First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Well, it's a PRETTY good wall... I GUESS...

So Saturday night, after shopping, I decided I would go down to the travel desk and just book a seat on a bus tour to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. I know it's touristy, and I'd rather see what the locals call the "Wild Wall," but hey - touristy is part of Beijing, too!

I got down there, but the clerk had left for the night. No big deal, I thought. I'll just do it next week.

No sooner do I get to my apartment than my phone rings. It's a woman at my company, though we've never been introduced. She is a friend of my main contact here, and wanted to know if I wanted to go on a hike to a remote part of the Wall on Sunday with a bunch of her friends.

Old Henry would have hesitated - a long car ride with a bunch of strangers, then a long walk to who knows where out in the middle of nowhere? But New Henry has no such inhibitions. He has eaten chicken feet and eels. He has pantomimed a taxi from Point A to Point C. He has purchased bananas all by himself. He... well, frankly, he doesn't KNOW anybody, so what else is he going to do?

If I was worried about sticking out like a sore thumb, I needn't have. We met at Starbucks (no, not THAT Starbucks... The one across the street. No, the one on the OTHER corner across the street)... and pretty much every laowai ("Old Whitey") who came in was part of our group. In fact, the only Chinese were the woman who called me and our driver.

My coworker's husband is from Jersey; he sells English books to International School libraries. Then there were sisters from New York, both in the art business. One of them brought her beau, from San Francisco, I think. Another coworker from Germany - very smart, very nice guy; we had a long conversation on the ride out. And an English language teacher from... I don't remember, but her boyfriend (not present) was from Edina, Minnesota.

They were all professional risk-takers. All had lived in Beijing for years, all spoke excellent Chinese, few had any intention of moving home, most had lived in more than one other country.

So I guess I stuck out a little, but I smoothed it over with my witty, urbane banter, such as "Gawrsh! I seen a Chinese guy at the circus once, but there's BUNCHES of 'em over here!" and "Why, these places is OLD!" and "Sure could go fer some REAL food 'bout now! Like a Chalupa!"

Anyway, after an hour and a half driving outside of Beijing (and up some super narrow and twisting roads) we pulled into a dirt parking lot at the edge of a small village. There was just a dirt track leading into the hills, and only a few other cars in the lot.

The hike was pretty intense - probably an hour climb through jungle, with lots of steep switchbacks and slippery, rocky bits where you had to use your hands to steady yourself.

It didn't feel that dangerous since there were lots of trees to grab onto, but it was a good hard hike. I was huffing and puffing pretty good when, through the trees...

The wall runs along a steep ridge. We came up from below and entered through a ruined archway.

We climbed up on top. It really is a wild ruin - the trees have grown up all around it, and in one direction half of the wall's width had eroded away.

As you can see, the weather was poor; otherwise, I was told, I would have been able to see 10-15 towers in the distance. As it was, the fog was cool - it was like movie fog, where you could see distinct tendrils wrapping around your legs - but not picturesque. Worse, the German got a call from his girlfriend warning of rain, so we had a quick picnic lunch and headed back down, not wanting to get trapped on the steep, muddy slopes.

I'm sure I'll see the wall again - apparently hiking is a popular weekend activity here - and I probably will go to the touristy, restored wall at some point too. But even for a short visit in the fog, it was very impressive.

(Click to enlarge for more detail)


Even though we were one of maybe three groups on the mountain, we could hear Chinese yelling to each other.

On the drive back down, we stopped at a peaceful inn and sat at tables beside a still, green pond and had some beers and snacks - all the while listening to whole families setting off box after box of firecrackers and those little poppers for no reason whatsoever.

Then I get dropped off and I'm walking back to my apartment, and I hear more noise. This time it's some adults who have somehow gotten hold of an enormous balloon bouquet and are now merrily jumping in it.


My Chinese coworker and her American husband were talking about their marriage, and he made a joke about how he has a Chinese soul. "Yes," she said. "He's like a cooked egg." They contrasted that with a friend of theirs who is Chinese but prefers to live Western-style - this person, they said, was a "banana."