An index to the China series appears at the first post.
September 23, 2016
With business meetings complete, it was time for a visit to the Great Wall. Three of the graduate students were joining me for the trip, Wen-Feng Zeng, Hao Yang, and Wen-Jing Zhou. One cannot find the Great Wall in Beijing, but a 90-minute bus ride on bus 877 from a station at Jishuitan in the city will get you to a well-preserved section at Badaling, dating from the Ming Dynasty. I am unashamed to say I dozed off a couple of times as we rode there. Staff ensured that only the number of people who can sit are allowed onto each bus.
I stepped off the bus in bright sunshine, feeling a cool breeze at the higher altitude. The bus lot was something of a bedlam, with confused tourists pointing on all directions and buses lurching about. We decided to pick up some food at a tourist both marked “Local Flavour Snacks” because one of our members had arrived without breakfast. We ate our buns stuffed with peppers as we marched uphill to the wall entrance gate. After a few bites, I noticed that my mouth was weeping saliva. We walked up a steep arcade, lined with bawling entrepreneurs of tourist tchotchkes. My mouth began complaining about the spices. We trudged up a road, turned a corner, and saw a line of the Wall stretching up the mountain ahead of us. My mouth was en flambe. We turned into the plaza next to a massive gate through the Wall. While one of us acquired tickets (20 yuan, or around $5 USD apiece), I took a few snapshots of the plaza map and monuments. I had eaten all the peppers, and I pushed the rest into a trash bin. The students raised their eyebrows, impressed.
We climbed the stairs to the Wall and began marching to the North. I was glad that the students hadn’t bought the cable car tickets; the Institute had already invested quite a lot in my tourism! We adopted a slow pace as we ascended the hill. As we reached the first tower, the student reminded me “this is the first tower. There are twelve on this route.” I took the walk through the tower a bit more slowly because it was shady and cool. On the other hand, some of the towers smelled like urine; there are no bathrooms on the wall.
After the first couple of towers, the slope rose somewhat unpleasantly. We were in for a climb! We had come to the Wall on a Friday, so the crowd was nowhere near as heavy as it can be in peak family holidays. Still, the traffic was considerably slowed by the ubiquitous selfie-sticks and group photos. When the passage forward narrowed because of a stair case down, some members of the crowd seemed to relish the opportunity to lie against the railing, blocking the masses behind them. I was glad when we reached our first hilltop, since the remodeling has built a separate area where one can stop out of the relentless flow of movement. The trouble, however, was that this hilltop revealed that the next hilltop was even higher, and beyond that? Well, the last visible one seemed to be in the clouds.
Grimly, our group set out to conquer that climb. We made it to the first of the towers in pretty good form, but the descent and re-ascent to the next one left me a little gaspy. The students began to look a bit concerned about the danger of killing their international visitor. I have to admit, though, that they looked a little peaked, as well!
Suddenly, the traffic simultaneously picked up and jammed behind a bottleneck. The cable car tourists had joined the throng for the last stretch up to the tower in the sky. I kept plodding forward as well as I could. The last ten meters to touch that tower, though, were filled with self-absorbed photo takers who would… not… leave… the… tower… face! At long last I had reached the on-deck circle, and a group of enthusiastic tower-touchers beckoned me up to join them. We gave our thumbs-up together, with our other palms glued to the wall. The climb was over!
I paused for a moment on the descent that led to the next tower. The crowd had mostly turned back in the other direction, and I was able to get my head back together. Standing in the sun without a hat or sunscreen for this long was definitely not a good idea for my migraines. I was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable. I let the students know I was taking some medication to help stave off the spins. We had not walked far down that descent, when suddenly a man in a monkey king costume appeared. He capered for a moment and then selected me as his photo buddy. The students gamely captured a couple entertaining photos of us. The man showed a card certifying him as disabled, with a suggested donation of 20 yuan, which we paid. The students reminded me that the disabled population does not have a lot of opportunities for gainful employment.
Down, down the Wall led. I was compelled to turn around to back down the hill to avoid tumping over on my head, in a few places. The trouble with going down quite a lot, of course, is that one must eventually go back up again. We had just finished a sharp down course when we hit something that cannot really be called stairs, since each step was roughly twice as tall (foot and a half?) as it was wide. I made it, but I must say that I complained.
After a few rounds of steep ups and downs, we found an exit between the tenth and eleven towers. The ability to stand in shade once again was priceless! We had arrived in an area named “Bear Park.” It seemed to be an opportunity for more hawkers to shout at us about Great Wall-themed kitsch, including medals on which our name could be inscribed. We paused at the bathrooms and drank cool water. With a few more steps, however, we found a very disturbing view. Three Asian Moon Bears were clinging to a railing. Tourists were encouraged to pay 5 yuan to throw pieces of fruit at their waiting mouths. The bears clearly relished their snacks. Something inside me hurt, though, to see these wild animals trained to display themselves.
On our bus ride back to Beijing, we began discussing the problem of lunch. We left the Wall around 2PM, and so eating had become a priority for all of us. Out of the dark recesses of my mind came the answer: pizza. I was ready for the tastes of home. We were guided by Baidu to the nearest pizza joint from the bus station. We arrived in a Pizza Hut without much fanfare. I wanted a true taste of America, so I ordered a supreme pizza to accompany my sweet iced tea. The students liked that idea and added a half-and-half Hawaiian (ham and pineapple) / Provencal chicken. Would it look like the real thing?
I must say that it did. It tasted like the real thing, too. After that, we simply hailed a taxi back to the Institute. What a day!