Monday, November 30, 2009

The Great Wall

Friends: It was an hour bus ride from Tienanmen Square in the heart of Beijing to The Great Wall. If I weren't down to my last day in China and pressed for time, I would have much preferred to have biked out to it, especially since it would have followed some of the 2008 Olympic bicycle road race.

As the day wore on, I was regretting even more that I hadn't made the ride, even though it would have included some significant climbing. Ever since Wuhan, and even before, the terrain has been flat with hardly a ripple in the countryside. But the drive to The Wall gave me a final taste of China's mountains, as we climbed nearly 2,000 feet. The rugged mountainous countryside that The Wall undulates up and over and around makes it all the more spectacular and impressive. The group I was with was given an hour to walk as much of The Wall as we cared to, though not many went too far, what with sections steeper and much more prolonged than your average staircase. And it had the added challenge of ice and snow.

With it being a Monday and so cold, it was a rare occasion when The Wall wasn't mobbed. I had no worries about finding the bus I had gone out on, as it was the only one in the parking lot. Vendors only half-heartedly approached us with place mats and cups that one could have their photo emblazoned on with The Wall in the background. And there were the usual t-shirts proclaiming "I climbed The Great Wall." I tried to take a photo of several of the t-shirt saleswomen brandishing the t-shirt, but they would have none of it.  This was tourist country and the sales people were out to make money not friends.

We were at a four-mile section that was fully restored to its original state when it was constructed over 2,000 years ago to keep out the marauding Mongols. There are quite a few other restored sections along its 3,000 mile route across the north of China. The Chinese remain intensely proud of The Wall. A sign proclaimed it "A symbol of the Chinese nation and the soul and ridge of the country, which has been deeply rooted in every Chinese...One can not help marveling at the Chinese nation and culture." It was similar sentiments to a sign at the Three Gorges Dam and also to comments expressed by the wife of Julie-Ann's boss at dinner the night before, expressing pride in her heritage. I had been talking about how impressed I had been with what I had seen of China. She matter-of-factly said, "China is the same size as the United States, but dates back over 5,000 years."

If we made it back to the city in the same time it took us to get to The Wall, I would have had a couple hours of day-light to give the Forbidden City, just north of Tienanmen Square, a look. I realized that wasn't going to happen when we stopped at a large shopping complex selling jade.  It was the first of several shopping stops we were subjected to.  We were welcomed by a sign at its entry reading "Jade Has Lifetime Wealth." We had to walk through a maze of show-rooms. The nearly all Chinese tour group was in no hurry to rush through, and seemed happy for this opportunity to shop. They were equally shop-happy when we stopped at another equally sprawling and commercial outlet specializing in textiles a little later.

After we stopped at this one I asked the only other Westerners in the group  if they knew when we were due to return. They did not. We asked the non-English speaking guide. She pointed at the eight on her watch, over four hours away. We didn't think we understood her. I pulled out the same piece of paper she had written down the time of our departure from The Wall (14:50), and she wrote down 20:00. We were staggered. No one else in the group seemed to be impatient or upset with these diversions. Most eagerly surveyed the merchandise and made purchases.

At least at the next stop we were fed some rice and toppings to keep our energy up, but it was the only time we were hurried along. There were four or five more stops. I didn't mind being stalled by rush hour traffic, figuring that had been factored into our return time and sitting in the bus was preferable to having to look at things in stores I wasn't interested in, but unfortunately it wasn't. One of our stops was at an ancient complex of wooden buildings. There was an extra fee that everyone but us non-Chinese unhesitatingly paid. At another stop we were subjected to a performance by a couple of guys with swords. One swallowed his and then passed it around for everyone to examine to verify that it wasn't collapsible and it had indeed gone three feet down his gullet. Then he swallowed a metal ball the size of a golf ball and regurgitated it up. After the performance he walked around with a hat. Everyone contributed.

The other Westerners were a young French couple. The husband worked for Air Bus in Paris and was in Beijing checking up on their factory. Today was their last day in China. At one point they tried to escape in a taxi, but the guide chased the taxi away. They weren't upset at all, figuring it must have been an illegal cab, what are known as "black cabs," something he had been warned about by the people he was working with.

I was getting worried about my bike locked up to a tree back by Tienanmen Square. When we were finally delivered back to our starting point at nearly nine, some six hours after leaving The Wall, we were dropped off a block from where we left. I had several moments of terror as I rushed to find my tree, but the bike was still there.

For the second time today, I was thrilled and relieved to be back on my bike. The first was after I spent thirty agonizing minutes on the phone with a British Air representative in Hong Kong changing my return flight from Hong Kong to Beijing. British Air only has one flight a day out of Beijing, so has no representatives here for changing tickets. I had biked out to the airport yesterday and talked with people there, but they could do nothing, and the Hong Kong office wasn't open until nine this morning. I spent a particularly agonizing ten minutes on hold while my credit card was confirmed. It all made for a long hard day, not the nightmare of my first day in China, but still not exactly how I would have liked to spend my final day in the country.

But it won't detract from the grand time I've had. It's truly been exciting to be in such a flourishing country with so many people in such good spirits experiencing wealth they never imagined they would experience, from simply having a cellular phone (700 million Chinese are so equipped) to having a car and much, much more, things that were totally unthinkable not so long ago.  It wasn't so long ago that milk and much else was rationed.  Now one can go into supermarkets as large and as well-supplied as any in the world. Prosperity had people in good spirits. It was heartening to be amongst such people. I'll be happy to return at the earliest opportunity before their wants begin to outdistance what they can have and their happiness takes a dive.

A nice final bike ride out to the airport awaits me first thing tomorrow morning, twelve miles from Julie-Ann's apartment, partially through a forest. I have a noon flight to London. I will be back in Chicago the next day after forty hours in transit.

Later, George

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