Monday, April 05, 2010

The Great Wall

Spring Break 2010 as it’s now known was designed to squeeze the most out of China in the shortest amount of time. This is after all a very big country with a huge amount of history and wildly disparate geography. The north is not so exciting - China’s Rust Belt really has only the Haerbin Ice Festival in January as a strong draw. The rest of it is dirty tired and not to appealing. The west offers the ancient steppe cultures and the clash between the Muslim people and the ever expanding Han. You can see things in Urumqi and Kashgar that you’d never expect to find in this country. The south is known by westerners raised on National Geographic as the place of the misty rivers and the famous Karst geology – stony spires crowned with trees standing at dawn in the middle of a watery expanse. Coastal Shanghai is a modern, bustling metropolis with little history making its nickname “Paris of the East” just short of true. The southwest, where China merges with the Tibetan Plateau is a world unto itself, and exceedingly hard to get to. It takes a full day of travel to get to exotic places like Lijiang, Pu’er or the mythical Shangri La. If someone wants to get a good dose of China and is on a tight schedule, there are two places that they must visit – Beijing and Xi’an and so we crafted a plan around those two anchors.

I had asked a friend at work to hire a car to take us to the Great Wall as our first stop. So many things are done this way here - you meet someone who had a Chinese teacher who happens to have a friend who owns a travel agency in some place you want to go. This is “guanxi”, the Chinese way of getting things done. And so this friend of a friend who now happens to work at my place called her pal and made sure that there was a car waiting for us at 9:30 AM. We made our introductions and headed out into the Beijing rush hour traffic. There are three well known Wall locations close to Beijing and I had decided on Mutinayu due to its reputation as being pretty well preserved and not terribly loaded with tourists. It’s not as close as the most famous site at Badaling, but you are rewarded with smaller crowds and less pushy souvenir sellers at the small cost of sitting in the car for an extra 30 minutes. We left the city on the airport expressway and drove towards the mountains on the horizon. The day was typically hazy due both to the notorious Beijing air and the melting snow that still blanketed the fields ringing the city.

In addition to city walks, I love to bring guests out of the city. The change between the metropolis and the villages is often nearly instantaneous – here in Dalian you’re in little hamlets 2 miles behind the tech factory that I’m helping to build. When a first-timer arrives in a city like this, they’re not terribly surprised to see the hustle and bustle and buildings and cars. But once out of town where people seem to still be living a village life more or less unchanged for generations, their eyes really open up. We drove down long narrow roads lined with Cypress trees, passing through towns where daily life was going on – the recycling man pedaling his bicycle cart down the lanes, people cooking food along the road and teenagers standing in small groups gossiping and plotting their day. We drive by isolated in our capsule and we’re pretty much invisible to these people living their lives.

An hour later and having put the last of the stomach wrenching twists and turns behind us we arrived at the main entrance to the Wall. Our driver, Mr. Liu very gently and slowly explained that the car was in Lot 2 and that Lot 1 was at the top. Lot 3 was below and we should make sure to return to Lot 2. He took us to the office and stood by as I bought the tickets for entry and the cable car. Good drivers are like this, they take you under their wing and they make sure things happen the way they should.

You have two options to get to the top here, walk up or ride up. Given the snow and our lack of insight into the quality of the trails, we decided to ride one way and deal with the descent later. The path here between the long parallel lines of souvenir stalls was steep, cobbled and slippery due to the snow melt making me think that we’d made the right choice. We trudged up to the cable car hut and waited in line with a large group of American families also here on school break. As our car rounded the bottom capstan we were glad to see that it had been blessed by the 9th Living Buddha who had ridden it in 1999. Double blessed I guess, considering all the “9’s” involved in that transaction. We rode up with a two couples from Connecticut, chaperones for the horde of teenagers. I scanned the brochure and caught a picture of a young Bill Clinton in an raspberry polo shirt mounting one of the bright orange cars.

Stepping out and climbing a quick set of stairs we found ourselves on the roof of one of the many guard towers that punctuate the Wall. To our left it flowed along the top of a ridge, into the seemingly infinite distance. To our right it tumbled down the hill into a deep ravine and back up the subsequent ridge. Everyone took turns sharing cameras and taking family shots. I asked one of the couples we rode up with to take ours and returned the favor for them, waiting a moment for their sullen teen-aged boy to honor us with his presence. “Olive” as his dad called him clearly would have rather been at South Padre Island cheering on a wet t-shirt contest.

Places as stunning as this are hard to react to, you get saturated and it quickly loses its specialness. It’s as though your mind can appreciate the grandeur but only for so long although I have to admit that it’s mildly embarrassing to acknowledge that I didn’t spend the entire time gasping in wonder with tears of pure joy running downs my cheeks. Perhaps it’s enough to just love it for a moment and then fall into a routine of enjoying the details.

The wall is a uniform gray and honestly pretty bland to look it. Its size is what grabs you, that and the difficultly in walking on it. No two stairs are the same rise and not two treads are the same width. The surface tilts to the side along one short span and then switches to the other almost instantly. It’s a lot like being on the moving floor in an old Fun House ride. You truly have to pay attention or you’ll find yourself on your face. I learned this on my visit to the Fake Wall up near the North Korean border. That section, built in the 1990’s to draw tourists was just as hard to navigate. Apparently the modern engineers decided to build in an extra dose of authenticity where it really wasn’t needed.

It was tough going in places due to the ice and the snow but it was sure nice not to be stuck in the throngs that are here in high season. We walked for a long way, stopping to chat with elderly people selling Cokes and Oreos and bottled water. One old man told me how much he loved America and how nice it was that I lived in China, even if it was in the northeast. Our conversation eventually led to his offer to sell me a commemorative copper plate engraved with the words “I climbed the Great Wall.” Declining, we continued on with our exploration, eventually reaching a spot where the condition of the walkway was so bad that we decided to find our way down.

On the way back to where I thought I’d seen a set of stairs we passed two ancient women who tried very hard to convince me that a beer would make the rest of our visit more memorable. I declined but did buy a package of Chips Ahoy for the sheer weirdness alone. I played the bargaining game with one of them while the other watched. She was having none of that but was enjoying conversing in Chinese with a westerner. Her friend interjected and asked if my kid was my kid and I told her “yes.” She told me that she was very beautiful and I thanked her and our newly found intimacy apparently allowed her to bring out the commemorative copper plate engraved with the words, “I climbed the Great Wall.” I smiled and declined and headed for the stairs. At this point we had three choices, a walking path, a t-bar or a luge-like contraption that allowed you to sit on a piece of carpet and ride down a shiny metal half-pipe. We chose the path though I’ll admit that the luge was an attractive option. Leave it to the Chinese to turn a world heritage site into an amusement park.

The walk down was far easier than I might have imagined. We got to the bottom pretty quickly and passed by the souvenir sellers for a second time untempted by the Panda hats and calligraphy scrolls. We failed to heed Mr. Liu’s directions and ended up in Lot 3 but it was an easy hike back to where we should have been although it didn’t matter as he wasn’t there when we found the car. We sat on some stairs in the sunshine and I called him and he showed up a few minutes later.

For the afternoon entertainment we visited the 798 Art District. I’d been there back in January on a day far too cold to spend too much time wandering around. Today was milder and so we took our time perusing a few galleries and the outside art including an amazing steel sculpture consisting of dozens of life-size wolves circling a lone warrior brandishing a sword. We stopped for coffee and sat at a picnic table watching a young couple having their wedding pictures taken. It’s always funny to see these young women in the expensive dresses peel off their down jackets and their bare shoulders exposed to the winter wind, get their picture taken just before they freeze. Done, they hoist up their layers of silk, satin and lace exposing a pair of jeans and running shoes before ducking into the waiting car. On my last time here I’d seen a small shop selling curios labeled with “Mao-Bama” and “Oba-Mao” which I thought was pretty funny. Our president dressed in Mao’s clothing. We stopped to buy a t-shirt and I got chatting with the young woman owner. She asked me if my kid was my kid and I said “yes”. She started giggling and told me in Chinese that I was far too young to be her dad.

We spent a couple of hours taking photos before deciding to look for a cab back to town. At one point we passed a group of the most outrageously attired women that must have been European models working locally. All over 6 feet tall, thin as rails and wearing dangerously high-heeled boots, they were heading into one of the galleries, chain smoking and talking loudly. One apparently Italian (judging by her accent) was amazingly loud, as if her height and appearance were not enough to draw the attention of everyone around them.

While walking out we saw a group of young women taking turns having their picture taken in front of a cement BMW sculpture. I asked the last girl to pose for me and she was beyond happy to do so, shooting me two “V” signs as I took the shot.

The Sanlitun district was the final stop of the day as it was getting to be dinner time and there really is no better place to go if you’re looking for some disparate choices. We wandered around the maze like streets trying to find a place I’d been looking for on my last visit, finally stumbling upon it in a very remote back alley. It didn’t look terribly enticing so we headed back to a place I know (and like) and found a table there. I ordered Tandoori Sliders, little chicken breasts cooked Indian style and served on tiny White Castle hamburger buns. She ordered a Greek salad with a chicken breast addition. A few minutes later my sliders and her salad arrive, followed in a second wave by a piece of grilled chicken on a plate with steamed vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy. The question of course was why they brought us the chicken blue plate special when all she wanted was a breast. These kinds of screw-ups are common here, due almost certainly to the lack of mastery of English by the waiters in even the most western of restaurants. Of course trying to fathom what happened and get it straightened out is never a task worth undertaking so you usually just expect to pay for the experience. Never a problem as the meals are so cheap, we ate ours and decided to forget about it. When the check came, there was no problem – the 20 kuai add-on for the chicken was just as it should have been. It seems the potatoes were free of charge. Such is China.

It was dark now and we hailed a cab for the ride home. Being rush hour, it turned out to be an hour ride for what would have been a 45 minute walk. It didn’t matter, we were warm, full, hunkered down in a cab and enjoying the last minutes of what had been a pretty darn nice day.
















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