Monday, August 15, 2005

Meister-travelogue: Bill nearly dies at the Great Wall.

Before I get started on Sunday, there are a few things I forgot to tell you about Saturday. When I was taking the rickshaw tour of the hutongs I saw what appeared to be a grandmother, holding her granddaughter along the side of the street – no diaper or bottoms of any kind on the poor kid who at most was a year old. I figure the grandmother was trying to – well let’s see, you really can’t call it toilet train – and sewer train is too grass. Let’s just say I think she was trying to housebreak the kid! Seems to me I read somewhere that Chinese kids are toilet trained very young and I suspect that’s what she was doing.

Oh, and I’m always surprised by the English translation on signs. Even at places like the Forbidden City and the Drum Tower there were odd translations. When we were walking by the bars in the “nice area” (the “oldest” street, although I wonder if that’s what he was really saying) there was a sign on a bar that said “be a good mathematician – all drinks two for one!” That might be my favorite! But there were lots more at the Wall!

While I was in the shower Sunday morning, the phone rang. A pretty unusual occurrence so I thought I’d better answer it. It was Xiaojie and she called to say she was sick and would not be going to the Wall today but I could still go. Well, I figured it wouldn’t be any worse than in a bus where I knew no one, so what the heck I figured I’d still go.

So I ate a big breakfast at the hotel. It’s about $25 for the breakfast buffet and usually all I have is a bowl of cereal and a small waffle and fruit. Sometimes I have a ham and cheese omelet instead of the cereal. But today I pigged out since I wasn’t sure what I’d eat the rest of the day and it was a good thing I did.

I met Jessica Gow in the lobby. She didn’t have too much trouble spotting me since there weren’t an overabundance of westerners in the lobby of an office building at 11 on a Sunday – although most of the construction and other activities go on 24/7 it looks like office workers have the weekends off, more or less. Anyway, Jessica is maybe 25, and she’s so thin that it makes her look taller than she is. Jessica grew up in San Francisco and then went to work in Dallas after she joined Mercer. She’s on a year-long assignment in Beijing and moved here four months ago. She lives with her brother who also works in Beijing. It seems like most Chinese speak in a higher octave when speaking in Chinese and their voice becomes much deeper in English. But not Jessica – I think she gets even squeakier and quieter in English.

She tried to get a van but could only rent a car (and driver, Zhao ming han – well, actually his business card says he’s a “dirver” and if that means a crazy insane driver who says “safety is number one” and then proceeds to cut people off left and right, the it’s correct) for the day. He just had a small, Toyota-like station wagon with bucket seats.

In addition to me and Jessica, a couple was going, Melissa and ___ from Mercer (I’ll call him Bob since I can’t remember his name). Bob is an auditor for Mercer and is here doing an audit. He works in their London office, and his wife joined him late last week. He looks Chinese but I never could exactly figure it out. He and his wife were both raised in Australia, and they spoke some Cantonese but not Mandarin, although the characters are the same in both languages they pronounce them differently. They might have been Korean – I don’t know. But they were extremely nice. He as slightly smaller build than me and she was very short. I’d guess they were maybe 30.

And then Patrick, another Mercer person who just started his one-year assignment a couple of weeks ago. He’s from Germany and must be at least 6’6” or more so he literally stands out. He’s about 28 to 30, and his English was pretty good, but he struggled with a few words.

Originally, at my urging due to his size, Patrick sat in the front. Melissa next to one window in the back, then Bob, then Jessica and me. Jessica pretty much had to sit up and not lean back since there wasn’t enough room for all four backs against the seat at the same time. I kind of hung onto the handle above the door and kept my butt off the seat that way. I was beginning to wish I had paid extra and rented my own car and driver! Especially when I found out that it was at least a 2 ½ or maybe 3 hour drive!!!

Traffic was terrible and that’s when I first began to realize we were taking our lives in our hands. This guy was a maniac driver, he’d cut people off so close that I swear one time the hood of our car was under the back overhang of a truck. And lane markings, when the exist, are merely guidelines. There’d clearly be three lanes marked and at least five cars wide would be driving down the street weaving in and out and honking incessantly. I discovered that there does appear to be some rationale to their honking, like whenever you’re going to do something particularly stupid, you seem to honk first as some kind of warning. And heaven forbid if someone cut us off!!! First we’d lay on the horn, and then he’d do everything in his power to get back around the guy. If he felt like he got cut off too close, like the offending car had broken some unwritten rule of the road as to just how close you can cut some off, then he’d get up alongside him and just edge sideways as we passed the guy, kind of forcing him out of his lane, and then cut back in front of him.

We headed out of town and everyone was all talkative – there were usually two conversations going on at a time. But after about an hour and a half we were just beginning to get out in the country, in some “town” with gaudy hotels and neon-lit KTVs bars all up and down the strip (Karaoke Television). They had a big roundabout and in the middle of it was about a half scale model of the great wall, with four towers, and a way to walk along it. I was beginning to think maybe we should just stop and have our picture taken here! As we wound our way through town, first we got gas and then we pulled into a food store.

Everybody was getting snacks and sandwiches to take with them on the hike. Melissa and Bob had a huge cart full of food. I looked and looked and couldn’t find anything that looked like something I’d want to eat! I finally bought a can of Pringles-equivalents, some trail mix (more or less, I think) and some kind of nut. And the driver thought he’d do us all a favor and buy us some popsicle like things, since it was so bloody hot and muggy. So while we’re getting our food, he’s in the long line to get popsicles. I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to risk eating any ice cream or anything too cold – didn’t want any problems while hiking. So when he started passing them out, I tried to politely say no, but he didn’t understand English so he eventually made me take it. So we’re all there with our popsicles and everyone is like – what flavor is this? Jessica and Melissa turned theirs back in for something more akin to ice cream. The popsicle he had given me, I couldn’t figure out what flavor it was – it had something like peas on the paper wrapping. But surely it couldn’t be peas – anyway I wasn’t going to find out. So after they all ate their’s, Bob took mine and opened it up. It wasn’t peas – it was green beans!!!!!! Man, even he didn’t like it. He took about three bits and threw it away.

So then we got back in the car and I got the front seat (although Jessica had called shotgun earlier, I was the only one who knew what she meant) and Patrick got in the back. I had to pull the seat all the way up and then I realized that maybe there was something more than just co-worker relationship between him and Jessica. Or at least they were willing to be more chummy than when I was sitting in the back! Duh!

I didn’t mind the front since my back was starting to act up a little due to the weird way I was sitting in the back, except that there wasn’t much room for my legs in front, it gave me too good of view of the driving maniacs, and the A/C blew right on me, which was both a plus and a minus. As we were leaving the store, it started to thunder and drizzle and I thought the day might be ruined – but since I figured we’d soon be in some remote hospital as a result of a car accident, I didn’t care too much.

The road started getting narrower. We had already dropped from three lanes plus a bike lane (which is really just another driving lane when you wanted to pass someone on the right, but apparently you can’t stay in that lane too long for fear of getting a ticket. Oh, and at every stop light, people line up like it’s the start of the Indy 500 or something. And if the guy ahead of you doesn’t start off fast enough, you just start shifting lanes and passing them any which way you can. It’s bizarre! The newer stop lights have an electronic counter that counts down how many seconds of red (and green) remain which makes the start just that much more interesting. And people just start making left turns in front of you even though they have a red. Weird!

And road construction was nearly everywhere. Not that there’d be any warning. You’d just suddenly come across a trench across the road, the inverse of a speed bump, or they’d have shaved off the top couple of inches of pavement willy nilly in small and large pieces all across the road, and people would be swerving and braking. It’s hard to imagine, but I think that the road construction actually made them drive even crazier!

I thought that I had seen crazy driving in other places, but I have to admit, this takes the cake.

Eventually we made our way up into the hills. Looked like primarily metamorphic rocks with some volcanics. It was so foggy and rainy that you couldn’t see the hills very well, but it began to clear up. And we were definitely down to single lanes in each direction (more or less) and no more bike lanes. Of course the traffic hadn’t really reduced that much, so it just meant everyone from walkers, to bikers, to motopeds, cars and trucks ranging in size from three wheelers to flat beds carrying two rows of truck chassis side-by-side (so effectively two trucks wide) now had to squeeze down to a single lane and shoulder, with overflow into the oncoming lane. People just kind of take over parts of the oncoming lane and then when a car or truck comes at you, it’s lights flashing and horn honking, and you just kind of ease your way back over to your lane and the poor guy you were next two gets to choose between the getting squeezed off the road or hitting his brakes.

And everyone’s passing around the food they bought. There were prawn chips (shaped kind of like French fries but crispy like potato chips but made from shrimp – not too bad actually. And dried squid (way too chewy – I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to swallow it), and all kinds of spicy things that I passed on but which you would have loved. And weird little plastic thimbles full of some jello-like substance – I was afraid to ask what kind of jello.

Finally, after another hour and a half, we began to see the wall on the hilltops on the other side of the river. It was pretty cool, although also pretty run down – the stones had fallen out in most places and it looked more like ruins than a wall, but the towers were more or less identifiable. So we pulled onto a side road, through some kind of replica of the wall (Bob thought it was actually the real Wall) and made our way up a couple miles to a parking area. As we bought the tickets, I purchased a hat for RMB20. Then we went through the gate and the hats were RMB10 so I knew it was going to be a long day of haggling. There were people EVERYWHERE trying to be our guide or sell us something or another. Fortunately, Jessica could tell them “no” in Chinese and they left us more or less alone. There were old, run down hotel rooms and restaurants (that’s being kind) and lots of people selling water and coke since it was unbearably hot.

You could see the Wall now, up at the top of the hills – about as high and steep as the hills around Pikeville.

We had an option of taking a cable car up to the wall, but Jessica wanted to use the restroom, and by the time we found it we were halfway to the wall so just went ahead and kept on walking. The restroom was a classic outdoor squat-type affair – stunk to high heaven. The girls came out nearly crying and fortunately Jessica had wet-ones for them to clean up with. It would be a long time before they’d use a john again!

We kept walking up and up and up the paved road. Then steps, and we climbed and climbed. Eventually we actually got to the Wall, and I’m already dying! We relaxed for a few minutes and took in the view. It was pretty spectacular, although it was so hazy you couldn’t see as far as you’d like. But you could see the wall stretching to about five towers in three different directions. You’re right on the spine of the ridge. Kind of made me wonder why you even needed to build a wall, since it didn’t seem very likely to me that most armies would be able to make it up the steep terrain to begin with.

As long as you stood right in the wall openings, the breeze was very cool. But take one step to the side or back and there was no breeze whatsoever. Then we started climbing along the wall top. There were several hundred steps, most just about two inches high, making it awkward to take one or two steps at a time. The top of the Wall was about ten to 15 feet wide. And then it got steeper, the steps got about 10 inches high, and we just kept going. Got to the next tower and turned right. I was beginning to have second thoughts about this whole thing. I had tried to ask Jessica in the car about the hike but she wasn’t very informative, even though this was her fifth trip to the Wall since she’d been there. I did find out, however, that it was a four-hour hike, one-way, and that the driver was going to pick us up at the end.

So I’m beginning to think I made a critical error. It was just TOO HOT and MUGGY and I was already dying after only two towers down and 36 to go. We made our way to the next tower, and there was an area where you had to walk along a very narrow walkway along the outside of the wall or take a bunch of steps down and back up. By now you can see the route we’re going to take, and you can see the wall stretching forever, although when I count the tower’s there’s only 12 or so, so I know that what I’m seeing is just the beginning of the hike. As we all rest and catch our breath, I begin to explore other possible options. I didn’t like admitting I couldn’t do this, but my arms were beginning to tingle again and I saw no end in site. We talked about my going back, but Jessica said the driver had already taken off to pick us up. I was willing to take my chances and see if I could hire another driver to take me back. Or they said they’d come back for me after they were done, but I knew this would add at least 30 minutes each way, or over an hour total to the time to get back, and that didn’t sound too good. We had started at around 2 and it was now about 3. They’d hope to get done by 6 or 6:30. Eventually Jessica called the driver on his cell phone with the only cell phone of the three of theirs that had a signal. He was heading back to get me, but not pleased about it. They gave me one of their cell phones to take with me, although it didn’t have any signal it would be better than nothing. Patrick and Melissa were giving serious thoughts to going back with me but eventually they both decided to stick it out. They left and I was on my own, hot and feeling kind of lost. I saw what looked like a vendor’s booth a little way further along so I went and bought water and tried to cool off. I poured it on my head and arms and drank some but it was too cold.

I took my time going back. Stopping frequently and trying to stay cool, but it was getting worse, not better. I sat in the breeze at the top of the first tower for a long time before heading back down into the stifling, dead air. As we were walking up, there were a bunch of taxis and motorbike-like pickup trucks offering to ferry us up the hill. I was praying that one would come along so I could ride down, but no one showed up. I began the rosary, figuring that the sorrowful mysteries would keep me going. I would walk a hundred yards, sit and pour water on me and take a small drink and rest, then do the same thing again. I don’t know how long it took me to make it down, but eventually I was only about a hundred yards from the entrance when a motorbike-pickup arrived. He wanted RMB20 to take me down the last 100 yards. I just sat there and said “no”. Eventually he worked his way down to RMB5 and I said okay. I had thought that Jessica told me that the driver wanted me to come all the way out to where he turned off the side road, so I figured if we got to the main parking area and he wasn’t there, I’d try and explain to him where I wanted him to drive me to, since it was several miles – given the fact that the driver, no driver for that matter in the area, spoke English, I thought this would be tricky, but there was a big sign that had a map, and I figured I could always point to where I wanted to go on it and try to negotiate a rate.

Fortunately for me, the driver was at the parking area. I hopped off and didn’t have anything smaller than a RMB10 to pay the guy. I figured he’d keep it, but instead he went over and got a coke to give me.

I found out later that the driver said he was there for over an hour and kept asking everyone if they saw an American! I had tried to tell Jessica that I was going to take my time, first to enjoy the wall and second because of the heat, but I don’t think that message got to the driver so he had been expecting me for a long time.

We got in his car, and the A/C was like I had died and gone to heaven. I was afraid that it might not be good for me to get so cold so fast, but I didn’t really care!!! As we drove away, I realized that in addition to the tingling, I couldn’t hardly see. Everything was foggy around the edges and only in the very middle of my sight was anything clear. It took me a while to figure out if this was me or just hazy weather, but eventually, as it got hazier and darker I was pretty sure it was me suffering from the heat. And the driver didn’t speak English so I was beginning to wonder what he was going to do when I passed out!

But the A/C did the trick, and the rest of the water, and by the time we got to the site where he was going to pick up the rest of the crew, I was feeling pretty perky again. We parked in some shade, but the air was still too dead for me, so I told him I was going for a walk. I don’t think he ever figured out what I was going to do and he wasn’t too keen about letting me out of his site, but off I went.

I eventually figured out how to buy a ticket for this site (another RMB30) and started making my way to the wall. It was a really dramatic view from here – you could see it going nearly straight up from a reservoir, up and up and up, probably a couple of thousand feet of what looked to be nearly straight up. But that was the opposite direction from where they should be coming. I made my way about halfway up the path to the wall, and looked at the map and looked at the reservoir. Sure enough, the way that they were coming would require them to walk across a narrow, cable bridge several hundred feet above the reservoir! Man, if Jessica had told me that from the get-go, I never would have even thought about hiking to here. I could just imagine my surprise, if I had kept hiking – I’m sure I would have been nearly dead by the time I had gotten here, only to see this narrow, swinging bridge keeping me from getting the last quarter mile to the car. I would not have been able to head back and wouldn’t have wanted to go on. Man was I glad I did what I did!

[Bill's Monday morning email tells me...] Just made it through customs and untold lines at the Beijing airport. I think the worst is over, and now I'm in the business class lounge with two hours to kill. Only food in here is noodle soup things that you pour hot water into. But I'm still sweating like a pig and don't think that hot soup is what I'm looking for!

And the 12 hours in a plane, three hour layover in Chicago, and the flight home.

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