Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Great, or at Least Pretty Good Wall

When I was a first-year Chinese student I used to have class every morning at 9 in a room containing an enormous, grainy photo of the Great Wall of China. Someone must have turned one of their semester abroad photos into wallpaper and blown it up to about 8x10 feet. I don’t know how they did it but the engineering feat required to make a snapshot that big paled in comparison to the amount of work it was going to take to get me to China. Students who completed first-year Chinese with good enough grades were invited to study in Beijing for the summer on a foreign-study program Dartmouth had set up with Beijing Normal University. I remember that I needed an A- for the spring quarter to make the cut, and for a while there it looked like storming the wall on horseback with several thousand Mongol archers was going to be my only hope of getting into the county. I used to sit in the back corner where I could get a good look at that wall photo and say to myself “If I can just get through this, I get to go see the wall for myself.” And somehow, it worked.

(Well, except I didn’t get to go to China until 1992, but that wasn’t my fault.)

For this reason I’m really glad my experience at the Great Wall on this trip wasn’t my first time there. Because it was a really strange experience.

John and I hired a guide (a driver, really, since foreign visitors aren’t allowed to drive here) to take us three hours outside Beijing to the Simatai section of the wall. That went well: Mr. Johnny was nice, knew a lot about the wall, spoke good English, and seemed to be toning down his creative Beijing driving techniques for his American audience. The setting was beautiful. Simatai is about twice as far from Beijing than the other two developed tourist areas of the wall, and so it gets less traffic and looks a little more unspoiled and touristy than the areas tourist hordes visit. The parking lot was nearly empty except for a few vendors and we congratulated ourselves on spending a few extra bucks to get away from the tourists. We took a gondola nearly to the base of the wall, which here is on top of a steep ridge. A funicular took us further still, and left us with about 15 minutes of walking up steep stairs to get to the towers themselves.

On the way up a friendly couple attached themselves to us. Well, to me, really. John can look really grouchy when he needs to but I seem to have a sweet, slow-moving vibe that people here pick up on. At first, the woman made small talk with me, expressing admiration that I’d come all the way from California, and buttering me up by praising my Chinese. (Proof that flattery will get you everywhere with me, I guess.) But then it got awkward. She told me in Chinese that she and her man had no jobs, and something about kids to put through school. I warned John in English that we were being hustled, but there wasn’t much that could be done. There we were, stuck on a narrow path with no one else around, facing a choice of trudging upward for the next 15 minutes being subjected to a mobile guilt trip or turning back. We continued, trying to ignore the woman and her silent husband, but she persisted in trying fan us and take my arm whenever I stumbled on the oddly tiny steps.

At the top, there were a few other people on the wall, but this lady was our new friend, and we couldn’t shake her, even by refusing to answer direct questions, and even when I once abruptly turned away from her and walked the opposite direction. The unspoken request for money seemed to be hanging over the whole wall like a fogbank, and I literally couldn’t face her.

Finally she pulled out a package of Great Wall postcards asked us directly if we would by some. This overt request finally gave me the chance to say a direct no. She persisted, and I saw John and the man exchange a glance that I couldn’t read—John later said he thought the guy felt sorry for us. It was then that the man spoke up for the first time. I didn’t understand what he said, but the two of them had a ferocious argument about it and finally left us alone. We took the opportunity to scuttle away and barely made the last gondola down the mountain.

On the gondola, it was quiet, and I could hear the cool breeze blowing through the tress. Birds swooped overhead. The motor hummed soothingly, and the view was spectacular. I could look back and see a stretch of the Great Wall that went on for miles, disappearing into the haze. It looked timeless and serene, and suddenly the wretched beggar family seemed very far away. I realized that being on the wall had been a big letdown, but I appreciated the calm moments heading up and down when I was able to take in the view from afar.

Which just goes to show that maybe it really is the journey that counts, not the destination.

Here's my Beijing photo gallery.


Don Clausing said...

The interesting question in all travel is, when does something worth seeing get ruined because everyone knows it's worth seeing? To a certain extent it's a question of scale: the Eifel Tower is never going to be overwhelmed with viewers (although the line to go up certainly can be). And some things, like St. Peter's Basilica, are astonishing even with hordes of people. But I have overheard too many American tourists talking about the Cinque Terra and the Amalfi Coast to know that they have become the next San Gimignanos: great from a distance, souvenir stops up close. It sounds like Beijing is safely out of danger.

Nicole said...

It's true--Beijing is a long way from making Conde Nast's top 10 honeymoon destinations list. Probably no one will ever have their trip there ruined by rowdy spring breakers. That's the upside to not being "gaijin-ready," as John likes to say. No tourist hordes.