Great Wall, Great Stories

(Be warned, this post is almost as long as the Great Wall itself. I only finished it in France after having been to Norway, Austria and Slovakia since I left Beijing).

Hostel advertised price to the Great Wall: ¥280
Rose did it for: ¥70
And do I ever have stories to tell!

I met a Lithuanian in my hostel that reminded me of C and I took an immediate liking to him. When I found out that he’s interested in going to a less-touristy section of the Great Wall on his own AND that he likes taking photos, I liked him even more. I also wanted to climb a section of the Wall that still retains its original character instead of having been tamed to accommodate grandma and grandpa tourists. With my command of Mandarin, I feel like it’d be a waste of money to go with a tour group as if I were a foreigner. Finally, I definitely need to travel with a photographer for this sight. It’s not like I can easily find someone who knows how to take good photos with an iPhone on a savage stretch of the Great Wall. The tipping point? After all the harassment I’ve received since arriving in China, I needed some male protection if I were to venture out into the countryside. After talking to myself exaggeratedly (“Gosh, wouldn’t it be helpful to speak Mandarin when using local transportation. But oh wait *laugh*, I speak Mandarin!”), I successfully invited myself on yet another trip.

Our adventure the next day began at the Beijing bus terminal. When I was waiting in line in yet another public squat bathroom with suspiciously wet floors, I saw an open bag of used feminine hygiene products so large it was like one of the “jumping” tanks in amusement parks, filled with plastic balls for tumbling around in. To avoid having to wait in line, a woman held her baby over the bag and told it to shit (I could say “defecate” but who are we kidding here?). As the baby concentrated on pushing, the woman encouraged: “Oh it’s so stinky. Good job baby, good job!”

As we neared our destination, more and more hecklers offered us their taxi service to the Great Wall. It was so rampant that I could hear them say “Look, a white guy!” before they pushed onto the bus when it pulls over at a stop. With only my Lululemons, Converse for clay courts and a Kate Spade instead of a backpack, I had joked with Ø that I would be the “baggage” on this trip. Little did I know Vilius would be a tall, blond, lightening rod that screamed “Rip me off”.

During his research for the trip, Vilius came across warnings from past travelers that even the bus driver would provide travelers with false information, causing them to get off the bus too early and have no choice but to rely on private taxi service run by the “friends” of the driver. The same false information was offered to us but we followed the advice of previous travelers and stayed on until the transfer station.

As soon as we stepped out of the protected territory of the municipal bus we left Beijing in, I felt like a lamb dropped into a pack of wolves. The hecklers circled in on us with overly friendly smiles, asking what we were looking for (“A ride to the Great Wall perhaps?”). I managed to throw off some young ones by saying we were merely looking for the bathroom while eyes darted madly around for an information booth. Even the gatekeeper to the bus terminal seemed to be in on the “take advantage of a faux Chinese girl and a blue-eyed boy who speaks no Chinese” scheme. He prohibited us from entering the complex from the obvious entrance, forcing us to circle the building and present ourselves like sacrifices to the hecklers along the way.

We tried to walk like we knew exactly what we were doing, knowing instinctively the hecklers would pounce upon any sign of weakness. Once again in China, people blatantly commented on me in front of my face, guessing out loud whether I was Asian and whether I spoke Chinese. It was then that an older heckler latched onto us in a smooth, experienced manner and I knew with one look that he’d be more difficult to throw off. He said earnestly that “Us Chinese would never cheat each other” (pleeeease) while quoting a price that made our hostel’s guided tour cheap in comparison. He gently reprimanded my stubbornness at refusing his “very reasonable” offer as if he were a parent, tsk tsking lovingly at silly children’s play. Meanwhile, the official ticket seller in the bus terminal pretended to have called the connecting bus company across the road (her handset wasn’t even turned on) and told us there were no public transportation to the Great Wall today. Even the girl tanning at the main gate had a poker face on and repeated the party lines that our only option was to hire a car. EVERYONE was in the scheme of squeezing every cent out of us.

Despite being gained up, the other side let it slip that there WAS another company across the road. As soon as we stepped off the curb to cross, the older heckler who has been following us sweetly suddenly changed face. He started saying the most crude things about me and white men, but I will concede his historical references of how China was invaded by the West at the end of the 19th century was quite educational. Infuriated by all the objectification I received from men since my arrival in China (the crowning memory being someone squeezing my butt on the Beijing metro), I scoured my brain for equally hurtful comebacks in Chinese. So there we were, hurling insults at each other from two sides of a country road in rural China. Elderly town people with weathered faces squatted and snacked on sunflower seeds while following our fight back-and-forth. Vilius just looked at me and said: “So I probably don’t want to know what this is about, right?”

Once we crossed the road, the sky seemed brighter and the air, clearer. The older heckler could do nothing except pace on his side of the road. There must be some powerful turf war that keeps hecklers to their own territory. We found a bus stop run by the local government and according to the grandparents waiting there with their groceries, this would get us that much closer for a negligible price. While we waited for the next bus, a heckler who couldn’t have been much older than us approached. Changing my hardliner strategy, I told the guy that if we could afford whatever price he was going to quote us, we wouldn’t have lugged our own 1.5L water bottles from Beijing to save money. He quickly moved on afterwards.

Minutes later, we squeezed onto a surprisingly city-appropriate bus that wound paradoxically through rice paddies. In between people’s armpits, we asked the locals for a cheap way to the Wall. The people debated amongst themselves and presented options in accents that were too difficult for me to memorize. Eventually, even fellow bus riders started heckling us, offering to have their family members drive us. We decided to just get as close to the Wall as we can on the bus then figure out the next step.

An hour of sitting on the bus floor later, we were the last people to be thrown off the bus before it turned around for its return journey. We looked up and down the empty stretch of newly-paved highway and saw no signs of life. There was nothing left to do but to walk towards the mountain with the Great Wall on it. This was a very ghetto plan.

Eventually, we passed by a police checkpoint and I ran to dear “uncle” police (as a Chinese children’s song goes) to sing our plight. Taking sympathy at my poor, feeble, female self and the blinking white boy I had in tow, the policemen flagged down cars passing through the checkpoints to ask if any were going in our direction. Most were fearful of the police but one lady with a very respectable-looking car was game. Her car was also notably full. She said the present passengers were getting off soon so I negotiated a price with her in front of the officers. I told the man already in the front seat that it was his lucky day before squeezing myself in with him (the police did not blink at this overload). Meanwhile, Vilius was squashed in the back with four very curious women. When our fellow passengers got off, the driver’s two young daughters got on. Vilius sat squeamishly between two pairs of wide-opened eyes.

Finally, and unbelievably, we made it to the ticket office of the Great Wall. It was such a feat to get there, I almost didn’t need to climb to climb it. I would’ve been happy with a few fabulous pictures of myself on the Wall then turned around to figure out how to get back to the city.

Vilius on the other hand, was determined to get to a particular segment of the Wall that looked like it was hanging from the ridge of the mountain. Its bricks glowed an enticing gold in the afternoon sun but when my field of vision zoomed out, I could almost hear whooshing sounds as my eyes took in the extent of mountain tops we’d have to pass in order to get there. Not wanting to brave the return trip alone, I had no choice but to hurry after him.

In the beginning, being on the Great Wall wasn’t all that special. However, as we passed tower after tower and segments after segments, the tower entrances narrowed and the wall connecting them steepened. Sometimes after we caught our breath at a tower, we’d turn around to find the next segment composed of near vertical stairs and our breath would catch again. All I could do was to hitch my purse higher on my shoulder, dig my fingers into the cracks in the mortar between the bricks and pull my weight up. The path has become uneven due to missing bricks, some segments didn’t even have side walls. We carefully stuck to the centre of the path to avoid tripping on holes made by missing bricks then tumbling down the side of the mountain through the broken wall. It was as if the restoration project suddenly ran out of funds and we WERE ecstatic.

By this point, the segments of the Wall we have covered looked as impressively steep as the one we were aiming for. The already sparse crowd on this distant section of the Wall has thinned out even more. Gone were the grandma grandpa tourists with hired bag carriers. Gone were the middle-aged tourists with high-tech walking poles and head-to-toe Gor-Tex. Our only companion was a pair of young foreign men whose cut-out shirts and bandanas made them looked like they’ve hustled the world from Angora to Ankara. Soon enough, even they fell off the radar, last seen sitting on top of a weather-ravaged tower to ponder the sea of clouds below.

Despite my gasps of breath just going from the parking lot, my inappropriate clothing and my grudge about not having whining privileges with Vilius because he was neither a boyfriend nor a boy friend, I was very proud of what this rack of bones with ginormous bug-eyed sunglasses has accomplished. However a sorry figure I may cut at the time (and yes Ø, I even enjoy exaggerating but how else does one get material for Penning an Image), I will always make it through. It was incredible to find myself on top of the section of the Great Wall I had studied when I was a child. The inky green mountain undulated under my feet like waves and the Great Wall running along its ridge, the golden lapping foam. I felt like I was on top of the world and that I was the only one.

We had a choice of returning to the main entrance where we started or try for a secondary exit at the other end. Had we returned, we’d have more taxis to choose a cheaper ride from. If we pressed on, we risked there being very few (if any) taxi drivers and therefore, an inflated fare. Worst yet, the exit may not be open. Given the timing of the last bus, we would have to sleep on the Wall.

One of the most important lessons I learned since coming to Paris is dealing with uncertainty. In both my personal and professional life, I was presented with an abundance of options and experienced pressures from all directions. I had to learn not only listening to my heart but respecting what it has to say. The future isn’t certain, you are only capable of assuring the here and the now. I knew there was the POSSIBILITY we may not find suitable transportation on the other side but I also knew with CERTAINTY that I’d forever treasure having completed an entire section of the Great Wall. It was like this that we took the road less travelled.

At the start of the trail, Vilius and I had to play good cop, bad cop to throw off hecklers of every imagination. If he was bothered to purchase souvenirs, I’d come in as a mediating outsider and tell the heckler that this foreigner is in a bad mood after just having been ripped off. Vilius then turns to us with furrowed brows and the heckler usually scurries off. On the other hand, if he was offered guided tours, he’d nod his head in my direction and I then jump in as a territorial tour guide (“He’s MIIINE!”). But for quite a while, Vilius and I have been the only people on the wall, even souvenir and water sellers have given up doing business this far along the trail. The sun has softened from a glaring midday bake to an afternoon feathery caress.

Exactly one year ago, I started at the Department of Justice amidst personal despondency. I remember getting on the green and gold heritage elevator with B. It took my sleep-deprived mind a while to register when she wished me a belated happy birthday. I remember chuckling in my head at how unhappy I felt at what was supposed to be a joyous event. Today, as I stood atop one of the Great Wonders of the World,
I marveled at the physical and the emotional distance I’ve travelled to get here. A year ago, I never imagined I’d be here today. This only proves the saying “If you are going through shit, keep going”. Personal obstacles and physical obstacles alike, are challenging in the moment. In hindsight however, they are the best confidence-builder. No need to panic people, Mama’s handled it before.

As we rounded another tower, we caught sight of the first human being we’ve seen in a while, hanging like an ant on yet another stairway to heaven. He was in hiking boots, a highly functional vest full of pockets and had a gigantic camera hanging from his neck. He looked like he knew what he was doing.

When we first set out on the Wall, I struck up a conversation with a blonde mother-and-daughter duo to get intel about the return trip. They were ready to offer us a ride back except we haven’t even climbed the Wall. However, that experience made me aware that car share is a possibility. So with the camera guy, I planned to first confirm whether the secondary exit was open then to ask whether he’d like to decrease the cost of his return trip by sharing a car with us (though most likely he’d be in the offensive position of choosing whether he’d allow us onto his hied car). This Taiwanese-accented Mr. Haohao (a Chinese expression for men who are so easy going they’d agree with almost all requests) said the exit is open but most people exiting there have drivers waiting for them because few drivers are willing to wait that far out there without any guarantees of business. Seeing the look of (pretend) panic on my face it was as I anticipated…Vilius just stood there blinking through out our entire exchange), Mr. Haohao offered us a ride without us even asking (:D). All he asked in return was a picture of us (“as a souvenir”), though the lens was strangely focused only on me. Then he asked for a picture with just me, if “he” (Vilius) was okay with it (Vilius gladly sold me off). In my head, I rolled my eyes. On the surface, I gave the camera my best smile. So I guess depending on how much we would’ve had to pay to get out of that valley, that’s how much a smile from me is worth. Gosh, when is renminbi going to appreciate to its true value?

Mr. Haohao dropped us off at the bus station in time for the last run. A few minutes after we got there, a taxi pulled over to unload its passengers as well. While the driver shuffled everyone out, he asked me if we made it to the Great Wall. It turns out he saw our struggle at the transfer station that morning (so did the female driver who dropped us off in the morning). It was as if everyone along this Beijing-Great Wall corridor knew we were coming through town. He seemed begrudged that neither he nor his comrades got our business. At the same time however, his eyes exuded reluctant respect. We made it to the Wall and back with neither a scratch nor a hole in our wallet. Vilius only threw him a quick look before returning to watch Mad Men on his phone.

When we returned to Beijing, we went to the restaurant that makes THE Beijing duck that all foreign head-of-state are treated with (but didn’t eat there because a duck would’ve costed more than both of our trips to the Great Wall). Instead, we walked through the famous antique shop street where for centuries for centuries, dissidents and counter-revolutionaries used the storefronts as covers while they strategized against the Forbidden City mere blocks away.

We ended up at a historic commercial street near our hotel, famous for a restaurant whose owner used to make a sort of dumpling for the empress. We experienced yet another rip-off attempt at dinner when Vilius was offered an English menu whose offerings (sweet and sour chicken or General Tao’s chicken) and prices, were different than what was posted in Chinese on the wall.

After dinner, we stumbled into Beijing’s version of a shanty town, a surprisingly one street over from the commercial strip. It wasn’t shanty in the sense of dirty, but it was a sea of one-floor structures shackled up with mismatched building materials. The passages were narrow and winding, with the major ones lit up by single, exposed light bulbs and the minor ones extending into the darkness. As we struggled to find our way, I was reminded of the time K and I got lost in Venice while looking for a laundromat. The proximity of these single room residences to the “street” made me feel like I was intimately involved in these people’s lives. We walked passed game houses where people noisily pushed around Majiang. The clamber crescendoed as we approached the window before vaporizing into the thin stripe of evening sky between the roofs as we continued on. We walked passed people sitting in a ring of small, Chinese-style benches meant for one at the “street”corner, pulling steaming noodles into their mouth with chopsticks while holding the bowl midair. I felt like an ethnographer observing a society from behind the glass, no one paid us any attention. I caught glimpses of living rooms that looked like a set for TV show set in the 1970s Chinese countryside. Meanwhile, a girl strut pass me dressed like she should be in the lobby of a five star hotel on the Bund instead of stepping into a clapboard door. It was the strangest juxtaposition.

After such a day that I’ll surely recount for years to come, my stay in Beijing was back on track.

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