Saturday, May 30, 2009

5/30 The Simatai section of the Great Wall is worth the risk

Alex was on Skype with a friend and kind of forgot that she said she'd come back to the hotel at 9 am. At 9:30, I called and learned that she hadn't yet left the campus. When she finally arrived, we met her downstairs, and less than five minutes later Steven appeared. We lounged a few minutes in the comfort of some high backed couches, and then set off in search of breakfast. It was a bit of a hunt, since the hotel was in a southwest part of Beijing not known for a plethora of restaurants. But Steven is very resourceful and found us an unmarked eatery. Since it was now closer to lunch time, and since he and I agreed that every Chinese meal goes better with beer, we called it lunch and ordered a whole lot of food and some beer. We struggled to find a driver willing to take the afternoon to take us to a remote section of the Great Wall, but as I said, Steven is resourceful. We negotiated the drive there (which we estimated as two hours), a couple of hours wait, and the return for an agreed upon price of Y650, more than we'd hoped but far less than most drivers were asking. The weather was in the mid-seventies and mostly sunny, and most importantly, the air was very clear. Our driver was friendly enough, made so by Steven sitting in the front seat visiting fluently with him. The trip up to the mountains was so restful and I felt like I'd become accustomed to seeing Chinese life, so I actually dozed off several times. Then I realized how irritated our driver had become because the area Steven had bargained for turned out to be a lot farther than the driver imagined. Steven was translating some of the comments made by the driver, and it was not sounding as hopeful as it had when we'd started out. We turned into an entrance and the driver called over to a guy standing in the middle of the road to come over. We determined that this was the road to one area of the Great Wall, and since the next entrance was 20km farther north, this would be the one we were taking, in spite of the fact that Steven wasn't altogether convinced that this was the one we had heard was so great. Nonetheless, as we approached, we saw hints that the portion of the wall to which we were headed was situated along some fairly majestic peaks. The dry, clear blue skies contrasted sharply with the mountains which, if they hadn't been so green, could have been an area northeast of Scottsdale. Of course, instead of pueblos were hutongs on the road leading up to the mountains. The driver let us off and agreed to be there when we came back, which we'd said would be around four o'clock. He'd demanded a rather substantial deposit, which Steven wisely cut in half after exchanging phone numbers.

We decided to take the lift up the mountain, so we bought one way tickets in addition to paying the entrance fees. Each car of the lift carried two people, so Karen and I jumped in first and Alex and Steven brought up the rear. There were not many people. In fact, as we were to soon discover, we'd come to a part of the Great Wall on a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon which featured more vendors than there were tourists. We couldn't believe our good fortune (except that each tourist became more highly sought by each vendor) as we climbed higher and higher toward the crest of the mountains. Unfortunately, the lift ended well before we'd reached the top, and we climbed an additional couple of thousand feet to reach the wall, being trailed by one mysterious vendor who shadowed us stair by stair for a majority of the climb. He’d stop and wait every time we stopped to catch our breath. Even having grown accustomed to Chinese sense of space, this began to grow on all our nerves. It became worse as he continued to follow us, lock step, as we explored many segments of the Great Wall. And I became frustrated at the fact that my ability to tell him how I felt was limited to hello, thank you, and the food is good. But just before I had decided to risk life and limb and push him over the wall into a Mongolian abyss, Steven talked with the man's wife, who had also joined us by this time and was trying to sell us the kinds of books, postcards, and other valuable commodities for which we'd purposefully traveled seven thousand miles and climbed seven thousand steps. He explained that we really were not in the market for anything except maybe a really cold beverage, of which there were none, so that the man's time would be better spent pestering the Europeans farther up the wall (which had been the solution which I'd suggested to Alex, that if any vendor approached me asking if I wanted a whatever, that I'd respond with a "No" but then point to a distant stranger and say something like "but Rolf, there, he's looking for a good tour guide" and then walk away). And it worked brilliantly. The guy finally left and we got to enjoy a desolate stretch of the Great Wall of China. Although, "enjoy" might be at times a euphemism for "almost die on" or "nearly fell to my death" on. We'd experienced steep risers and narrow steps throughout China, but now it was possible to fall to your death within a few steps to the right, to the left, and straight ahead of you. To make it even more exciting, a gale force wind from right to left greeted us as we emerged from every guard house, many of which looked like they'd been successfully battered by those same winds for centuries, and some were in such bad shape that we were forced to detour around them on a narrow path.

There were no other tourists here for a reason, it seemed. My knees and legs already ached, and I knew Karen felt the same. Unfortunately, I think even Alex and Steven were showing signs of fatigue (which reinforced the fact that we were pushing our aged bodies to their limit), and we weren't even sure as we walked for what seemed like miles down the wall that we wouldn't reach the separation between cliffs (where there was now a narrow rope bridge that I sure as hell was not going to traverse) and have to turn around and then climb all the way back up to where we'd started in order to then get back down to where the lift had dropped us. On the one hand, it was magnificent. On the other, I was wondering how many sets of tourist bones were scattered along those mountains which had gone unrecovered. [We later learned that a friend of Steven's had camped along the wall not far from here and had her entire bag, cell phone, passport, gear and all, blow off the wall and vanish, unrecoverable, far far below. Forever.] To add a relatively minor stress, it was 4:15 and we were still near the apex of the journey. But did that stop us from some fun photos? Heck no! We were still commenting on Steven's recent stellar performance at the Expat Show in Beijing, and asked him for some pointers on posing as a Chinese opera star (which he and a buddy had performed for two days to the delight of thousands of Chinese attendees---they were the hit of the show---see and give it a moment to load). So we have various combinations of opera poses (and Dave as a Mongol warrior, though I think I look more Manchurian) on top of the Great Wall. No photo compared to Steven's opera debut, but we attributed that to the fact that they'd paid a guy 800 yuan to spend two days covering them with make-up in full authentic Chinese costumes (which Steven complained were not at all comfortable for a person of his height).

We eliminated any more photo shoots and purposefully forced ourselves to make better time going down. We estimated that if we were lucky, we'd get back to the drop off area at about 5 pm, and that the taxi driver might still be there, and if not, we might be able to find others to get us at least part of the way back. We marched. We stepped. Our calves and feet were burning, since the steps became so steep at times that the Chinese authorities actually installed the one and only safety device I'd seen on our entire trip to China, a steep steel ladder with handrails. Our spirits lifted after we confirmed that we were indeed on the correct route by talking with an English speaking pair who were climbing in the reverse direction. Our pace quickened, if only for a few steps, and then the pain returned. Poor Alex had worn flip flops, which caused us even greater concern. But we were making really good time and finally arrived at a side path which had just recently been completed and was populated by, you guessed it, lots of local vendors. A group of college kids were keeping the drink vendors busy, so we made our getaway. A short distance later, we saw a zip line which offered to whisk us most of the way down the trail for only Y40 each, but Steven and Dave felt that we'd already pushed our luck for the day. Karen more than Alex really wanted to show that she had faith in the Chinese safety commission and didn't seem to understand that this attraction was probably run by a relative of the guy who'd followed us morosely for thirty minutes just a while earlier. So we walked on, and were relieved after we saw that takers of the zip line trip were probably taken again at the bottom, since there was no trail out for them. They probably had to pay another Y40 each for the boat ride to shuttle them out to the park exit. In the alternative, they'd still be listening to the vendors' sales pitches.

Our driver was located via Steven's cell. He was in a particularly jocular frame of mind, given that we were over an hour late for our scheduled return. It seems he'd made a particularly clever purchase of some fish, and he'd made a friend of another taxi driver, and he'd probably found some rice wine, because he was just giddy and so pleased that he'd spent a beautiful afternoon in the mountains (which is what Steven told him to expect in the first place). We started back, and as he had done on the way up the mountain, displayed his propensity to pass slower vehicles both on the left and the right. We'd grown accustomed to beginning to pass a vehicle at the same point that Westerners would feel compelled to return to one's proper lane to avoid the unfortunate and often painful head on collision. Yet we survived in spite of odds stacked against us. Karen insisted that I stop taking photos from the car, because every time I had the camera out and was ready to click the shutter, the driver would turn and stare at me or at what I was going to photograph and not look at the road ahead of us. He did so regardless of our speed or the winding road, and probably would have even done so while passing, but I couldn't bring myself to test this theory. As it was, we hit over 180 km per hour on the tollway for much of the remote parts. My already taxed brain recorded that driving in a taxi at over 110 mph without a back seatbelt was another first for our family. It also provided examples for posterity of how difficult it is to navigate between slow moving vehicles, like trucks filled with oil, bricks, or stone, when the difference in relative speeds is over 70 mph and the trucks are perilously unaware of our approach from behind. Again, we just knew that somehow it would work and that we'd survive again. After all, we'd been kind to some of the sadder vendors. Steven had purchased some berries from a hard working older woman, and during our mountain return, even convinced the cab driver to pull over for us to buy apricots and cherries from a cart family on the side of the road.

The driver took us to another of Steven's favorite haunts, a place famous for serving up great lamb soup and something like fried lamb tacos. Steven had made history during one visit for eating a full meal and topping it off with five of the fried tacos. As we finished, several of his friends came in for dinner, so we had a chance to meet Andrew (Steven's cohort performing the previous weekend at the Expat Show), Austin, and Emily (broken foot cast recently decorated by her friends). We left, and Steven led us in the darkness through several alleys. I know it sounds strange, but if you can avoid the occasional nasty sewer and diesel exhaust smells, the rest of Beijing smells of mesquite wood burning and can be rather pleasant. After a bit, we suddenly emerged near the Bell Tower that Karen and I had gone up ten days earlier, so we started to get our bearings, the only difference being that Karen and I had limited our adventure to well lit main streets during the daytime. Steven preferred the back alleys at night. We passed our former hotel, The Bamboo Garden, and revisited the blind masseurs for a relieving foot and leg massage. Since they were unusually busy for so late on Saturday, the proprietor brought us each an oak bucket lined with plastic so that we could sit out in the alley and soak our feet in hot water, steeping with what resembled a tea bag. As soon as my blind young man finished massaging an elderly handicapped woman and the proprietor kindly carried her to her wheelchair, I let him work my feet with his knuckles and knead them until I passed out from relaxation. Karen did the same. I loved the fact that he spoke a few words of English, so that I could tell him my feet felt "Beautiful" and I didn't have to tell him in Chinese that "The food is good." We returned the empty bottles of beer which Steven and I had purchased to get the deposit back, and he walked us out to the main road so that Alex could catch her taxi and we could catch ours. Alex had left her cell phone in Karen's pocket, so her textbook departure was slightly marred by her having to literally run back down the street to us screaming before we too had entered the second cab. Although tired, Steven walked to his hutong since it was relatively close.

Explore the Forbidden City on important anniversaries

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