Monday, September 8, 2008

Korean Air, Great Wall at Simatai, Beijing.

Wow. I don't even know where to begin.

Our plane ride turned out very comfortable. Korean Air had to unload the plane in Seattle right after we boarded because somebody disembarked after boarding and decided not to go to Korea, which meant the plane had to be searched. We ended up leaving a bit late, but that meant when we hit our transfer flight at the Seoul airport all we had to do was take a quick walk across the terminal, board the new plane and head out to China.

We landed, took the bus to the Beijing Hotel, found our rooms, and went out for a couple of celebratory beers on WangFuJing Street (very touristy street, lots of lights, right next to Tiananmen Square. You can get a lot of different Chinese food there.....or McDonalds). Everyone pretty much just went to sleep early to get ready for the following day at the Simatai section of the Great Wall.

Simatai was very enjoyable. And painful. And torturous. I would recommend renaming the Great Wall "The Ridiculously Steep and Humbling Wall". The Great Wall at Simatai is largely unrepaired. It has been fixed up just enough to be safe to climb, and when heading up the east side of the wall you have to go up extraordinarily steep grades, one tiny step at a time. Madhu appeared to really relish the Great Wall, and moved around through the group from front runners to stragglers cheerfully stopping people to take photographs of us, at one point even standing on the edge of a broken-down section of the wall where a fall in either direction would have been an unpleasant experience. Reminded me a lot of my father on family vacations.

As we got closer to the top of the wall, and our legs started to feel increasingly like the egg noodles we ate for breakfast, two events occured.

One was that I would look up at a very steep incline, knowing that there were at least four more torch towers to pass before reaching the top, and see a 65-year-old retiree humping back down the wall from the top. I owe the elderly tourists of the world a debt of gratitude, as were it not for them I probably would not have made it to the top. But to think that they could make it and I, at the age of 34, could not, was something I really didn't want to carry with me for the rest of the trip.

The other was that local farmers' wives, mostly in their 50s, began meeting us on the wall and trudging up with us. As soon as they discovered I could speak Chinese well enough to communicate with them, we struck up a conversation.

The farmwives supplement their living (or in this drought year, possibly support their families) by hiking up and down the wall twice per week, usually two or three times per day, being helpful to the tourists there to take in the sites. I should mention, by the way, that the view was absolutely astounding from every angle, and the climb was ultimately worth it.

The farmwives would try to sell you t-shirts, fans, chopsticks, picture books, postcards, braclets, and other brick-a-brack. They told me most of them grow corn, but the lack of rain had made it a tough year. I knew this to be true, because on the way out to the wall I could see the crops, mostly corn, had grown to just over half the height they should be for this time of year.

Once we got to the top, the farmwives really went to town with the hard sell. Every five minutes a new one would approach me and ask me to buy something, usually offering a different price for some item I had not yet purchased. I ended up buying a picture book and some post cards. The picturebook I bought for much more than I should have paid, because I felt a connection to the ladies who had not only told me a story similar to that of my own childhood growing up in central Minnesota dairyland, but because I really didn't want to haggle over what was in essence $3.

This was a mistake. As soon as I finished buying the book for too much, I was accosted. I kept trying to change the subject by asking them questions about their lives (one thing I noticed was dried mushrooms all over the wall's apex. They pick them wild, dry them in the sun, and either sell them or eat them depending on the haul) but they always returned to the chopsticks or the t-shirt I hadn't yet puchased, which they assured me they were giving me at a price no other foreigner had ever seen.

In the end, we all made it to the top of the mountain, and most of us bought something from the farmwives. I figured out that the trip back down from the top was when I should have bought something, because that was when the prices started to fall. I bought them all some water to share amongst themselves, because they mentioned they had not drank any water all day.

That was the other impressive thing about the Great Wall. We would hike nearly to the top (an elevation increase of a ridiculous 2,500 feet in a space of what was probably right around 1 mile) to discover Chinese men and women selling cold beer, soda, water and ice cream, along with other snacks. They had to lug this stuff up the mountain every day. I was having trouble just getting my midsection up the mountain. I would have never made it with a case of beer in each hand. Yet these mid-50s farmwives were walking next to me without breaking a sweat. And carrying a whole tourist store in small purses to boot.

The day ended with us returning to the hotel for a little free time and to contemplate the next two weeks of travel. It is wonderful to be back in this country and able to use the language I've learned to help people get around. Should be a really enjoyable trip.

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