i. Do I have an umbrella, water, and comfortable shoes?
ii. Is it a weekday, preferably in the morning?
iii. Am I afraid of heights?
iv. Am I ready to smile?
If you answered: yes, yes, no, and yes, you’re ready to go to the Great Wall, provided you are in China. This last Saturday we went, but our answers to these questions were mostly: no, no, yes, and no. The Great Wall, by the way, isn’t contiguous; you can’t run the whole thing, like the Olympic ads in 2008 had people doing. Parts of it haven’t been repaired enough for people to use, but you can see them if you stand on repaired parts of the wall.
The Great Wall is an important piece of Chinese history, and as such, many people visit it, globally and locally. So on weekends it is especially packed. As we drove closer to the parking areas, we were in a small traffic jam in our two lane side of the highway (which in China, again, really means three lanes as the shoulder seems to be just another lane here despite the solid line dividing it from the rest…).
The specific part of the Great Wall we visited had two sections we could go in opposite directions. The first was a short distance, but very high climb with nearly no breaks.
The path we could have taken.
The second was a longer distance, but more of a gradual climb, or so it appeared from the ground. We started on the second.
The path we did take.
It wasn’t easy going even from the start, however. The stairs are all different heights. You’ll start climbing and three will be the standard stair height, one will be shorter, one will have a missing stone where you’d normally step so you’ll skip it or move to the side, and the next will be uncomfortably tall (even for someone with freakishly long legs such as yours truly). Fortunately there are handrails (for most of it).
Unfortunately, you risk getting stuck on stairs behind very slow people, people who just stop on the stairs to rest, people who are going down the stairs instead of up the stairs on your side (the right side), or people with umbrellas. Now you may be wondering: why would getting stuck behind people with umbrellas be irksome? It’s no secret Americans are generally taller than the Chinese, and mind you I’m generally a bit taller than Americans. Umbrellas will relentlessly poke you in the eyes, the chin, the chest, the neck, or the back if you’re being tailed by an avid climber. Furthermore umbrella toters (about one out of every three Chinese persons, by my count)
only have one free hand, which generally leaves them glued to the railings (I think umbrella hats could be big here. Everyone loves umbrellas, but they won’t have to face the downfall of losing a useful hand to such devices!).
Aside: one time our host came to get Molly and I for dinner and we didn’t have an umbrella and it was raining, as it does frequently here for short period of times. She made us go to a supermarket to buy one, keeping the other people we were meeting for dinner waiting! It’s an incredible faux pas to not have an umbrella, at least in Beijing even though I never use mine in the United States. Rain or shine, many people use them. Now that we’re in Hohhot which, by the way, doesn’t seem to have so many umbrella fans, Molly and I left our umbrella with Mom. She won’t be considered unfashionable or crude; she’s one culturally savvy American now.
Anyway, back to the uneven terrain of the Great Wall, it’s best to just fight your way along the middle; less traffic and less umbrellas. You might have to use your hands on the stairs in front of you and climb like a dog for a little bit (a tactic I employed occassionally), but as long as you are confident of your legs, you’ll be fine. I generally run two miles a day at about seven and a half to eight minutes a mile and let me tell you, my legs were uncontrollably shaking after climbing up and down our section of the Great Wall. No joke. There are places where one can stop and rest along the way and enjoy the view and breeze, though.
If you are American, you’ll have built in rest stops even if you don’t wish to stop at all. Why? Because you, too, are a tourist attraction. We were stopped about every nine minutes by Chinese that wanted to take pictures with us. Again, no joke.
The Great Wall is an important piece of Chinese history so you get a lot of natives from the equivalent of Nebraska or South Dakota or an equally remote area that’s less cool than Kansas. They’ve never seen Americans except for on television. They adore taking pictures and if one person asks, prepare for their entire family to take individual shots with you and group shots. I felt weird standing there in most of the pictures and everyone else was flashing the peace sign – which they call bunny ears – so Molly suggested flashing the number three instead just to throw people off and maybe tell them it was an American tradition…but I didn’t. Alas, next time.
Aside: they really like taking pictures with Molly.
No one really wanted to take pictures with Mom, but so far I think more people have told her that she is “very beautiful” more than Molly or I have heard it (someone even said she was the most beautiful American they have ever seen). I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just one ugly American, which is totally fine because that means less pictures for me! Compliments are common currency here, but beautiful is the most common. “Beautiful” is a very popular adjective here (Molly taught our guide to use the word “neat” instead of “beautiful” all the time. She has ambitions to teach him more). I can’t tell if compliments are part of the culture and it’s just something they do and are trying to be nice, or whether they really mean it. Another thing they compliment on is our eye size. I never know what to say to that. Oh thanks, I picked them out myself? Oh thanks, I eat a lot of carrots? The result is I just smile a lot. In fact, I think I’m getting smile lines which is problematic as I don’t smile at all ever generally. I make a point not to, in fact. This will be proof to the contrary when I return state side. But I digress – shock, I know. (Also, I feel like most of my writing is in parenthesis, and for that, I endlessly apologize. But there are so many tiny things I want to tell about too that you don’t read about in guide books and I couldn’t write a blog about just these tiny things because I always have to make things tediously long).
So you reach the top of the Great Wall and what do you face? An amazing view, yes, but also the long climb down.
This might be worse than the climb up because your legs are already quite the consistency of spaghetti. Eventually the stairs appear to be tilting towards you if you just stare at them (which is recommended because you will probably fall if you don’t).
But you are rewarded just before the last flight of stairs with a large sign that says: (I’m just going off my guide’s information here. I could be wrong) You Are Not A Man Until You’ve Climbed the Great Wall.
Well, that’s about all I feel compelled to share. But y’all have been hankering for more pictures so for your enjoyment (with a detailed story of the rest of our adventures involving these photos – consider them a teaser to whet your appetite – to come later at a time when I feel more loquacious) do feast your large American eyes upon these snapshots:
a tired pug dog
the facilities (no toilet paper included)
they have mcdonalds in beijing! (also the cube and the nest, nbd)
me looking like a complete fool playing some hackey-sack/badmitton game, also SEX
a huge thing o’ cotton candy (thinking of you, megan and no, we don’t have to wear buns, jerk)
So until next time, keep your umbrellas close and your toilet paper closer!
PS – Molly and I have moved into Hohhot and it is very nice…more later as my little fingers may fall off but really fast: our living quarters are next to some classrooms, today a girl wandered in and found our cookie stash and wouldn’t leave and then started to cry. It was ridiculous.