Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back in China

This is a great wall and only a great people with a great past could have a great wall and such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future.
--Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon

"So," I said to the Hungarian economist next to me, "We're sitting in a van, drinking beer, after we jut ziplined over a river from the top of the Great Wall of China. Life's good, huh?"

"As long as we survive." He replied.

He had a point. Our van's driver was swerving back and forth between the only two lanes available to him: the lane of oncoming traffic, and a construction site. Neither of the two cop cars we passed even slowed down. We spent about half an hour doing this without stopping. I'd seen scarier driving, but none quite this skilled.

I'd spent the day hiking up and down the stairs of the great wall with three Hungarians, a Frenchman, and a Finn. We covered only about 10km of the 6,400km length. So I can't speak for the whole thing. But I wasn't expecting it to be so... steep. When I pictured the Great Wall as a kid, I pictured a long, flat stone wall in the desert. What I didn't realize is that, near Beijing at least, the wall runs along to top of a mountain range, running up and down and side to side so sharply, that two members of the team had to drop out of the hike early on because of vertigo. We went from Jinshanling to Simitai sections, some of it in perfectly restored condition, other parts that had us scrambling down crumbling bricks thousands of years old. I made a couple friends out of vendors with my pidgin Chinese and having bought too many apples for snacks.

The highlight wasn't even something I'd planned on doing at first. When someone told me about a zipline from the wall to the ground, I pictured a cheesy twenty-foot cable over a stream to a car park. I did not picture a massive cable running over a river gorge with stunning views of the mountains and great wall spreading out on either side.

That was before the crazy driving. Well, the crazier driving. I dozed off during the ride over and woke up to see us barreling toward an 18 wheeler in the oncoming traffic lane. I didn't fall asleep again after that.

I went the extra distance to try to avoid the sections of the wall that everybody else goes to. I wasn't trying to be non-conformist, I just had seen what unruly mob that is Beijing tourism can be in the Forbidden City and the Heavenly Temple, and decided I didn't want to spend all day being pushed and shoved out of the way for photo ops. I command some respect because of my size, but I saw a father with a kid on his shoulders practically knock a Spanish woman to the ground without even looking at her, just in the course of walking from one spot to the next.

So after checking off the parts of the tourist checklist in town that I was most interested in, I started looking for slightly more out of the way places. I noticed something on my map that said "798 Art District" and a can of paintbrushes next to an intersection. So I hopped on a bus to check it out.

Turns out 798 is a new area that used to be factories. The factories have been gutted and turned into art galleries and studios. Walking between the newly cleaned smokestacks, you find enormous statues of all kinds. And inside some of the buildings, between the artists cafes and coffee shops, the paintings in particular are striking. Because of government censorship of media and the internet, I expected the local art scene to feel stifled. But it doesn't. I never saw anything in outright rebellion against the government, but a few things I saw about, for example, Vietnam and the war there, surprised me. I came back the next day just to see more. There's a big event happening this coming week which I'm going to want to check out with the time I have left.

That time is running short. I'm now on a deadline. I have less than one month to make it from Beijing, China, to Munich, Germany. That's most of Eurasia in less than one month. Yes I could fly, but that's expensive and you don't see much except clouds. So I've set my sights on the grandaddy of all train journeys: the Trans-Siberian Railway. This means a Russian visa. That means the Russian embassy in Beijing. This means three visits (four after tomorrow) to a heavily fortified piece of soviet architecture with heavy local police presence, a lot of bureaucracy, and, oddly enough, a pet pair of chickens and a turkey. Don't ask, I don't know either.

So I've been in town for a while. I spent last night being shown around Wangfujing district, a part of Beijing that was torn down because it was antiquated, then rebuilt to look like "old Beijing" Sort of. The massive malls and designer shops kinda threw the image a bit, but it didn't stop the street vendors from selling everything from starfish on a stick, to still-wriggling-scorpion-skewers. One bite of lamb's head soup was enough for both me, and my friend showing me around the place. As she put it, it tasted like rubber bands. As we looked around the shops, stalls, tourists, and the family having their photo taken in front of the neon-lit bookstore, she turned to me and said "This, I think, is the real China." She was born here, I trust her on the point.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Don't worry, Joel, we'll slow it down when you get to Munich. If my vacation attitude doesn't slow things down on its own, I have a feeling that liter after liter of high ABV bier and a few kilos of sausage might do it...

  2. Hola Joel!

    Disculpa que no te haya escrito antes, solo queria decirte que tienes una familia muy hermosa y que pase un maravilloso fin de semana cuando tu familia y algunas amistades se reunieron a principios de agosto. Aun no he conseguido trabajo, pero ahora me estoy quedando donde Jenny, ella e smuy buena y la proxima vez te escribiremos juntas!...Hermosa foto de la gran MURALLA CHINA!!! Que Dios y la Virgencita Santisima te guien y bendigan siempre.
    Saludos desde Spokane

  3. ZB- No worries, picking up the pace is a good thing for me. I like to keep moving, this is a good excuse. Barring any problems with the trains, I'm well on track to make it to Germany a little early. And oh man will it be good.

    Mary- Eso fue el primer vez que no estaba alla para el "roundup," como lo se llamamos. Un poco raro no estar... pero me alegre que tú estabas alla para verlo! Suerte con trabajo y todo, yo sé que no es exactamente fácil ahora. Saludos a todos!

    M-M-Fa-Fa- Sure is-- I get the impression from your grammar that you're from there? What part?

  4. Absolutely this great wall is an incredible things i had saw.
    I had gone there. The stone road is very steep and needs extra power to take a walk.
    Thanks for your comment in my post. I'll let you know to solve your problem in my post soon.
    Thanks. Good luck Joel.
    Vista SG Blog