Saturday, November 20, 2010


After flying through some rain and a bit of turbulence, we finally break out of the cloud cover and see Beijing sprawled below us. We don't get to see the Great Wall, it was below the cloud cover as we passed over it. That's okay, we'll see it up close and personal later.

After a smooth landing, we make our way through the bustling airport with relative ease. Dr. Ron is a good leader. All the guys, as always, are very helpful to the women, as we struggle with what now seems to be unnecessarily big and heavy luggage. Funny, it didn't seem that way coming over here. It all seemed so necessary then! I brought less this year than I did last year, and still I had too much stuff. Maybe next year I'll just bring a backpack, if I can find one in my hand-painted periwinkles design! We make good use of the luggage carts supplied by the airport, and with the guys always handy to load and unload them, we find we can drive them very well.

We pass through all the requisite check points, and all sign little papers attesting to the fact that we're in the very best of health. Those who are suffering from Genghis Khan's revenge (we have a few of those) make no mention of that fact, but just smile bravely and sign the papers.

Near the exit, we are very happy to see our guide, David Wang, waiting for us. He looks happy to see us, too. I'm sure the idea of losing 20+ Americans for whom he is at least marginally responsible is not an idea he entertains with any comfort. Those of us who were here last year remember David, and Eloise and I know it's usually a good idea to stick close to him, because he is constantly dropping little bits of information that are helpful and interesting. He tells some of us that he really enjoys working with our group, that we're one of his favorites. Awww, I'll bet he says that to all the tourists! Still, he seems sincere.

He leads us outside, and we stay close, like sheep bunched up near a shepherd, as he challenges the traffic that is constantly circling the airport exits. There is no one directing this traffic, there are no lights or signs, it's just survival of the fittest and victory goes to the brave. David steps out in front of several cars, brakes screech as they come to a halt, drivers cast thundercloud glances our way, and we all pour across the street in David's wake.
There is no other way. I'm sure the Chinese drivers are muttering something unpleasant about American tourists. The street is wide and wet, slippery with the recent rain. I clutch the handle of the luggage cart I'm pushing, grateful for its steadying presence, as my knee wobbles and threatens to give way.

Finally we reach the enormous bus which David has waiting for us. The driver loads our luggage underneath, with some help from our men, and we get on board. The bus is roomy, comfortable, good a/c, and the driver has a cooler with bottled water placed just inside the door. It's a welcome sight. We are all thirsty, and in spite of the attentions of the cabin staff on the flight, we are also a bit hungry.

We are taken directly to a restaurant for a late lunch, no stopping at the hotel yet. We are all tired, and it's late, but David wants to get as much into the day as possible, and our late arrival has made it a challenge for him. The food is decent, but from experience we know that we're going to have much better meals while we're here. I think he chose this place for speed.

We leave the restaurant and get back on the bus, not really sure what's coming next. David announces that we're going to the Great Wall. At this hour? It's late afternoon, and the shadows are growing long. It seems to us that it will be dark soon. I guess we're forgetting that in this part of the world, it looks like evening long before it really is. The bus makes the long drive out to the Wall with ease - traffic is lighter than usual, perhaps due to the hour. I remember the landmarks, and know that we're going to the same place we went last year. The place of smelly restrooms and hundreds of unbelievably determined vendors. Oh, mercy. Maybe my knee and I will just stay on the bus.

However, a pleasant surprise awaits us when we arrive. Instead of the congestion and stupefying heat and humidity I remember from last year, I see that there are very few vehicles here, very few people, and most of the vendors are closing up shop and pay little attention to us. It's also much cooler. Not cool, but not the smothering, oppressive heat from last year. I decide I can handle this, if my knee will let me. I can only imagine what the Wall looks like in this slanting, golden light, and I really want to find out.

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