Friday, March 6, 2009

"This is a Great Wall"

I'm writing this in a sleeper berth that seems to be about 6 inches too short for me.  There's two feet between me and the ceiling, and lights go out in 1 hour.  (addendum: the guy below me snarled something in Chinese that I took to mean "stop making noise" about 20m after I added that note, so I had to shut off the laptop)

On March 4 we went to the one place where you have to go when you visit China:  The Great Wall.

The Great Wall is obviously long (although apparently it's a myth that it can be seen from outer space), so there are numerous places close to Beijing where you can go visit it.  Lonely planet lists a few places and poopoos the most common spot tourists go at Badaling.  
Lonely planet likes to be all indie and and likes to poopoo 'tourist' places.  As a consequence, we've had several experiences where lonely planet sends us somewhere random where we see 5 other people carrying the same lonely planet book.

Since badaling is the most convenient, we ended up going there despite the warnings against it.

Besides Badaling in general, Lonely Planet also warns against the tours that wind you through chinese medicine sales pitches and jade exhibits followed by massive showrooms for jade.

With that in mind, we followed the lonely planet recommendations to a tour company right at tiananmen square.

The first thing we noticed that made us slightly afraid was that the waiting room for the tour was entirely Chinese.  When we got on the tour there were 4 other westerners out of about 40 people.  Their talkytalk sounded to me like Russian, although Marisa pointed out that their English was flawless, so she thought they were Finnish.  Later on at a merchandise stand the men in the group bought giant commie fur hats with red communist stars on the front.  Given how much they seemed to enjoy the commie hats, I'd stick with my first guess of Russian.  But anyway, I digress:  The point was it seemed like there'd be a low likelihood the tour would be in English given the paucity of English speakers, but we went anyway.

It turned out the tour was entirely in Chinese, so we didn't understand a word of the jabbering in Chinese that we sat through for 2 hours in the bus.  BUT the windows were pretty much entirely fogged up so I don't know the chinese tourists got to see anything anyway.

We stopped at the Ming tombs first, which was a nice diversion.  We didn't see actual coffins but saw reproductions.  The tombs were huge and impressive (although for some reason were quite plain and felt like a nuclear fallout bunker), and in beautiful surroundings.

After that we stopped for lunch.  Remember, lonely planet warned us against tours that tried to sell us jade and chinese medicine, and they recommended this tour.  So...  Wait for it...  Wait for it:  

Before we ate lunch we were told we had to walk through an exhibit on the history and use of jade in Chinese civilization.  It was mildly interesting, and at the end we emerged through double doors into this MASSIVE showroom that was probably 10x the size of the jade exhibition and full of vendors trying to sell jade.  It was setup like a maze that you had to meander through to find the exit.  We walked right through to the end.  This is a digression, but I'm writing this on a sleeper train and have a lot of time:  Lonely planet warned us that as westerners everywhere we'd go in China people would try to sell us crap.  They were pretty much right.  People are really persistent.  Often all they seem to know is a few words in English; sometimes literally all they know is "Hello!!"  We've gotten pretty used to walking by vendors who simply yell, "HELLO!" at us.  We also now appreciate how much meaning is able to be carried in a single word.  As you approach a vendor the "hello" can be inviting; as you show doubt the "hello" becomes more plaintive; and as you start to walk away the "HELLO" turns into a different thing entirely, resembling what you might hear from a taxi driver in new york if you cut him off on a pittsburgh leftie.

The strange thing about the jade salespeople is they didn't yell, "hello!" at us.  It was remarkable, because just outside the jade place there were vendors selling cheaply made hats and tshirts proclaiming, "I climbed the great wall!!" who were jumping over eachother yelling "HELLO" to fleece of us of our dollars, but inside we were literally completely ignored.  I even made eye contact with jade vendors to see if they'd attempt a sale.  Nary a movement, let alone a shouted "hello".  I don't get it:  Maybe westerners only buy crap in China and have never shown an interest in jade.  I was tempted to go and buy some jade out of spite just to show them they shouldn't ignore us, but Marisa wouldn't let me.

After the jade we went into the "restaurant" for the provided lunch, only to discover we had to walk through an exhibit on Chinese Medicine!  This was exactly the other thing Lonely Planet warned us about.  We didn't mind, though, because the exhibit was fascinating, not so much because of the incredibly bad English translations, but because of the props.  It was about the use of all the the parts of deer in defeating various illnesses.  It was replete with pieces of deer in preservation fluid.  Each piece of the deer was supposed to fix different things.  I can't remember what they were, but the deer testicles are seared into my mind, as well as the deer 'placenta', which I think was a bad English translation, because on closer inspection through the glass case it looked to me like a FETUS since it was a tiny hairless deer with tiny little deer limbs and a tiny little deer head attached to a tiny little deer body.  They also had hacked off deer hooves and a nose.  The explanations were too inexplicable in English to convince us of the efficacy of Chinese Medicine (I don't think we were the target audience anyway), but it did make us incredibly hungry for lunch.

Afer touring the Jade and the Chinese Medicine we finally made it to lunch.  We got there before everyone else because all the Chinese Tourists were off blowing their dough on Jade and Deer Pieces, so we sat down at an empty table.  Marisa guessed that it would probably be family style because she's way more observant than me:  there were no dishes, and only small rice bowls.

I didn't believe her but she ended up being right.  I was worried that no one would sit with us, but was pleasantly surprised that plenty of people sat with us.  (We're continually pleasantly surprised by how amazingly friendly Chinese people seem to be, even if they only speak limited English.)  I think both of us were slightly squeamish about sharing food/saliva with a bunch of people we didn't know, but hey, we'd live.

Unfortunately, neither of us had paid much attention to the section of the book about table manners.  Ironically, we both remembered the things that are considered gross in the US but are OK to do in China:  I guess it's easy to remember the things that you normally worry about but can now ignore.  We knew it was OK to slurp and in general make lots of noise when you eat, and we knew it was OK to pick up your bowl and shove food into your face.  (Both of these things are necessary when eating with chopsticks, so it makes sense.)  It's easy to think of stuff like that and then assume that anything goes, but of course each culture is different and while some things we might think are gross are permitable, other things we might think are normal might be considered gross to a Chinese person.  Too bad for our tablemates, because we didn't remember any of those things.  To be fair to us, we weren't visiting anyone in China and hadn't foreseen that we'd be eating at a table with Chinese people that weren't waiting on us.

The girl next to me ended up making horribly disgusted looks at three things:  The first time was when Marisa pointed her chopsticks at her when asking her to pass something.  The second time was when I put a bun directly on the table, which apparently must be as nono even though in the US it'd be fine to put bread on the table.  The third time I caught a nasty glance was when I had a bunch of fish bones in my mouth and took it out with my fingers and put it underneath my rice bowl  (ha ha.  This would be dubious in the US too, but we weren't provided a napkin to conceal it, and I wasn't prepared to choke to death to preserve my honor.)  So: I guess we are barbarians.

Thus went lunch.  The food was excellent and the company good, despite our faux paus.

After lunch we hopped on the bus to finally go to The Great Wall.

Given her leg problems, Marisa was worried about having to climb up to the great wall, which is great not only because of its length but also because of its location, which is literally on top of a bunch of mountains.  Luckily for us we knew there'd be a tram. What we didn't expect was that in the spot where our tour dumped us off they had a ROLLER COASTER.  Literally, the thing that took us up the mountain was a set of roller coaster cars.  I think it was probably the most dangerous thing we've ever ridden, and we hadn't even done the downhill yet.  The track going up was covered with seeping black oil for lubricant, and all along the route were strewn emptied engine oil cans (of the variety that would normally be used in a car engine).  I think the people who maintain it just climb up along the track dumping cans of oil out on the metal.

It was FABULOUS (and definitely well lubricated).

We got off at the wall near the top and ended up walking for nearly an hour up to the summit.  Marisa made it to the tower before the summit; I took off running to the top and ran back down to catch up with her.  I thik the (still msotly Chinese) tourists thought I was a big freak, but I wanted to go running on the wall and go to the top of that section.  On the way down I stripped to my tshirt because I was hot even though everyone else was in thick winter jackets.  
Steve in various states of undress. From 20090304_Beijing_GreatWall_MingTombs_Starred

The wall itself was amazing, although there was extremely low visibility (maybe half a mile) because of the thick dust and haze in the air.  We may write a post later about the horrible air conditions in Beijing, but apparently that entire section of China is often covered in dust-filled air that's blown down from the Gobi desert.

We were impressed by the stamina of a lot of the tourists, especially the several old Chinese people we saw with walkers/canes climbing up nearly-vertical-seeming sections of the wall.

The way down was via the rollercoaster contraption that took us up.  An employee sat in the first car controlling what seemed to be the only braking mechanism.  We fleetingly wondered if they've ever had any conductors pass out, but tried not to think about it.  It didn't actually go that fast downhill because he rode the break, which was apparent to anyone in the vicinity because of the pungent smell of burnt brake rubber.

To conclude, the Great Wall at Badaling was well worth the trip.  Lonely Planet also sucks because they're too uppity and anti-'tourist' stuff.  70% of the fun of our Great Wall trip was observing things as Chinese Tourists, including the family style meal, the rollercoaster ride up to the great wall, and the entreaty that eating deer fetus will cure your arthritis.  


  1. I enjoyed reading about your encounters with other people. I hope you're both doing well.

  2. wow i get so many looks of shame when i eat at a chinese restaurant in the US with chinese friends. i would probably be kicked out if i ate in china.. i cross my chopsticks, point at everyone, do 1 chopstick style.. but i don't slurp! too bad that's ok.

    let me know how the deer fetus works out.