Monday, September 11, 2006

Goodness Gracious Great Walls of China

I saw one of Beijing's numerous fender benders today. And you would expect the two drivers to pull out their insurance cards. Instead, everybody started kung fu fighting. Them cats were fast as lightning. It was a little bit frightening. But it was done with expert timing.

No, wait a minute. That was just a dream, just a dream. Not that I got much dreaming done last night, given the mosquitos in the room and my horrible hay fever. I had forgotten to mention that the other reason I gave up on my China tour twenty years ago was that China in September makes me sneeze. This time I brought along a giant bottle of antihistamines, but once it started in about 24 hours ago I have been popping them like crazy to little effect.

And we had to get up at six because today was our expedition to the Great Wall. Now one of the benefits of living in a hostel environment is that you can sign up for non-obvious tourist tours. And taking a 10k hike along an obscure section of the wall seemed like a great idea. After all, the book said that it was an easy four hours, and even though I am the world's slowest walker I figured that I'd have six or seven hours to do it easy.

Except that it took us 5 hours to cover the 75 mile distance, which meant there were only four hours available before pickup at the other end. But how hard could it be? Then I looked up at the ridge it was snaking along.

Oh well. Start walking. So I got up the long incline to the ridge and turned left along the Wall. About an hour or so into, however, I started realizing that I wasn't as young as I used to be. And it was 90 degrees and humid and sunny. And I had a blister developing. And my knees grimaced with pain on every step down. And there were many steps down and many, many, many more up.

Sunstroke, if not a heart attack, seemed like a real possibility. And although there would be a certain ironic symmetry in me keeling over which trying to climb the Great Wall of China, I suspected that Maureen wouldn't take too kindly to me undergoing a needless demise.

Simultneously Sumi started getting nervous about dealing with a dead father in the middle of nowhere. We decided I should chicken out, be a coward, give up. I turned around.

Now even though you're in the middle of nowhere, that doesn't stop any number of Chinese hawkers from walking along with you, patiently and usually forlornly hoping that at some point you'll take pity on them and buy some of their trinkets. In this case I had a young local guy steering me to the cable car for the easy ride down.

I got in and descended in calm serenity over a yawning chasm, noticing that off to the right the Chinese guy was running down the hill on a precipitous path. When I got to the bottom he was there waiting, since he knew that my bus was long gone over to the end of the hike. I entered into negotiations with him, and soon I was riding in a little six foot long truckbed welded on to the back of his motorcycle.

It was actually a pretty neat open air trip through the hilly rural countryside.

And, guess what?, I had beaten all of my fellow hikers to our destination. When Sumi finally showed up two minutes before the bus left, she said it was the most strenuous hike she had ever taken, and that I would have definitely killed myself had if I had tried it. I like to think that if the temperature had just been twenty degrees cooler...

Anyway, you're probably wondering if the Wall is all that. Well, pretty much. It certainly took a lot of hard work, although I've read that it really wasn't very useful as a barbarian deterrent. Maybe the Chinese just felt safe behind their fence.

So then it was back to Beijing for our final night in China. For tomorrow bright and early we're on the train to Mongolia. So here are some final China comments:

Even though the language and writing are hopelessly impossible to figue out, it's actually a pretty easy country to get yourself around in. And, strangely enough, it might well be the least in your face country in Asia.

And speaking of hostel environments, the building we're in has a nice lobby and hostel and double rooms in the three or floors above it. Behind the lobby, though, there's a totally middle class Chinese restaurant. And then in the basement...

When I first saw the attractive young ladies walking up the stairs in fancy silk dresses, I thought there might be some sort of amateur fashion show going on. Then a couple of shit-faced drunk Chinese men staggered upstairs and fell flat on the concrete floor. And then when I went down there, there wasn't even a bar, just many darkened cubicles. And a Chinese bouncer ran up and said, 'You go away now!'

It's an honest to god whorehouse down there.

Which seems like an ironically symmetrical note to end my current China tour on.


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