Sunday, May 5, 2013

May 1st, 2013. The Great Wall of China

This morning Dylan and I are headed out of town to the Great Wall of China, the stuff of myths and legends. I've seen so many photographs of it and have heard so much about it,I wonder if it'll be significant to actually be there. Kind of like theTajMahal. Or the Statue of Liberty. Is reality better than virtual reality? I guess I'll find out soon enough...

Meanwhile this morning I got a unpleasant surprise - I can't access the Internet through my iPad right now. Google has detected that my computer is sending out unwanted crap. Of course they didn't use that word. I am aware from having checked with Omer than I received an email from some Chinese hackers pretending to be Uyghurs. He said it is junk mail and said not to open their emails anymore. Unfortunately I opened the attachment thinking it was from a woman I met at the conference. So somehow or another I'll have to change my email password,but I can't do it on the iPad. Technology is so complicated sometimes. Thankfully I can still read and write on it..  [update - since I've gotten back to the US, this problem seems to no longer exist.]

There are some very interesting Tshirts here. I just saw one that made no sense: "CSVQL is the continent not to count". It's as if autocorrect got hold of the printer. Or: "ruins of nucleaa war", yes,misspelled. My colleague from the conference, Sue, told me a story about seeing a sweet-looking young boy with his grandmother insome rural area of a third world country. He was wearing a Tshirt that was boldly emblazoned with the saying, "I fuck my grandma." Sue said she didn't know if she should say something or not. She decided not to, but it was intensely incongruous, given how sweet they acted towards each other! I'm guessing that the beautiful Chinese calligraphy we have on our clothing is equally absurd. Here's another I just saw in the subway: "love chaos and dinner." It's quite wonderful in an absurdist way.

Immense ocean, set sail
Fuck pop great rocks

I could make a great Dadaist poem from the quotes on T-shirts.

The Great Wall as seen from the road as we approached the parking lot area
The misleadingly even steps at the very beginning of the climb
We made our way via subway to the place where we needed to catch the bus to the Great Wall. It was hard to figure out which bus would take us there, etc., and it was pretty expensive. We stood in line next to a couple of Russian women, one of whom spoke good English. They were looking for information too,so Dylan was in charge of figuring it out for us all. He asked how much a taxi would cost. About 500¥ or $80 both ways. We decided that sounded like the way to go since we could split it four ways, (the Russians went with us) and the bus was 90¥ each way each person anyway, so this would be cheaper and faster. It took about an hour and a half to get there due to fairly bad traffic and the fact that it's simply a long way. It was an interesting ride through and then outside of Beijing, then at one point we could see the mountains and the wall in the distance. The driver pulled in to the parking lot and bought us reduced tickets - he had an in to get them a bit cheaper (40 ¥ or about $6.50) rather than 45¥. Every little bit helps!

At that point Dylan asked me if I had my hiking shoes on. Up until that point, it had actually not occurred to me that I would need them - silly, silly me! There are T-shirts that claim "I climbed the Great Wall" and there are medals you can buy along the way to attest to ones heroism. They are well-merited! It was hard climbing! I will not complain about the hill by my house again! I think we climbed about 1000 steps today. What was particularly challenging about it was that they were oddly sized, one small, the next one higher, with no pattern, so you had to watch your step the whole way.
I was tempted to go in and receive my "Hero's Certificate"!

There were also thousands of people climbing up and down on the same sometimes-narrow stairway. And when people got out of breath, they simply stopped where they were and waited til they could go further. I liked those people a lot and was happy when I got behind them because then I had an excuse to stop too! There were a few guard towers/platforms where one could stop to take a break and one or two stores when one could buy sweets and drinks. Thankfully Dylan had thought to bring water so we were well-hydrated, but we didn't do so well food-wise. We're heading to eat in just a few minutes to get some decent food in us!

It was the strangest thing to be at then climbing the Great Wall of China. Up until the end of March, it hadn't even entered my mind to think about thinking about coming to China. Then we received a postcard from Dylan with a tiny postscript: "I hope one day I can show you China." My mothering instinct kicked in and I felt a need to ask if he'd like me to come. Sure enough, it sounded like, indeed, he would enjoy a visit and I wouldn't be a burden- I wasn't sure if his statement was just polite or true. I don't know how much my kids want me around and how much they're immersed in their own lives and I'd be a bother. I want to be completely respectful of the lives they're carving out for themselves. Dylan convinced me that he really did want me to visit so I looked into it and found that tickets were abnormally reasonable until the end of April when they began increasing about $200/week. For the 26th, I think it was going to be $1140 or something like that. Entirely reasonable, I thought. So I told him I'd come.

Then, right as I was upstairs on the computer checking my email before ordering the ticket, I got the email from Omer asking me to take part in the conference in Paris. What crazy timing! I spent a few days trying to figure out if/how I could do both plus TheVagina Monologues. After speaking to Dylan and looking at prices, I realized that if I chose not to do the Vagina Monologues, I could fly to Beijing from Paris for less than I could from the states, and with less jet lag too. What a deal! So I went ahead and applied for my visa, then, once I got it, bought my ticket for Beijing. So it was really only two weeks between conception and birth of this wild idea, and I didn't know I had my visa until three days before I left for Paris. So I did no preparation thinking about what I wanted to do or see or anything else. It's been kind of fun coming so unprepared. Dylan has done a fabulous job coming up with interesting things to do, and not having expectations has kept them from being dashed at all.

Thus the reason being at the Great Wall was totally bizarre and weird and other-worldly. So there I was climbing about a thousand steps with hundreds, if not thousands of other people, huffing and puffing, stopping often to take pictures to show I'd been there (not to mention to catch my breath - I had a lot of excuses to help with that!)- seeing images I'd seen all my life at least since 8th grade World History class when I guess I must have learned something about China. Maybe a picture of the Wall was on the cover of my History book? Who knows? I do know that the images are some of the beat known one world. We weren't on the stretch of wall that yields the most well-known images, but that was fine. It was still fascinating.

I got through the first stretch pretty slowly. The going was quite arduous because of the multitudinous heights of the stairs and all the people stopped along the way. Dylan was outpacing me by far, so I told him to go along and we'd see each other whenever. He disappeared into the crowd. I couldn't follow him because I had to keep my head down so I wouldn't trip.

Along the way I saw chains anchored to the wall below the handrail.  On it were hundreds of locks, just like on the bridge on the Seine in Paris!  Clearly Love Locks are an international phenomenon.  I was thinking it would make more of a statement to have the chains way up at the top, not on the first stretch, signifying that they were in it for the long haul!

I saw a place with toilets and food and souvenirs so I went there to rest a bit. I was astonished to see women coming down the stairs there in platform shoes or high-heeled shoes, their boyfriends carrying their purses for them (very common in China - the purse-carrying part). It was painful to me to see the types of shoes some of them had on. I don't know how they managed to get up that high. There were also some families,often with the man carrying,not the purse, but the child! Yikes! One time, a man came to the platform where I was sitting, put his 2-year-old down, then too knapsack of cigarettes out of his pocket, tore off the plastic,tossed it on the ground, tore off the aluminum foil, tossed it down, then proceeded to light up. He must have been in great shape to be able to carry his son AND smoke! I watched in amazement. I also enjoyed playing peekaboo with the little boy who stared at me unrelentingly. His parents finally noticed which gave us all a moment of adoring their child. It was sweet.

After taking a refreshing thirty minute break, I felt revived enough to climb more. I kept aiming for the next guard tower or platform where I would give myself another break. Interestingly though, by the time I started climbing this second time, it didn't wear me out quite so much. Maybe I reached the runner's high and was endorphined-out. Doubtful, I know, but I like the sound of it. At one of the towers, there were many souvenir stands including one that sold t-shirts that said "I climbed the Great Wall" and medals on colorful ribbons which showed the same. I was sorely tempted to get one - with appropriate emphasis on "sorely".

One of the higher guard towers = fewer people
The guard towers were interesting.  They offered a place to stop for a bit and take in the view.  that was welcome!

They also, apparently, offered a pissoir for some of the gentlemen.  Not quite as sweet.  I was surprised to walk into the 30"x30" rooms with many windows and smell urine and see piles of garbage where people had dropped their water bottles and candy wrappers.

Dylan standing on the parapet, encouraging me to come just a little farther!
At some point Dylan called me - he borrowed a cell phone for me - very convenient. He told me he was at the highest tower and wanted to know where I was. When I told him, he suggested I come up to the tower right below the highest - he said the highest one wasn't really worth it because there were so many people there and most of them were smoking! My anti-smoking rapidity has clearly been passed down to my son! Oops! I hadn't planned to go up so high, but he insisted it was worth it, so up I went, thinking fondly of my "one more boy" all the way. (That's what I called Dylan when he was younger because he would rarely be satisfied with what I had to offer - he would always want "just one more" - chapter to read, hand at cards, time to play soccer, etc. he hasn't changed much since then in that respect, though thankfully he can laugh about and is aware of his tendency.)

That last tower was good to climb. There was almost no one on the top because the stairs were hidden.  Dylan had to tell me several times where they were, they were so tricky to find!

Dylan at the top of the stairs after I finally found them!

My boy.  A young man of the highest caliber.

The view of the top from my last stop
The view from the highest spot I went to.

I spoke with Chris this evening - he asked me if being at the wall gave me a great sense of history. I had to think about it, but realized that it didn't particularly. The section I was on was rebuilt about 40 years ago - it's the section where Mao stated, “He who does not reach the Great Wall is not a true man!”  Well then!

The wall was in very good shape, constructed out of large grey bricks with a large foundation of sand-colored rocks from the mountain. This section, Dylan ascertained, was an outpost. The part we climbed was part of a complete circle (not regularly shaped) and had most likely contained a settlement of people within it. One part of the wall was surprisingly low - that's likely the part that faced the settlement. The other side of the wall was too high to scale and probably faced where invaders would come from. The inside was low, running through a valley and had water in it. The surrounding mountains, some of which were enclosed by the wall, seem to have been terraced for planting, though they were certainly no longer in use for that. Still, you could still see lines in the mountains where they seem to have been carved into.

The only real sign of age was in the stairs which were out of stone and certainly showed the wear of 1000's of people day-in, day-out going up and down them. Some of them were depressed as much as 2-3 inches making it tricky to climb them if you weren't careful. Other than that, the towers were in good shape with no real signs of wear on the stones/bricks. The only signs of humanity on them were the smell of urine in the corners where people chose to relieve themselves rather than using the putrid, disgusting, horrifying toilets. Can't imagine why! Though peeing in public in the corner of a small building containing at least 10-20 other people at the same time would have it's own set of limitations for most folks in the US. At least I think it would. I would like to have used the bathroom, but each time I went into one of them along the wall, I had to leave because I was so close to gagging. There were probably too many people for the sanitary workers to be able to keep up. I didn't see any there at all anyway. The only cleaners I saw were unpaid people who went around and picked plastic bottles and aluminum cans out of the garbage and off the ground for recycling. That was, perhaps, how they made their living. They must be in terrific shape if the Great Wall was their area for collecting trash. It's a different life.

Another interesting thing was all the signs posted along the way which encouraged people to be well-behaved and otherwise noble. For example, one said, "Leave nothing behind but footprints, take nothing with you but memories." Another I photographed said "Protect the environment of scenic spots and be civilized tourists." -it was posted right by where the guy threw his cigarette trash down and asked that people not litter. There was garbage all over the place -dropped on the stairs as people finished stuff or, worse, tossed over the wall where it would be quite difficult to clean up because the landscape was so steep. The thoughtlessness surprised me. I think we have more awareness of littering in the US thanks to the campaign in the 70's with the American Indian who cried a single tear of sadness about the trash all over our beautiful land.

In Beijing there are many, many, many people cleaning public areas almost constantly, so trash isn't an issue here. I guess it's one way the city keeps people employed.

Finally we decided it was time to head down so we could keep our appointment with the cab driver and the Russian women we rode with.  Besides, what else is there to do on the Great Wall once you've checked out the scenery, taken gobs of pictures, and contemplated life and your grand accomplishments?   We'd done it all!

The way down was quicker but a bit hard on the legs.  Again, the stairs were uneven, and there were still lots of people on them, though not as many as earlier.

 When we reached the spot where I'd stopped before, there were stairs leading to another path down, one that was easier, new, and less full of people.  We decided it wouldn't lessen our heroes' status to take it, so we gratefully went that way.  It was decorated nicely with pruned trees, like you see all over China.  I find the aesthetic of the angles quite beautiful.

Down at the bottom again, we sat for a few minutes before heading back to the parking lot.  our Russian friends met us serendipitiously at the wrong parking lot - we both managed to go to the exact same wrong spot!  Dylan called the cab driver, and off we went, back to Beijing after a terrific day at the Great Wall of China!

My brother asked if there would be a May Day parade for workers here today. The answer is no. The government doesn't really encourage large public gatherings these days for fear they will turn into demonstrations. Interesting...

the original
the remains
This evening after we got home from the Wall, after a break at Dylan's room where we both just relaxed, we met several of his friends for dinner at a place where they serve fish. It was prepared differently than I've ever seen it before. They take a whole 2-3 pound fish, cut it in half longways and lay it flat in a tray on top of a selection of vegetables, noodles, kelp, etc., then cover it with lots of spices and other vegetables, peppers, scallions, etc. the whole thing is baked, I guess, in a tray with juices - or juices form from all that's cooking. It's served in the tray it's baked in which fits nicely on a form which holds Sterno, like a fondue pot, but with two burners. We got two fish, a back fish and a cat fish. The back fish was the spicy one. Dylan cleaned off a piece form me as well as possible then let me try it. It still tasted like eating Sirracha straight. I don't like spicy foods, so I just watched while the others ate that one until the not-spicy one arrived. "Not-spicy", by my definition, was still quite spicy, but edible. It was fascinating eating at a table with six people, all of us eating from the same two dishes, with our own rice and small plates for bones and fish heads or tails or whatever. We picked whatever we wanted from the dish with chopsticks, reaching across the table freely. Drinks were hot tea. Napkins were provided and were the size and thickness of about half a tissue. There was a lovely camaraderie at the table with several languages going back and forth about tales of international travel that boggles my mind. It's wild and crazy how much these people have traveled already in their young lives. The world is a tiny place to them. Even with the crazy amount of travel I've done this year, the world just feels larger and larger to me as I become more and more aware of just how much there is to see and know.

OK, time for me to head to bed. My body is exhausted from the climb, and I don't really like sitting downstairs here in the lobby so I can access the Internet. I am so damn spoiled by my creature comforts!

Notice the man carrying his girlfriend's purse - very typical.

This is actually a grimace, not a smile!  I was huffing and puffing here like crazy!

Yes, it was a LOT of stairs!

There's a cow's head on the corner of the table there.  When I came back the next night, there was considerably less meat on it.  I didn't get my dinner there.

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