Great (Wall) Expectations
Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
45Trip End Aug 16, 2009
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In the morning, we struck out in the direction of a mall we'd passed several times thinking there would be a variety of breakfast options to fortify us for our trip to the Great Wall. Time was short (our driver was to meet us at 9am), and by the time we realized that all but the McDonalds were closed, we’d sealed our culinary fate…Nothing like fueling a day of hiking with a lump of egg, muffin and slick, sticky cheese in your belly.
Mr. Lee (our driver) was on time, and we began our 2-hour trip to the Wall. We were heading to the Mutianyu section, which we’d been told was far less overrun with tourists than the Badaling area, but not as remote (or rugged) as the supposedly stunning Simitai section
Lee: You like Chinese culture?
Lee: You have camera?
Lee: You see camera make. Chinese cultural. I take you, only 500 yuan [about $85, which is a fortune]
Joe and MB (in unison): No.
In the end, we were unclear if the camera was to take pictures, or we were to see a camera factory, but in either case, it didn’t matter. We had some real cultural fish to fry.
As we passed all 5 of Beijings “ring roads,” glass and steel gave way to vast stretches of new development, cranes, and earth movers; then to smaller villages. Our roads varied from newly paved, to half-paved—literally, east-bound traffic had asphalt and west-bound had a gushy mix of mud and gravel. Mr. Lee inserted a CD—which we called Music for Whitey—a short, eclectic compilation of musak versions of western songs
As Lullaby rolled around for the third time, we pulled up to the chaos of the Great Wall. Here we found yet another gathering of tourist memorabilia in a ramshackle collection of stalls lining the only road to the ticket booth. These vendors were out to make a sale. As we passed through, we were accosted with all manner of waved t-shirts, hats, oversized pencils, Mao memorabilia, and cheap fake antiques. In a few cases, it seemed the bargaining didn’t even need a counter party, as we listened to one woman walk behind us, yelling, “Hello! Hel-lo! You want t-shirt. 10 for $1? Okay, 3 for $1. 3 for $10!”
This section of the Wall is high in the hills northeast of Beijing, so we took a cable car up 600 feet to the Wall itself
The Wall itself is punctuated with a succession of guard houses, and, as the day rolled on, we headed into one only to realize the only exit was up a steep ladder to the roof. From there, we faced a massive staircase rising in front of us into the mist. I was excited. Maribeth was not, but to her great credit, she humored me and we climbed the 453 steps to the top. The final 25 led to another guardhouse and were so steep that we had to scramble hand-over-hand to reach the top. The view didn’t disappoint. We were treated to a spectacular vista of the wall and the valley dropping off on either side. The only disappointment (to me) was that this marked the end of the section open to tourists, which didn’t stop some of our fellow French climbers
On our way back to the tram, the storm that was threatening all day finally arrived. Our umbrella was no match, and given the slickness of the path and the need to balance, we abandoned the umbrella and all pretense of staying dry. While slightly annoying, the rainstorm did clear out most other hikers (they took refuge in the guard houses), so we had the wall almost entirely to ourselves. As far as I’m concerned, this made the soggy shoes and wet clothing entirely worth it. One of the only groups we saw turned out to be a memorable one: As we waited to climb one steep stairway, down upon us came a flood of fairly meaty Chinese kids. It took a moment for us to realize they were all wearing the same shirt featuring a full-figured Chinese child. That’s right, we ran into a fat camp. The sea of kids gingerly made their way down the steps, until finally one last guy trounced down, all the while shoving massive bites of a sandwich into his mouth. Good luck, my full-bodied friend!
Back at the bottom, we had a quintessentially American (and given what we’d just witnessed, delightfully ironic) lunch of 1 pack of Oreos, 1 Coke, and a bag of Gardettos. We gave those fat kids a run for their money
Our next stop was Factory 798, another Beijing Gem. This area was once a Soviet ammunition factory, and is now a sprawling (and growing) artist village. In our 2 hours here, we barely scratched the surface of this fascinating collection of galleries, cafes, sculpture studios, and photo exhibits. Outdoor instillations were everywhere, intermingled among the pipes, smokestacks, and industrial remnants of a very different era. The streets were filled with fellow revelers. It was so refreshing to see authentic and hand-crafted goods for sale. We also saw evidence of some countercultural ideas and even political criticism. It was fascinating, though I longed for a translator so we could discuss the meaning of the work. Our two hours were gone in a flash, though we got some great pictures.
Back at our hotel, we made plans to meet a friend of a friend, only to suffer from a miscommunication that left us waiting in a very different place from him (and we were all speaking English!). With the evening slipping away, we headed to a solidly good local dumpling place where we gorged on crispy, chewy pan-fried nuggets, some filled with an amazing egg and tomato mix, and others with a pork concoction. Finally, back to the hotel for must-needed rest.
Tomorrow: A Special Guest Star!