It was Tuesday, August 10, when we arrived in Beijing, and it's now late on Thursday night, August 12. A lot has happened, and I've been too busy and subsequently too tired to make careful notes, so this installment and possibly the next one will be a kaleidoscope of the events of the days in between, taken from memory as I go along. Some of it may be out of time and order, but it doesn't matter. We went to a lot of places and saw a lot of things. I'll start telling you about them, and if this installment grows too long, I'll stop and save some for tomorrow.
Probably the most impressive and most memorable event was our visit to the Great Wall. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think I'd actually see, up close and personal, the Great Wall of China. It almost defies description, but I'll try. I had the presence of mind to buy a book about it, because I knew I'd never remember all the facts that our very knowledgeable tour guide, David, kept throwing at us in large, rapid doses. The Wall was originally built in the 9th century B.C., and was rebuilt or extended over the centuries by various emperors and dynasties. I'll not try to go into a history of the Wall here, but here's a fairly good website if you want to know more: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china_great_wall/
The Wall that is generally accepted as the Great Wall today is the part that was built by the Ming Dynasty in the period from 1368-1644 A.D. This wall extends over 4,000 miles, and exists in various states of preservation.
The part that we visited is very near to Beijing, and is pretty much a tourist attraction, very crowded and packed with the ubiquitous vendors, who are all afflicted with a remarkable form of selective deafness. They do not hear the English word "no." It simply doesn't register with them. The street vendors in the city have the same condition, but they seem to understand sign language. A raised hand, palm toward them, and a vigorous shaking of one's head will usually discourage them, but those at the Great Wall apparently are partially blind in addition to their deafness.
When we arrived at the Wall, our bus driver gave us a supreme demonstration of his driving skill. He threaded that huge, lumbering vehicle into places that I wouldn't have tried to pull a coaster wagon, let alone drive a car. He moved along inch by slow inch, making full use of his horn, and managed to squeak through tiny passages and crowds of people without ever hitting anything or anyone. It's remarkable. Once we encountered another bus coming in the opposite direction, and it didn't look like one bus could get through, much less two, but with some backing up and repositioning, the two drivers made it work and neither ever lost his composure.
At last we came to an area where the bus could be parked, and we all got out. It was unbelievably humid, and soon a light mist began falling. We were standing on a steep slope, and the ground was littered with a layer of mercifully unidentifiable detritus. This, combined with the mist, made the footing slippery and undependable. We were told that the actual gateway to the wall was quite a long way off, all uphill, over trails and crumbling steps. Eloise and I took a few seconds to decide, and opted for the tourist's Six Flags version of reaching the entrance. We rode the mechanized sleds. Most of our group made the same decision, with only about four of the guys deciding to actually make the hike.
The walk up the hill to the sleds was enough for us. The high altitude, the steep slope, and the heavy humidity had us breathing pretty hard by the time we got that far. We were really glad we weren't going to try to hike the whole thing. After a fairly short wait, we found ourselves being hustled into the little individual sleds and clamped in, and the sleds began their ratchety ascent. Up and up we went, and once again found ourselves feeling very thankful that we weren't making the climb on foot.
It's important here to understand that the Great Wall essentially runs over the tops of mountains. The mountains in that part of China lie in convoluted folds, not in individual peaks like our Rockies. The Wall is built on top, along ridges and up and over such peaks as may occur, but it's almost always on the highest ground around. Therefore, to get to the Wall itself, our little sleds had to climb a mountain, and they did.
At the end of the run, we were again hustled to get out, because the chain drive is moving constantly. The sleds were disengaged just long enough for the attendant to more or less yank us out before the next sled hit ours. Those guys make the roller coaster attendants at Six Flags look lazy.
When we were on our feet again, we followed the crowd to and through a ticket area, where Omar had already paid our way, and we were funneled into a fairly narrow passage that enclosed some steep steps. This is where we "climbed the Great Wall of China." Those steps emptied onto a sloped walkway, and at the end of that, we found ourselves actually standing on top of the Great Wall, looking out over the mountains, and at the expanse of the Wall as it faded into the distance.
We were under a time constraint, so we didn't stay on top of the Wall for long, but it was long enough that we felt the impact of the size and scope of the structure. It's wide enough for five horseman to ride side by side, and the length of it is incomprehensible. It would be a mammoth undertaking today, with all our modern equipment and methods, yet this enormous structure was built so long ago, when hand labor was about all they had to draw upon. Indeed, I'm not sure that there would be any other way to build it. The ridges and peaks that it spans are tall and heavily wooded, and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get our modern-day equipment in there. Perhaps the way it was originally built is the only way it could be done. One thing is sure, it is indeed a wonder of the world, and I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to see it.
After a little while, when we had absorbed about all of the enormity and grandeur of the Wall that we could, we realized it was time to start back down. We joined up with a few others of our group, and made our way back to the sled station. There we were hurriedly inserted into our little sleds and the descent began. A bit different, going down. No chain ratcheting us along this time! We were free-wheeling, just spinning down that mountain on rails that looked pretty slick and shiny. Just as I was beginning to wonder where and how it was all going to end, we caught the smell of hot rubber, and realized that the lead sled was occupied by a park employee, who had a simple, rubber-to-the-rail brake at his command. The sleds were all backed up one to another, and the leader would wait until they got going fast enough to give us all a thrill, then he would apply his brake to the rail and we would slow down, passing through the little clouds of smoke that arose from his brake. It's a pretty ingenious system, and it was fun. Also, it sure beat walking!
When we left the sleds, we started our return trip to the bus, and were immediately engulfed in swarms of vendors, all of whom offered us the bargain to end all bargains, and none of whom responded to our repeated negative answers. They just kept coming. It was like being in a human tornado. One woman followed me, repeating the same sales pitch over and over, for at least two hundred yards.
Finally, as we neared the bus, Eloise and I spotted a camel, complete with saddle and a sign that advertised that one could have a picture taken aboard the camel. Well, that looked like fun, so we decided to do it, and I went first. There was a small metal platform next to the animal, with steep steps leading to the top. Once on top, the trick was to get into the saddle and get settled before the camel stepped aside or bit you. No, I never actually saw him bite anyone, but he surely looked capable of doing so. He had the longest, yellowest, ugliest teeth I ever saw, but had absolutely beautiful eyes. God played a joke on the camel when He designed most of his body, but He made up for it with the eyes.
Now, this was a two-hump camel, so the idea is to perch on his back, between the humps. Naturally, this means that there will be a hump in front of you, and believe me, that's about the silliest-looking structure I've ever seen. It was quite tall, not really big around, about like a large fence post. It was crowned by a thick mat of brown hair, that looked very much like a messy bird's nest. Remember, it was misting rain, so this hair, in fact the entire camel, was frosted in mist, and very damp. What does a wet camel smell like? Just about what you'd expect - a wet camel. Perhaps not as offensive as one might expect, but not something you'd like to bottle and take home. As for his posture, I couldn't help but feel that it was pretty ungallant of him to lean forward in that squatty, strained position as soon as I got on board. I may not be a lightweight, but I'm not that heavy!
After my picture was taken, Eloise climbed up and got on the camel, who then proceeded to take a step or two forward. Eloise's reaction was much the same as it was when the bus would have a near-miss. Squeal, apply a brake and grab onto something. Problem was, camels don't have floorboards for the imaginary brake, and she didn't want to grab a handful of that thatch of wet camel hair. So she just squealed. I guess it worked. The camel stopped, Eloise's picture was taken, and we went on our way. Soon we found ourselves on board the bus again, and our driver miraculously got us through the maze of people and vehicles and back out onto the highway. Our visit to the Great Wall of China was over. I was impressed. I want to go again, but I think I don't want to go back to the same place. I have read of a place that is a reachable distance from Beijing, and that is relatively unspoiled, with none of the accoutrements of tourism that ensnared us today. I think I'd like to go there, when and if I'm in this country again. Well, as promised, I'm going to end this installment here, as it grows too long. Tomorrow was another day in China, and it is another day here as well.
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