Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The rest of the story: Older Dude surives Great Wall adventure
[and now he's even older]

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way I picked up a local leach who was trying to sell me a book and who knows what else – “poor Mongolian farmer with two daughters needs American friend to help her” or something along those lines is what she kept trying to say. I tried and tried and tried to get rid of her, but eventually I discovered the advantage to having her around is that she kept the other leaches away. I was HER target and nobody else better bother me! I kept telling her I didn’t need a guide – “ no guide” she says. And I didn’t want to buy anything – “you look at book on way down.”

I stopped by the dam since there was a walkway leading out to the spillway. I really just wanted to find a place to lay down, eat my chips and finish my coke in peace and solitude with a view of the Wall, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. So I stood out there and ate for a while and kept looking at the folks coming down from the mountain. They looked okay, but it sure looked steep up there!

Eventually, I decided to start heading back up, knowing I would be accosted once more by my “friend.” I kept looking at how far just the path TO the wall was, and I wasn’t sure I could make it. It didn’t take long for me to get hot, sweaty and winded once again. I think once you get heatstroke, and make no mistake, I’m pretty sure I did, it doesn’t take long for you to get right back in that same predicament.

As much as I wanted to go up to the Wall here, I just didn’t think I could do it. So I stopped and talked to a few folks coming down and found someone that had come from Jingling where we started. She said they made it alright, although it was hot, and that my friends would probably be coming this way soon. It was now about 6 PM, when they should have originally arrived, but I figured they’d be a little later than normal due to more frequent stopping as a result of the heat. I looked back in the other direction and saw dark clouds beginning to obscure the sun and it looked like it was about getting ready to pour. That was the clincher and I headed back down without making it all the way to the wall (Jessica had told me that once, just before they got to the end of the walk at Simitae, where I was know, it started to rain and hail and it made for a very unpleasant ride home, all soaking wet, and I didn’t want to be in that situation).

I headed back, and before I could I looked at and then bought the stupid book the woman was selling. The clincher was that it had pictures of the Jingling portion of the wall AND it was written in several languages including Mandarin and French. But once I did this, another leach descended on me and I spent the entire walk back telling her NO as forcefully and as many times as possible, but I don’t think she was ever going to take no for an answer. I finally sat down on a rock ledge and tried to do centering prayer, and although this was less than ideal, when I got up they were gone!!!

I got back to the bottom, and bought another water, still looking for a nice place to sit and never really finding one. I went back to the car, since it looked like on the map that their MIGHT be another way down that would avoid the cable bridge, and I knew if I was with them I would most certainly have tried to find any way to avoid that bridge. But when I made my way back to the car, the driver was sound asleep in the back seat and no one else around. So I dropped off the book and decided to walk around the new youth hostel that was under construction. I learned all kinds of Chinese construction techniques. The painting on a pagoda-like structure was really beautiful. I also watched these two groups of four each, one male, one mixed, playing a card game. Kind of like spades, but different in many ways, including the use of multiple decks of cards. I was disappointed when I saw they were using good old regular playing cards and not some kind of exotic Chinese ones. In the hutongs I did see some old Chinese guys playing what could have been a type of checkers, but the pieces were like the size of a Gouda cheese. And at the first place we went to at the Wall, I saw some folks playing a Chinese dominoes-like game. But this was just a plain old card game.

There was like a restaurant area that they also seemed to be rehabilitating. It had a nice patio area with a really pretty, large stone tiled floor with a little waterfall and pond, but no chairs yet.

After a while, I made my way back down to the stream again, and there were two guys fishing. One guy looked about 16 (although he could have been in his 20s) and was wearing a Piston’s basketball jersey and pants, while the other guy was probably in his 30s. I watched the 16 year old for a minute and sure enough he pulled up a fish just like that, but then it came up past the bank and it was only 2 inches long! I laughed out load thinking it was a mistake, but he took off the minnow and threw it in a hole in the ground with about 8 others, and I realized this was what he was fishing for! He’d put a little dough on a tiny hook, about 2 feet below the longest, skinniest, greenest bobber like contraption I’d ever seen. He just had a long bamboo pole, and he’d drop it in the water upstream and let it float down. And nearly every time, the bobber would go down, and he’d try and set the hook by pulling it up, and about every other time the dough would be gone, and about every 10th time he’d catch a little fish. He’d just stay in one spot on the bank while his buddy walked every where trying to catch one and this guy was just steadily catching them. After each catch, he’d yell something out to his friend, I presume the number of how many fish that totaled up to, but who knows? He could have been saying, “look at this stupid white guy watching us catch these minnows – he probably thinks this is what we’re fishing for – hah, hah!” Of course it sounded like only a single word, but you can never tell in the Chinese language, a single word can mean a whole sentence. It’s all in the inflection you know.

So I laid on the bank of the river (all stones, laid in mortar, so hardly a normal river bank, and then two feet of very cultivated plantings, a small, 10-inch high bamboo “fence” and then the paved walkway), even though the sign clearly said “deep lake, do not stay on bank” and alternated between watching them fish and looking up at the Great Wall towering up the cliffs of Mordor! That’s it, that’s what it reminded me off. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it then! Oh man, that’s so stupid of me. Oh well, it was cool regardless of the analogy.

It never did rain, although I did feel a drop or two and heard some thunder. My “guide” had earlier told me that 25 people had been killed by lightening right there on that portion of the wall just a day or two ago. At least that’s what I thought she said. As it turns out, there was an article in Monday’s paper that said one person was killed and another injured at the spot we were at when they were struck by lightening. The person killed was 25 years old, so maybe that’s where the 25 came from? The paper said that they think it was their cell phone that caused the lightening strike. There was a sign there that said something like “No use of EC (electronic communication?) during thunder bolt” so I guess that’s what they meant.

That reminds me of the other signs. I wish that I’d of had a camera or a notebook (I can’t believe I didn’t have my notebook – you certainly would have) to remember them all. One said something like “Always maintain beauty and healthy environment” – I guess it meant don’t litter? And another said something like “If you remove plants it will negatively affect your life since all are one” – do not pick the flowers? There were hundreds of them like this everywhere.

So eventually I found my way back to the car again and the driver kept babbling something to me in Chinese (the only real communication we ever had was when I figured out he was 37 and I told him I was 51, at least that’s what I think we said to each other. Anyway, he tried to explain something to me, all pointing and gibberish, and then he gets out his phone and dials the number and hands it to me. I figure he’s calling Jessica, and wondering where they are, but why he insists on me talking I don’t know. The next thing I know someone’s babbling in Chinese on the phone, and I could only say “Jessica?” Thank God it was! As it turns out they had already crossed the cable bridge and were heading down the walkway. So I started up to meet them. By this time it was after 7 and everything was closing down, so I bought two waters from the last vendor, and headed back up the hill. I ran into them a little ways down from as far as I made it before. They were all cheery and happy and not nearly dead as I was expecting. They said that it was cool, but it pretty much looked the same in general. There was a place where the wall was in disrepair and there was only a narrow step with just crumbling steps and no sides, another spot I’m glad I missed! And I said surely it wasn’t as steep as what you could see from there, but they said, no, it was that steep in at least one portion, and walking down it was harder than going up. Once again, this reinforced that I had made the right decision!

Jessica and Melissa were desperate for a bathroom, so I showed them where it was as we walked back to the car, but they’d already locked up. I thought they were going to cry! Or at least go into the woods, but they just held out.

So we headed back, just as night fell and the rains came. Oh, before we left, Patrick changed into another shirt he’d brought along, and he literally rang out at least a gallon of water from the shirt that he’d been wearing! It didn’t even look wet when he had it on, but it obviously was. In fact, it was so humid all week, that my clothes would feel damp when I’d put them on in the mornings at the hotel, and I’d wake up all sweaty and clammy. It was really ugly.

As hard as it was for me to believe, the ride home was worse than the ride up, since darkness and rain made it even more of a challenge. Trucks would just be stopped in the middle of the road, broken down, and you’d come flying up to them and nearly hit them. And people were all over the edges of the road, sitting and walking and it was amazing I didn’t see anyone get hit.

Jessica finally asked the driver to stop so she could go to the bathroom – as near as I could tell he just laughed when she asked him to find one. So it was an hour and a half later when he stopped at the same grocery store we stopped at on the way up. They all took off running and I couldn’t get my door open, so Patrick eventually opened it from the outside. We stood around and he had a cigarette with the driver while we watched folks dancing on the corner sidewalk/plaza. Eventually, Patrick asked if I saw where they went to the bathroom and I didn’t know. We went in the grocery store but couldn’t find the restroom, so we went next door to a small restaurant. Neither of us knew what they babbled at us as we came in, but he found the john and we went in. It was truly disgusting – one of the worst smelling, squat style toilets I’d every used and it was not that old of building. When we got done, we just walked back into the restaurant, they all babbled at us, probably saying “do you want a table?” and “you can’t use the toilet without eating” but we just made our way out and back to the car. The others were all there and had once again loaded up with snacks. The driver took off while the back door was open and Bob and Melissa were trying to get in – that was almost a disaster. Apparently while they were in the store, they’d all decided to get a foot massage when they got back to Beijing. They asked if Patrick and I wanted to join them, but I figured it would be nearly 10 and I was already beat from getting up at 4 AM so I declined. But Patrick had already been to this place with Jessica and they said it was unbelievable. There’s like 100 stalls, all on this single floor in a nice building. They have food, and drinks (which sounded pretty good) and they start with about 10 minutes of back and neck rub, then 80 minutes of foot massage (the normal time is only 60 minutes).

The rest of the trip was about the same, as everyone in back tried to doze off but then we’d slam on the brakes, or swerve, or honk madly, making it somewhat difficult. Being in the front seat, I had too good of view to ever want to close my eyes! It was good to see all the lights of the little cities and even Beijing, since I don’t think I’d been out at night at all. Many places are quite garishly lit up. And they’ll have the usual rainbow crossing the road, or a bunch of yellow and orange and blue lights in some kind of weird, artistic hanging lamp kind of sculpture like things all over.

So that’s it for Sunday. I got back to the hotel and had my usual Tsintao and Pringles for dinner and called it a night.

Right now, I’m just flying over Juneau. We were delayed in taking off from Beijing. Just five minutes before we were scheduled to leave, I saw the first raindrops, and then a big storm hit, and we couldn’t take off. It was a real fiasco; we backed away from the gate after about an hour and sat on the tarmac. Then we’d waited so long, we had to go back to the gate for more fuel – it seems that our polar route was no longer available and so we’d have to go farther south, which is longer, and so we needed more fuel and other stuff. Then we had to wait again to take off. When all was said and done, we were more than four hours late! Which will probably mean I’ll miss my connection in Chicago and most likely have to spend the night there now, although there’s a slim chance their might be a late flight to St. Louis. We’ll have to see. Bummer!

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