The Persuasiveness of Free Wine

Flying back to America, I got a complementary upgrade to business class. This is unheard of in general, more so on trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flights.

So I did something I never do – I drank to excess. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a drink or two. In China, I lamented how difficult it was to find a proper place to grab a drink after work. But I don’t get drunk, at least not very often. I can’t afford to – I usually have a commute or work the next day. That’s not the point here.

In the course of my drinking, I also wrote. Now, I’ve been sitting on this post since I wrote it, because I’m embarrassed. I’ve read it and reread it, shaking my head in disapproval and disdain at my rambling, loose prose with it’s inability to hold a plot. And I’ve debated over the following point:

Do I present my rambling, drunken writing to you?

I’ve worked at cultivating a certain tone in this blog. I haven’t posted any of my especially angry rants, unless I edited them down and removed their fangs. I don’t whine. I try to keep things entertaining, or at least educational. And I have always maintained very strong control over what I say.  A second point: I have always disliked the idea of drunkenness, precisely because I have a dislike for giving up control over my body and mind. (It’s why I’m such a blast a parties – nothing better than sober wit, am I right?) Me getting sloshed at high altitudes – that was my choice, sure as anything. And what I wrote was more, well, goofy than anything I would normally write.

Then I think – well, perhaps this is just a chance to show a seldom seen side of me. The side of jean after…let me think…one bourbon, one champagne, and five or so glasses of red wine. Yeah, I mixed my alcohol – probably why my story ends as it does.

So here you go – this is what happens when you put a happy, frightened flyer in luxury and alcohol. Cheers!

Jean’s Original Post while Returning Home – Written over Two hours and Unedited

I am a little drunk.

I got a free upgrade to Business Class! Woohoo!

Seriously – the seats move to be almost flat! I get hors d’ourves and stuff! The seat has seven different controls – including automatic “ZZZ” and “landing/takeoff” functions. I don’t know how I ranked this position. I can’t afford this luxury. I sincerely hope this isn’t Fate having a joke at my expense. I’ve done so much that I hope she isn’t cruel like that. Still, I guess if I go it’s appropriate to go so unlike myself – drunk and at the mercy of a Cantonese keyboard, random switch. That’s the worst – at best I speak a little Mandarin. Having a Cantonese keyboard is like having a Greek trying to help you with French – best intentions, but ultimately futile.

Here’s the thing – I am a nervous flyer. But I have gotten better – I don’t panic so much now, because I recognize that I have no control over my situation when I am miles above the surface of the Earth. So different than climbing mountains via steep staircases and diving below the surface of the sea. I also spend takeoff reciting the aforementioned cited “Ulysses” to myself. It helps.

A Boeing plane also helps. I feel…let’s say more at ease. Boeing knows its sh..stuff. Ha! Not so drunk to curse in front of an audience intentionally. Glimpse of sobriety? I can’t release hold so easily.

The dangerous thing about getting a free upgrade to Business Class, with its reclining seats and full service menu, is that they give you just about as much booze as you want, provided you don’t act like an idiot. And I am not an idiot, so they give me all the red wine I can drink! Even though I admitted aloud to the wonderful flight attendant that I shouldn’t be mixing bourbon and red wine. Because I am going to regret it several hours from now. Though I will sleep like a drunken sailor. Bourbon is great – if you can, I recommend the Delta’s signature blend of Woodford and cranberry. With a slice of lime.

But before I start sounding like above idiot (and you don’t know how many times Spellcheck has caught me just to get this far – seriously it’s one of the few decent things this autocorrect has done so far), I’m going to say that the alcohol has made my nervousness about flying much less…less. I hate admitting fear. I hate admitting that there is something that makes me shake like I can’t control my hands. The only time I feel like this is when I play violin in concert. I’ve improved – but there are no armrests in business class. I do better when I can grip something when I get nervous. But I admit I am not nervous. This is its own kind of scary. Drinking too much is a little scary, though not nearly so scary as being unable to control your life.

I cannot control my course. I know my destination, but I put trust in a stranger. I trust that someone I don’t know will take me from countries I’ve been bred to fear, across a vast collection of depths, to my home. I am not so drunk as to realize how trusting that sounds. Positivity. There is a storm the size of America out there. There are bastards and terrorists and cracks and loose nuts and these are the things which plague my mind when I sit by myself and stew.

Ah…my hands don’t shake after…four or five glasses of red Rioja wine and a glass of bourbon. In your face, fear!!! And now I’m typing to an audience! Hello, readers! I’m drunk at 29,000 feet! They gave me a choice of three desserts! My seat reclines to a bed! Downside: No armrests to grip when I am scared.

Also I am watching the Muppet’s second movie – great when tipsy. Whee!!

It’s amusing and upsetting to the strong, disciplined part of me how stupid my body is right now. I’ve been blowing raspberries aloud everytime I remember I am over the Soviet Union. Like an adolescent. She is disgusted that I can’t be in control of my facets. But whatever, fearful me- let’s enjoy the last 8+ hours of this flight by passing out and waking up somewhere else.

Is that Ray Liotta in the sequel?! I think I might, finally, after ten years, appreciate what alcohol is capable of. Ten years too late for college, where I was the designated driver because it felt good to be better than everyone.

I will sleep now. If you’re lucky, Sober Me will see this as a great writing opportunity and publish me to the blog, for all to see!

Because I might be pedantic, and I might be random- but damn it I am smart and worthwhile and you know it!

Before I pass out – and I am fighting this very strong urge to do so, thank you Julia and your never-ending bottle of rojio – I will say that being drunk offers a different view to the world than I ever was willing to admit. I wish I could provide you profound wisdom, but I fear myself unequal to the task.

Being drunk provides no answers – only loose moralities. I’m sorry.

Only morality is what makes us special. Is what makes sex unique.

I am so sorry to those drunk teenagers hoping for resolution.



I mean – I think I caught sight of two teens making out before I passed out, which is why I waxed poetic at the end there.

And I did pass out. I had enough sense to drink my bottled water and ask for a glass of water – though I don’t remember doing this. I also put all the wine and most of my dinner back into the complementary air sickness bag (I also got a bit on my beautiful quilted comforter, which I got replaced. *blush* thank God I was the only one awake in the cabin at that point…) What a waste. Still, if there is a safe environment for experimenting with tolerances, an airplane seems like it. When I woke up about an hour and a half before landing, I asked the flight attendant (Julia, apparently) why there was a glass next to me. She smiled and said I had asked for water. I admitted I did not remember. Julia said I was one of her favorite passengers. This I do believe, because when I get tipsy I get very aware of other people.

For breakfast I ate two bites of granola and yogurt, and sipped black coffee. I woke up still drunk after many hours of blissful unconsciousness. In fact, my buzz lasted well past landing in Detroit. It was just before my connection flight that the headache settled in. I sipped water and took aspirin. I am blessed with a quick turnaround on hangovers.

I do remember Business Class, though – the seat going all the way flat, and a big proper pillow. I could curl up and let the waves of slurred air just swing me to sleep, and I didn’t mind the turbulence. They give you whatever you want, and you get a swag bag full of nice things like high end lip balm. They make it clear that it’s not for every price point up at the front of the plane, and I relished it.

And now I’m back. Back home. Technically, I’ve been back – like I said, I’ve been sitting on this post. Hope you liked it. You probably won’t see her again for a long, long time.

Orwell’s “198Kors”

There is a place in Beijing called The Silk Market. It’s a… six-story mall, all steel and glass. The top floor is restaurants, and the basement connects to a metro tunnel in theory. I managed to find the two other nearby tunnels, both a block away.


There is a sign on the outside of the building – if you are dissatisfied with anything you buy, you can call a number for a refund. The Silk Market is all about customer service, about ensuring that their products meet your needs.


 The Silk Market is a knockoff haven.

Every floor is dedicated to a different product – bags and leather goods in the basement, clothing on the ground floor, electronics on the third floor, etc. Any brand you want, especially if it’s high end, is somewhere behind a glass wall in the Silk Market. And at every door of each little stall is a voice, yelling for you to stop. To buy, to just take a look. It’s the stereotype, that chorus of catcalls. If you pause, even for a moment, you will be accosted by “helpful” shopkeepers convinced you are, in fact, going to buy whatever it is you thought you saw.

There are signs, on many of the doors, which provide the following guidelines:

  1. The shop is government approved.
  2. Haggling is not allowed
  3. Everything in the shop is genuine

So it was that I walked into a handbag shop, to buy my sister a Michael Kors bag. The woman wouldn’t let me hold any of them for very long. She kept juggling them out of my hands, a deft maneuver to get me hooked on several (and thus more likely to buy more bags). I was having none of it. I knew what I wanted.

I’ve talked about bargaining and haggling before. This type of haggling – for high-priced knockoffs – requires a slightly different approach. I knew which bag I wanted before I walked into the store, having walked nonchalantly around the basement level three times, taking a break to walk up a level or two for awhile. I let the woman hand me bag after bag while I walked around the cramped interior. You can’t show interest. You can’t want anything. It has to be a chore, looking for something. Even if you find the most beautiful thing in the world, you can’t admit you’ve seen it.

And so when I eventually decided I’d seen enough bags, I gestured to the one I was going to pick up. The “genuine” “Michael Kors” “leather” handbag.

 “How much for that one?” I asked.

“Two for one?” she countered.

“No. This one is enough,” I said.

“You pay rmb or US?”

“I’m from the US”

“350 rmb? Perfect!” I exclaim. This prompts a cackle.

“You said you pay US – 350 US!”

“Sorry to be confusing. I’ll pay rmb.”

“4000 rmb.” She shows me on the calculator in her hands.

“That’s too much. I can’t afford that!” I say, and set the bag down. The bag levitates back into my hands and an arm around my shoulder twirls me back to the interior of the store.

“How much you want to pay?” She asks.

Now, there is a sign on the door, clear as day and bright as the fluorescent lights above, that says that the price is fixed. That this bag is the real deal and that I am not allowed to haggle.

“400 rmb,” I say. The woman makes a strangled sound. Her compatriot, who is still convinced that she can sell Dad a “Gucci” wallet, laughs.

“No, no, no! Too little! 3500 rmb,” she counters. And now we’re haggling.

Tip: When looking for the quality of a fake, check the interior. The outsides will always look good, even perfect, but the inside is a dead giveaway. For example, the inside of this Kors bag is filled with nylon-like cloth, sort of like a cheap windbreaker.

In his classic novel “1984,” George Orwell introduces the term “doublespeak.” It’s when you can believe two things at once, hold two separate truths in one’s mind at the same time. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia. We aren’t haggling over this bag. It’s more than believing a lie – we believe lies and tell lies all the time and with ease. Sometimes I think that lying is one of our great accomplishments as human beings.

Why I describe what we’re doing as doublespeak is because there are signs saying that we can’t do the very thing we’re doing, and we aren’t doing the very thing we’re doing, but we can and are. Both are true. This whole building should be in quotation marks – a “market” where you can buy “quality,” “authentic,” “brand name,” “goods.”

“1000 rmb – good price. My final price,” she says.

“I live in Chengdu. I can get it for 550 in Chengdu.” (This is my lie – they don’t have many high quality fakes in Chengdu yet.)

“Ok, my sister, ok. Be nice to me.”
“I am being very nice to you. I’ll go up to 550.”

“This is real Michael Kors! High quality!”

“Yes it is. I can go to 600.”

“Yes – ok.”

I’ve been swindled. Twenty minutes of work and I’ve overpaid. I just get so guilty when I bargain. It’s hard not to feel like I’m being a total bastard. But then I remember that they’d bleed me dry and hang me from the rafters to get the last pennies from my pockets, because to them I am a millionaire.

It’s exhausting.

If you go – be it for a calligraphy set, a pair of Beats by Dr Dre, a Gucci purse, or a canteen with Harry Potter in a Communist hat – go well-rested and well-fed. Go at the top of your game, and go with a heart made of stone.


Xi’an: Not Before my Pomegranate Juice

One of Xi’an’s seasonal products is pomegranate juice. Tom told us this during his introductory speech about Xi’an. It vied to be capital of the entire country, it has several rivers running through it, and it is known for its pomegranate juice. I’m not sure why, but the idea of a glass of pomegranate juice sounded so enticing at that moment, that I decided I would not leave Xi’an without sampling it. Beijing was pushing peaches. Xi’an was proud of its pomegranates.

(By this point, you should want pomegranate juice too – goodness knows I’ve typed the word enough times to be beyond subliminal. This is outré of me.)

So my quest, small as it was, was to obtain some of said juice. I would even risk taking it with ice, because it sounded so damn refreshing. Our second day in Xi’an – our second morning that is – included visiting the Mosque in the Muslim Quarter, and the city walls. Xi’an is close to the Uyghur autonomous region, another area of China with a distinctly non-Han ethnic majority which was never the less absorbed into the greater country. There has been some friction since then, though certainly not as famous at Tibet’s.

The Muslim Quarter was vibrant and loud. Music blared from windows, and the taffy shops had the mallets out. I’ve seen taffy pullers and taffy machines, but never two men with giant wooden hammers beating the ever-loving fun out of taffy. There are lamb kebabs and giant flat disks of unleavened bread with sesame seeds. And pomegranate juice. Tom assures me that I can get some on the way back.

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Once off the main street things grow far more subdued. The change is so abrupt I have a fleeting feeling of being led astray, compounded by the fact that we turn off to walk down an empty alleyway. It’s interesting, the influence of words and rumor. I’d been reading and hearing about attacks in the region (as well as in Sichuan), about the anger of the Uyghur Muslims. The Chinese newspapers at once minimalized the violence, and emphasized that the attackers were Muslim and that was probably why they were violent. And my initial nervousness in the alley stemmed in part from being bombarded with negative imagery and stereotypes. Never mind that the justice system is so strict and unyielding that violence towards a Westerner is unheard of. It’s difficult to be told something over and over and not have it influence you.

The Mosque is beautiful, with teal rooftops and scroll work. Much of the mosque is antique, preserved throughout the years by meticulous care. I liked seeing the Arabic script with the Chinese characters – two languages I don’t know together. Makes me feel hopeful, because there is so much that I could learn.

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On the way out, I see a set of small kites I want to buy. Earlier, in Beijing, I had passed on some tissue paper kites, and it was eating at me because they had been very pretty, very cheap kites. The timing had been wrong. This time, even though we were on a schedule, I stopped to buy some. I haggled the fastest I’ve ever haggled:

Me: I like these kites.
Man: Yes. You want two?
Me: No, just one. How much?
Man: Fifty.
Me: Ha! No. Fifteen.
Man: Thirty.
Me: I have to go. Twenty.
Man: Ok.

Ted was impressed by this, as normally kites are, in fact, thirty. BOOM. He also feels compelled to hurry us along, as my two-minute haggling, and Dad’s desire to stop and admire all the eclectic shops. I stop him, and remind him I would like a pomegranate juice. He assures me I’ll get it. We keep walking, discussing the local food and drink. All the way back to the entrance of the Muslim District, and I’m juiceless. This will not stand. I giggle and make a joke of being insistent. Underneath my giggles, though, I am iron about this juice thing. I will get that garnet-colored juice of the underworld, or I will not budge.

I don’t regret my insistence. The glass of juice is tart and sweet and wonderful, like ambrosia. Content, I pile back into the crazy white van.

Dad does not want to climb the old City Walls, and I do not blame him. It’s hot again, and it’s noon, but we paid to see the damn walls, so I am climbing the damn walls. I have my juice – what’s fifty more stairs? These are city walls in the traditional sense – great thick ramparts in a square around the old city. They have an annual marathon, or at least a half-marathon, on the wall. Ted suggests that if I come back to teach in Chengdu, I should go to Xi’an in April and do the race. I agree to do so, and I mean it. Though it had an unforgiving climate, I really enjoyed Xi’an, and would like to see more of what the city has to offer.


Ted takes us to the train station four hours early and unceremoniously drops us off. This is my complaint about the tour overall – there’s a certain feeling of being unloaded as quickly as possible. It happened in Beijing, and it’s happening here. CITS tours manages to make me feel like a cash cow in the most unattractive way – get rid of me once the “official” stops are done, and don’t forget to request a tip.

Back on the train, speeding back to Beijing. I demanded a car to get us to the hotel before we departed for Xi’an. Joe said that our tour technically ended once we got on the train back to Beijing, leaving us on our own to make it back to the hotel. I argued that according to the official itinerary on the website, transportation back to an airport was included, so why not a hotel? After some admittedly Western obstinacy on the subject, I got a car and I got it without additional charge.

We leave day after tomorrow. I am starting to feel excited by the prospect of going home.

Night on the Xi'an Promenade near our hotel.

Night on the Xi’an Promenade near our hotel.

Xi’an: Chain Whips and Warriors

The night we arrive I have too much energy to go to bed early, so I take a walk. While we drove into town I made mental markers of where I wanted to go, and so it’s a fun game in the twilight hours. This ties back to my post on getting lost.  Can I flip the map and backtrack to the neon lights and statues I saw earlier? T

I can. The city, which seemed sort of dead during the heat of the day, comes alive at night. People spill into the parks and streets, and I walk the considerable length of a park, which starts at the Wild Goose Pagoda and ends at a mall and a giant collection of statues celebrating the Tang Dynasty (I believe it’s the Tangs) in a plaza lit by giant LED columns. To be clear: this was one of many such statue collections. The half-mile or so of walking has multiple monuments. There are scholars being inspired by a fountain, generals on horseback, lots of musicians and on-lookers. It’s like seeing a parade, frozen in metal.

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Outside the Wild Goose Pagoda, there are dancers and street merchants selling mini terra cotta warriors, fans, statues – just about every knick-knack you could want to buy, and buy incredible cheap. I pick up a giant fan (it’s still quite warm) for less than two dollars, and keep walking. There are men, sweating and shirtless, cracking whips in one of the side plazas. Upon observation, I realize they’re not bullwhips, but chain whips – a length of wood, a length of chain, and then the actual woven whip at the end of the chain. In order to get the proper speed and form, the men have to gain momentum through three point spins, getting the chain swinging around with enough force to move the leather. It’s quite a sight. It’s late when I return to my hotel room, feeling much more ready for sleep.

The next day we have a late start. I get the distinct impression that there is not really as much to do in Xi’an, since the schedule is so loose. We’ll see the wild goose pagoda, the terra cotta warriors, and in the evening the Tang Dynasty Dumpling show. Tomorrow it’s the Muslim Quarter, the city walls, and that’s it.

We walk to the Wild Goose Pagoda. Our guide – who took the English name Tom – tells us of the Buddha and of the monks who lived in the temple. They were hungry, and in desperation prayed for deliverance. At that moment, a flock of geese flew overhead. So the pagoda was named – a very tall, yet squat, brick structure surrounded by temples and jade carvings.


Tom is young. He makes me smile because he delivers his information like Siri, and actually chastises Dad for stepping over the threshold of the temple on the wrong foot (the left foot). Realizing that he probably made a mistake in correcting the paying customer, he tries to turn his rebuke into a joke, and fails miserably. Dad is having too much fun to get upset, and like I said I was amused. Tom is clearly afraid of us – especially me. When he found out I’ve been living in China, he acts as though I’m going to reveal all the secrets of their tourism economy. There is some truth in this – I know when we’re being fleeced, and I know where we’ll be forced to go for said fleecing.

The fleecing arrives at the terra cotta “workshop,” where we watch artisans “make” all the warriors which are sold in their store. I’m sure this empty workshop also hums along at some point or another…no I don’t. I bet those statues never move, because when would I come back to check? Those ovens are probably never heated, and have been packed with the same thousand tiny torsos for months. And even if I believed that you made all your terra cotta warriors by hand, I know you didn’t have a part in the furniture, rugs, porcelain, jade, nor any other thing also featured in your store.


You are fooling no one!

You are fooling no one!

But kudos to your persistence – you almost got Dad to pay $1000 for a terra cotta head. Not a full warrior – no, you charged just as much for the detachable head, which Dad thought might look cool on over our fireplace. I might be crippling your economy with my “insider” knowledge, but then you should have gotten that from Ted, who gets a kickback from your sales.

Sorry, but I get really irritated when I feel like I’m being taken advantage of because I’m a westerner and therefore must be rich. Nope.

Ted is a bit disappointed that we bought nothing, but we press on to the tomb of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Our driver reminds me of Chengdu drivers – he is less civilized in his turning radius than a Beijing taxi driver. He breaks at the last minute, cuts out semi trucks, and generally goes as fast as he can. It’s blazingly hot outside now, and even after a small repast at the site, we’re starting to flag. They’ve redesigned the museum so that it is not accessible by walking (or it’s not easily accessible). Instead you must pay to take a small golf cart. We stand in line, sweating, pressed up in the now familiar mob of bodies. They all brought umbrellas to combat the sun – they almost create their own giant awning.

I ask Ted (who meets us at the end of the ride), why we could not walk, and why we can’t walk back.

“It seems that you would want to ride back, after walking through the museum.”

“There is a cultural village. Very traditional. Good for shopping. Everyone wants to see that!” Ted says. I sigh inwardly. “Cultural Village” is code in China for “Strip Mall.” They’ve designed the park in such a way that they drive you far away from the entry point on purpose, so that you have to walk back through their stores. In essence, they’re trying to force shopping.

I did not really know what to expect when I saw the rows of warriors. My Uncle told me that they were not to be missed, that they were a true marvel. The terra cotta warriors were one of the top attractions in all of China, I read, and one of the greatest archeological finds of, if not the second half, then the whole of the twentieth century.

There were a lot of them, to be sure.


It’s the details which I think actually impressed me. The idea of a different face model for each figure. That the emperor laced the ground with mercury because he thought it would protect him in the afterlife. There is so much mercury in the ground around Xi’an that they don’t know how to excavate the tombs safely. And then, much like the Great Wall there’s just the sheer scope of it all. Thousands of statues, with ranks and roles – it’s like a child laying out a plastic army, except everything is life-sized.

But you can’t go near the statues. You walk around and above them. There aren’t as many unearthed as I thought there would be – the photos made it seem like there are rows upon rows of pristine figures to admire. This is not the case. There are lots of figures, yes, but most are in pieces and in piles, waiting to be sorted and rebuilt by the archeological teams. The next building, which houses the horses and generals, is actually a series of empty trenches. Everything is underneath the dirt, revealed by sonar and such. There are perhaps two full chariot teams.

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It would be incorrect to say I felt let down by the warriors. I liked seeing them, and they are impressive. But given the sheer hype of the place, I thought I’d see more figures and fewer theoretical ones. It seemed there were whole buildings dedicated to implication. Underneath those mounds there are countless more figures, but….

It’s still a great story. A farmer in the 1960s is digging a well and finds this great forgotten tomb. He decides to say nothing because he doesn’t want the government to arrest him for digging a well wrong. His neighbors report it for him (or report him – hard to say). That man now lives in an air-conditioned hut at the museum site. For the past thirty years or so all he has to do is autograph a book with his face in it. He’s met presidents and dignitaries and has never had to plant a thing, other than his butt in a chair.

That night we go to the Tang Dumpling show – the most famous show in all of Xi’an! After several failed attempts (I scared the waitress by asking too many questions, poor thing), we get twenty different kinds of dumplings! Dumplings shaped like koi! Dumplings with shrimp! Dumplings with mushrooms! Dumplings for everyone! They were decent dumplings, made better by my knowledge of how to make a delectable dipping sauce.

The show… ok, I always get embarrassed at cultural shows. I went to one in Morocco that wound up being belly dancing to techno music at a glorified strip club, and ever since then I’ve felt guilt for what we make other cultures go through to entertain us. This one was not nearly so rough as that – this was a song and dance show, heavy on the dance. It was a serviceable lacquer-job show of what I’m sure are venerable traditions – like a show at Dollywood. I do theater – I’d take the steady paycheck too.


I’ve waxed long about our first and only full day in Xi’an – there was a lot to take in. I really felt a connection to the city, more than I have in other places in China. There was a vivacity, an energy which seemed youthful, that was great to find in one of the oldest cities in all of China. Tomorrow we go to the Muslim Quarter and then back to Beijing. The trip is ending.

Beijing Day 4: Understanding Stone



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).


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