Sunday, September 20, 2009

We climbed the Great %&#! Wall of China!

2:22 AM Sunday, China time (2:22 PM Friday, EST). Yesterday we got the guided tour. Rocky is a vivacious gentleman who is indeed named after the movie character. He loves China and America both and is interested in politics on the human level, but is quick to be modest. We talked a lot about ancient and modern politics and about Mao Zedong, but I won't go into that here. We were just two common folks chatting.

First we went to the Ming Tombs. A thick haze covered Beijing throughout the day. Still, the museum and the grounds were lovely. Most everything had English translations, including the museum displays. Souvenir shops lurked in the corners, discreet enough to stay out of photographs but bold enough to entice visitors.

The museum was at the tomb of Tong Le, a remarkable man who reigned the Ming Dynasty for a mere 24 years but accomplished a lot during that time. Interestingly, he arranged for the funerals of the King of Borneo and the prince of another country. During their diplomatic visits to China, you see, they'd died of disease, and he took care of them with respectfully lavish funerals. He was the one who moved the capital to Beijing and established the Ming Tomb system, and while he was at it he built tombs for his three emperor predecessors - his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. How very Confucian of him.

After that was a tour of the jade factory, where they make jade statues and trinkets of every size. Literally. Some of it was like a museum, displaying massive sculptures of exquisite artistry. Most of the pieces were much smaller, and for sale. The store took up the bulk of the facility. Our guide dumped us on a clerk, an adorable young woman with an adorable voice, which we heard frequently as she followed us around asking us variations of the question, “Would you like to buy something?” We split us several times, and then used the restroom, and finally we lost her. We admired her dedication, though, and so when we chose our piece, we went back to her to purchase it from her.

It is a Chinese cabbage made of pure white Beijing jade. You might ask why anyone would want a Chinese cabbage made of jade. Apparently, American importers wonder the same thing; I've never seen one at a Chinese gift shop at home, and I've been to a lot of Chinese gift shops.

It's lovely, though. It looks like a lily.

Then we went to lunch at a stunningly gorgeous restaurant where the waitstaff did not speak English. There was a wedding going on, so they were being less attentive to us than they could be. Poor Rocky kept coming over and asking us if we need something, and then hounding the waitresses for whatever we needed. Food trickled in, but eventually we got every dish he ordered for us.

It was funny how he took care of every detail. “Do you like Chinese food?” he asked.

“Oh, yes!” we assured him. Thus he was able to rule out his backup steak restaurant.

Later, “Do you have any limitations? Anything you do not wish to eat?”

“Nothing weird,” we said. “No endangered animals.” We all laughed, but it's a serious issue. Asians love to impress with food. All those delicacies of questionable morality and/or legality are real. We saw shark fin soup on the menu of an unassuming little restaurant last night. Who cares about custom and diplomacy when it's the world's ecosystems at stake?

Anyway, we got spicy beef, kung pao chicken, steamed broccoli, white rice, and jasmine tea – all stuff we love for both its authenticity and its familiarity. It might not be something cooked in kitchens throughout the country, but it's common enough on upscale menus. Even if it wasn't exactly the cuttlefish and corn.

Corn! We saw cornfields everywhere once we got out of the urban circle. The Beijingese love their corn on the cob. And that's the truth.

Besides, in my opinion you'd have to be pretty desperate to eat a cuttlefish. Rick points out that Chinese cuisine is “famine cuisine.” It consists of whatever people can find, catch, or scavenge. Wild plants, the entire chicken... I once watched my friend Kok Win reduce a Cornish game hen to three bones. Most Westerners do not seem impressed by that. We take our waste for granted.

Next... the Great Wall of China. For real. OMG.

We climbed 4 towers' worth of the wall. The fog was opaque by then, and as we walked up it, we could barely see the next tower ahead. Rick mused, “I was expecting the Great Wall to be more... horizontal.” The part we climbed was up a mountain. And on the other side, up another mountain. It's all stairs. Uneven stairs. With twisty parts and way too many people getting in your way. If you trip, you're going to knock out your spouse, a small child, and a German grandmother before you stop.

The third tower reeked – apparently a lot of people think there should be toilets right there. The fourth tower had a gift shop selling everything from brass dragons to popsicles – which meant they had electricity. It also meant the gift shop attendant trekked up that far every day for her job. Well, that saves her on gym fees!

We were beat by then, so we headed down. It would have been nice to keep going, but, um, no.

At the tourist center again, I got a popsicle (those popscicle coolers are ubiquitous) and as I sat at a picnic table, chilling, catching my breath, I casually looked around at the view of THE %&*$! GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!

OMG...I.. I mean... OMG. There it was, being all great, disappearing into the mist like it was a Wonder of the World or something. Holy moly.

If that experience didn't turn me into a fangirl of China, then nothing will.

Then we had some time to kill, so we went to a tea house called “Dr. Tea.” It was owned by the government, which amused Rick and me, but Rocky explained that everything on his tour was owned by the government. Rocky joined us sipping tea. It was essentially a Tupperware party for tourists, and we got the sales pitch afterwards. We bought a small litchi black tea. Yum! It's a good thing for them we were going to buy tea anyway; we are a hard sell, but it was nice to give Rocky some cred at the tea house. We would have sprung for the puerh tea – man, that stuff is no joke – but we genuinely can't spend our money like water.

Maybe like bottled water. Haha! The smog here makes us so thirsty that we're always conserving our bottled water. And guzzling our tea.

Then dinner at a buffet. We ate light, but I did have some cantaloupe and blueberry ice cream. It was just as good as American ice cream. Real ice cream does exist in China! It was a lot like Cirque du Soleil. But my eyes... just... wanted.... to close.

I was hoping that long day would acclimate me to China Time, but here I am in the middle of the night (afternoon for you North American east-coasters) blogging away. Oh well.

Tomorrow we see Tienanmen Square, which we haven't yet in spite of it being two blocks west of the hotel, and the Forbidden City. The festival kicks off on Oct 1, the day we leave China, but in the meantime the city has been filled with drills and rehearsals and troupes of children and other performers bused in from around the country. It is the 60th anniversary of Communist China! And we're here to witness... the buildup! Well, it's still pretty exciting.

The Red Party merchandise is everywhere. Yes, we got some. Yes, we are ironic but appreciative people, maybe a touch existentialist, with a sense of humor both explosive and dry. And, after this experience, a touch more worldly.


  1. Too bad you didn't get to have any Pu-erh on the trip. It was probably overpriced for the tourists compared to what it'd cost in most of China. I'd like to hear about you finding a little tea shop there and getting some high-quality young Pu-erh for practically nothing. That'd be a good story. --Spirituality of Tea

  2. That moment--looking out at the Wall--that's something, huh?