great Wall (More Like Fantastic, Amazing, Inspiring, Super Great) Wall

Running late for our Great Wall extravaganza, Robin and I stuffed down a few pieces of toast and some scrambled eggs while our tour guide Amy waited patiently in the hotel lobby. Still chewing, she began to explain the day to us. “I’m so sorry, but we must take the taxi to the gas station to meet our driver. He is filling up with petrol. I will pay the cab. I’m so sorry.”

Yesterday, when we were at the Forbidden City a man named Dick (older men are usually named Dick or Peter) started yapping away about his trips to the Great Wall. I “buyaoed” (don’t want) him away, but he was persistent. Then he mentioned Mutianyu, which no tour guides ever mention. This was the access point from which I wanted to see the Wall. We stopped and I listened. His price and package seemed too good to be true. 400 kuai (about $50) for all-day car service including driver and English tour guide. Unreal. I took his card and thought on it all afternoon. On one hand, he could be totally legitimate with very competitive prices. On the other hand, he could drive us out into the middle of Inner Mongolia, steal our stuff and leave us in our underwear in the middle of the Grasslands. Robin seemed fairly comfortable with the idea so I gave him a ring and booked our vehicle.

Cut back to Saturday morning, with a Chinese woman I don’t know telling me we’re going to take a taxi to the gas station to meet our driver. I’m watching her hail taxis to see if she goes to a specific one with someone who seems familiar to her. Maybe this is part of the plan, I think. Yes, I was paranoid but I had Robin to take care of as well. She has two children. I have three plants. The taxi seemed random enough so we got in. Five minutes later it dropped us off on a random street three blocks from the train station. No gas in sight. I’m getting nervous again. Some time passes and a blue 1995 Plymouth Voyager minivan pulls up. Amy opens the back door and we hop in. The door closes behind Robin. I tell her to check to make sure it can be opened from the inside. Again, I realize this could seem a bit paranoid but I’ve been mugged twice and the Inner Mongolia no pants thing really just doesn’t sound all that appealing. Remember, I’ve got plants. The door works and there is no sign of a gun, semi-automatic rifle or large knife. I begin to calm down.

A good twenty minutes of driving and we’re on what looks a lot like the New Jersey Turnpike. I swear, if you replaced the Chinese characters with the Roman alphabet we could have been somewhere between exit seven and eight. Unlike Shanghai, Beijing is a sprawling suburbia; a city that has grown out, not up. Amy turns around and says to us, “Welcome to your all-day tour of the Great Wall. Please let me introduce our team to you. My name is Amy. I will be your guide. This is Mr. Gao. Or you can call him Michael. He will be your driver. This is our team. Any questions?” How official and adorable is that? Let me introduce our “team?” Seriously? I am now completely at ease. I’ve been introduced to the “team” of two people by a smiley twenty-something wearing white boots with charms in the shape of strawberries dangling from the laces.

An hour later we’re at our first stop: a government-certified Jade Factory. This is usually what happens on tours and I am now slightly irritated. I don’t want to buy Jade from your friend Peter. I want to see the Great Wall! “We don’t want to go,” I tell Amy. “Take us to the Great Wall.” She looks at me stunned. “But this is the first stop.” At this point Robin chimes in. “Well if it’s part of the tour, then ok.” I’m thinking she’s blowing our cover and now we really look like mondo tourists. An hour later we walk out with $200 worth of authentic Jade goods. The factory tour was about thirty seconds long: “This is where they clean the Jade. This is where they carve the jade. This is where they polish the Jade. Jade is very special. This is our showroom. Please take your time and shop for some beautiful Jade gifts.” We obviously needed several Jade whatchamacallits and four or five Jade whositmajiggers. Robin is a total American tourist, and I get sucked back into the madness. Isn’t buying things fun?!?!

Back on the road with an hour to go. We’re driving through some back roads between an apple farm and a pear farm on rather bumpy roads. I’m wondering why we would need to be sharing a road with chickens on the way to the Great Wall, hoping we’re not taking a pit stop at an authentic Chinese dairy farm or something.

We’re now winding up Mutianyu pass and we catch our first glimpse of the wall. It’s magnificent and even from this distance, enormous. Michael parks the van and Amy walks us to the ticket counter, making sure we get the proper ticket.

I take a pit-stop at the “Older Man,” Robin and I promise to control our “Pubic Sanitation” (there isn’t even space for an ‘L’) and we board the less-than-safe ski lift, charging our way up to the Wall. The higher we rise the more surreal it all feels. Here I am in China riding a ski lift up the side of a mountain to scale the Great Wall. Goosebumps. Smile. Overwhelming excitement!

We spent the next three hours trekking across roughly three miles of partially restored wall, scaling over 5000 steps, climbing nearly 3000 feet upward before plunging back down into distant valleys. At times we were on our hands and knees crawling up enormous slabs of granite at angles close to sixty degrees. The hills continued on in every direction for miles. The sky could not have been bluer. No clouds at all. We saw no more than seventy other people the entire time we were hiking. It was calm and peaceful. Quiet. We stopped often to gaze in wonder and disbelief at this incredible structure. The wall continued in both directions as far as the eye could see, crawling up mountains and winding down into deep ravines. No breaks. No holes.

No words (or pictures for that matter) can really capture the immensity and scope of my day. I was experiencing a structure that took more than 2000 years to build, claimed the lives of more than one million men (20% of China’s population at the time), is one of only three man-made structures that can be seen from outer space and stretches for more than 4300 miles across northern China (further than the distance from Los Angeles to Washington DC). It was incredible. To be honest, even as I sit here typing it doesn’t feel real. It’s like, what did you do this weekend John? “Oh, I did some laundry and went to dinner with some friends. You?” Oh, I actually hiked the Great Wall of China.


Just as quickly as we rode into the heavens our cable car grounded us back on earth, and oh what a rude welcome it was. The moment we exited the cable car station the hawkers started. “You want Great Wall T-shirt? You want tablecloth? You want chopsticks? Come on Lady (directed at Robin, thank you very much)! What you want?” Once again, China’s two halves were clashing with one another. On one hand you have this powerful influential overwhelming history. On the other you have a constant reminder of what fifty years of oppressive Communist regime does to people. Do these hawkers know exactly what they’re selling? Do they know what this wall means? What it stands for? Do they even have the time or energy to care? After all, they’ve got to eat dinner, which means they’ve got to sell at least one more moving-arm Mao watch.

I snap back into reality and notice Robin is about to pay 280 kuai for some chopsticks. I jump in and yell at the woman for taking advantage of her, debating the items quality. We are able to secure the set for 100 kuai. I was pushing for 80, but Robin was feeling generous. I bought the obligatory (and really cool) “I Climbed The Great Wall” T-shirt in two colors. $2 each. I’m fine with that.

I gave Amy a call and just like that we were back in our van, leaving the power and glory of old China behind us as we returned to the future in downtown Beijing. For those few hours at least, we escaped to an earlier time. A simpler time. Serenity lost but inspiration found, along with some overpriced chopsticks.

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