We leave Beijing early, as it’s a two hour drive to Mutianyu, our site of choice to climb the Great Wall.
The Great Wall of China. I’ve heard a lot of the hype – visible from space, etc. It is, in essence, a big ole wall, and perhaps it’s because I’m on a tour that I feel my mental edges starting to crackle like burning film. How impressive can a wall be? How big does big mean? I’m worried about the climb and Dad’s knee. I don’t want to be accosted by merchants all selling the same things. My mood is still apparently sour, but I’m determined to be happy.
It is, I should have known, not a straight shot to the Wall. First, we must stop at a jade market. Jade is perhaps one of the most recognizable Chinese goods, followed by silk and tea. And while I did not want to stop at a bunch of stores to be gouged repeatedly by simpering store clerks, I also could not afford the “no shopping” tour. Yes, some places charge you more to not be hassled. The Jade store is not so bad. The woman walks us past the requisite man working at a specialty saw. He’s making something for the store, apparently. The massive store with rows upon rows of statues of varying shades of Jade, cases and cases stuffed with jewelry. I just wish they could see the flaws in their own presentations. If everything is made in this tiny little workshop with six tables, why is only one man working? And why is each table making the same thing? She takes us around the corner to the store, and teaches us how to tell good jade from bad, real jade from fake.
Hold jade up to the light – it should have a grainy, fibrous quality to it. Fake jade (usually made from glass or plastic, though other stones will also be used) will have symmetrical lines in it. Real jade is also cooler to the touch than you would think, and maintains its coolness for longer. This is why you’re supposed to wear Jade over the heart. Jade is heavier than it looks because it is so dense.
I shop the discount racks – any government-approved store in China is going to hike the price at least fifty percent if not more, and they do not negotiate. You are in essence paying for the undisputed authenticity of a product. Dad, having expressed an interest in a cartouche, is whisked away to the “special” back showroom. I do surveillance, amused. I watch as they show him the jade which costs more than a car, as much as a house in Chengdu.
The Turks did it better – they gave us pizza and alcohol, and they might have drugged my Mother a little before bringing out the “sapphires.” The Chinese have a harder time, hitting us up when we’re stone cold sober. No, we don’t need that $10,000 keychain thank you. Dad buys a dragon pendant, and I get my pig necklace. The woman shows me fancier and fancier pigs, and while the most expensive has the fewest flaws, I take a mid-range pendant. Our sales girl, Miao Miao, chastises me for wanting brown string instead of red. “You wear things…much plainer. I like to wear beautiful things,” she says, pursing her lips slightly as she ties my necklace. Whatever, Miao Miao, I think – you have to tell all the English speaking tourists your name sounds like a cat’s meow.
The second stop before the wall is lunch – another bland affair. I’ve been tempered in hot pot, and now I eat this fake sweet and sour with a bit of a grudge. How many people have complained about the food to get it to this point? Why are they treating us like we’re so fragile.
Because we are. I was tempered in hot pot, but I also got really sick once. Bland is safe, and probably leads to fewer toilet trips. I grimace at the idea of throwing up in a squat toilet…
And then, we arrive. Mutianyu just completed a brand new tourist information center. It is, in fact, a village – a whole commercial village, empty and awaiting vendors. It’s beautiful stone work and dark wood railings. If and when it is completed it will be a great spot for the bustling crowds of tourists. You can’t see the wall from here. We take a bus up towards the peaks of the mountain range.
It’s old school vendors up near the top – a street packed with tents and shelves of t-shirts, magnets, terra cotta warriors, plastic models – a treasure trove of dollar-store goods. The climb is steep, Dad and I window-shopping all the way up to the cable car. You can sort of see the Wall up above. The stone ramparts stick up from the trees all along the spine of the ridge.
Dad doesn’t know why I’m antsy on the cable car. I explain that there is no secondary emergency cable. There is actually nothing to stop us from falling – we ride up one cable, and one cable only. And it’s a steep climb to the top. All the cable cars are like this – just one cable and a shudder at every junction as the little glass box pauses its ascent for a second.
And then there is the Wall.
Let me tell you about the Great Wall of China. Taken piece by piece it is not much of a sight. It’s old – dark grey stone blocks. It’s nice masonry, and wide. It’s a wide, tall wall with guard towers at regular intervals. Like a medieval castle. You cannot look at one section of the Wall and understand.
You must look at the Wall in your periphery to get it. It’s not that one section is amazing. But imagine a thousand sections, all along the ridge of the mountain, beyond your eye’s ability to penetrate the haze. Up the tops of the mountains and as far as you can see, there is the Wall. In both directions is the Wall. It keeps going, strong and wide and high enough that even if you climbed the mountain you’d still have to climb the Wall.
Those hoards must have been truly ferocious to inspire such total ramparts.
We stay and reflect. I watch dragonflies dance along the treetops. I photograph my panda bracelet, as my Chinese teacher friends told me that it is a custom to photograph pandas on the Great Wall. I eavesdrop on a French tour guide explaining the history of the wall to her one-man audience.
It’s an amazing piece of engineering. It took tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers to build (many of whom lost their lives). And apart from climbing from tower to tower, that is really all you can do at the Wall – walk and reflect. I bet that’s what the guards did – walk the ramparts and stare out at the forests, reflecting on life. I wonder if Wall duty was sought after, or if it was a punishment. Maybe it was required for every soldier to guard the wall at some point.
The climb back down is hard – my legs have decided to hate descending. I stop and haggle for a wood-carving, Dad wants a “bronze” doorknocker. Ted meets us near the busses and buys us both diet cokes, and we sit for a few minutes to catch our breath before continuing down the mountain to our car.
If you get a chance to visit the Great Wall, spend a little more and go to Mutianyu. It is farther away than the Badaling climb site, but the crowds are smaller and the views are spectacular (if the weather is good).