Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Day 4 – You’re not a great man until you've climbed the Great Wall!

At least, that’s what the Chinese say.  More accurately, that’s what my guide, Tony, claims the Chinese say.  As I didn't splurge on the bamboo plaque certifying that I am a great man for climbing the wall, you’ll have to take my word for it.  Besides, we all know the truth... I don’t need some plaque telling me I am great. ;)  It is INCREDIBLE!!!! (The Wall, not the plaque.) The Great Wall got my heart racing, and it wasn't just the stairs!

Lovers “lock up” their love to one another then throw the keys into the valley below.  Environmentally sound?  No.  Romantic?  Yes. J

At its peak, the length of the wall was over 10 000km.  Over 6000km remain today….so, Randy, your measly 42km doesn’t impress me!  In all seriousness, having tackled the portion I did today, I have new respect for the Great Wall marathon.  1600 rough hewn steps to climb the section where I was, some of which are so worn away by years (centuries) of feet and weather as to be rounded and even more treacherous.  At one point, to climb up a watch tower, I was literally using all fours to prevent myself from…..experiencing Chinese healthcare. (More on that later!)  The rugged mountain landscapes and the ancient stonework are awe inspiring, and I was giddy with excitement as we arrived today.  As soon as I knew the allotted time and meeting place – and tolerated a perfunctory group photo – I was bounding up the stairs!  Not really surprisingly, I was moving faster than anyone else in my tour (a broad spectrum ranging from retirees to young folks, some of whom are runners, but none of whom seem to have my affinity for running up hills!); I didn’t mind that I haven’t made particularly close friends in this group, and so didn’t feel compelled to wait for anyone.  As a result, I covered easily twice as much ground as the most adventurous of the rest of them, and saw some pretty incredible things along the way: ancient cannons, assorted buildings along the wall, and a “Chinese toilet”. (I did not take a photo of the latter.  To give you context, our guide explained that to use a Chinese toilet, you have to first watch a Chinese movie: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  The “crouching” part is easy enough to imagine – it is a hole in the floor.  The hidden dragon?  Maybe that’s the putrid smell, or the smears of waste surrounding the hole….  I understood why our guide also explained that you don’t need eyes to find a Chinese public toilet.  Just follow your nose. Ugh!)

(Not a Chinese toilet)

(I actually climbed 1600 stairs twice – once from each side of the peak tower.)

(I didn’t actually climb these stairs – this was the view across the valley.  With more time, I could have followed the top of the wall to here and beyond.)

To the north of the Wall is Inner Mongolia.  That is, the Mongolia that is actually part of China today.  Consequently, the current wall divides China from…China.  Watch towers are built every 200m along the wall.  Back in the day, an archer could fire about 100m.  Coincidence?  I think not…

Looking out in either direction as I stood on the wall, I saw an endless expanse of mountains and forests.  I can’t imagine how bleak, hostile, and terrifying it would have been to be stationed at one of these forts, let alone “commuting” to one’s assigned tower on those steep stairs in heavy armour. (Which probably only felt heavy until the enemy came into view, at which point it wouldn’t feel robust enough!)

On the way down from the peak, I came upon a kindly retired Aussie on my tour who was ambling down the steep stairs.  At first I slowed just to chat – he is friendly, and I was impressed at a man his age tackling the full climb!  He had been to the wall some thirty years ago, and pointed out that the “endless forests” are planted in rows.  They weren’t there when he was last here. As we proceeded down, I started to realize I couldn’t in good faith leave Kevin and go on ahead…occasionally he’d stumble on a step (he always caught himself, but I was afraid he might not).  I did insist that “we” stop to catch “our” breath a couple of times.  Of course, I think he was getting a real kick out of the fact that halfway down, we were passing people less than half his age on their way up who were being defeated by the climb. J

I should clarify that we didn’t start the day with the Wall.  We started with a quick stop at the Beijing Olympic Park.  Oh, so cool!!

Um… “Mara hon”?

After Olympic Park we visited a jade factory.  While this was, in some ways, another shameless effort to encourage us to buy things (I’m inclined to think there is a kick-back arrangement with the tour company with all these stores), it was reasonably interesting.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the carvers do their work…..without masks, gloves, glasses, or any apparent safety equipment!  Ignoring WSIB concerns…

…there were some incredible pieces, each carved from a single (yes, multicolour in some cases) hunk of stone. (The price tag on the boat, which was about 6 feet tall, converts to about $65 000 CDN.)

Did I mention that craftsman does this work 14 hours per day?  By the way, that’s a good segue for one of the many jokes our guide foisted upon us, when legitimately warning us about street vendors.  Lots of street vendors try to sell Rolex watches.  Tony explained that a $5 Rolex watch works for 5 days…and keeps 26 hours per day.  That’s why Chinese people are such hard workers – because the managers all have 26 hour per day Rolex watches!  Tony also told us that while a shirt from the stores will last a good long while, a shirt from a street vendor will last for three generations!!  First, you wear it.  Then you wash it, and it shrinks, so you give it to your child.  Then you wash it again, it shrinks again, and you give it to a baby.  Three generations!

After the Wall we stopped at the China Academy of Chinese Medicine.  Conceived by General Mao to serve the highest ranking Party officials, this academy retains the top status of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) training facilities in China.  I believe in TCM.  I think that western medicine has some major gaps and the holistic approach of TCM addresses health in a sensible and intelligent manner.  However, this little session did more to make TCM seem like – in the words of one of my fellow travelers – “a complete con”.  Five TCM physicians (with both MD training and 7 years in TCM training) circulated among the group of us for anyone who was interested in an assessment.  I was curious. (I recognize that communicating through an interpreter in a crowd of people is clearly going to impede the proper engagement, but a 20 second assessment and diagnosis doesn’t lend much credibility under any circumstances.)

TCM Doc: (Taking pulse of my left wrist à right wrist reveals other things) How old are you?
Me: 32
TCM Doc: Stick out your tongue. (I do, and he makes a face of disgust) Your body is having trouble detoxifying.  Do you ever have flatulence?
Me: Um…sometimes.
TCM Doc: Do you have trouble sleeping sometimes, and other times sleep comes easily?
Me: Um…yes…That’s a pretty open ended question.
TCM Doc: You have an imbalance between your liver and kidneys.  This can lead to cancer.  I suggest you focus on detoxifying your body and you will sleep better.
Me: How would I do that?
TCM Doc: I can give you medicine.
Me: What medicine?
TCM Doc: It’s all natural.  It’s ok.
Me: I’m not comfortable taking something if I don’t know what it is…
TCM Doc: I can write you a prescription?
Me: Um….no thank-you.

At which point the TCM Doc turned to my neighbor to ask if he wanted an assessment.  He declined.  I later learned that other folks amongst my group were paying around 450 USD for the medicine prescribed on the spot.  One fellow was asked for 3700 USD, and when he balked at that, the TCM Doc reduced the duration of the treatment (so it cost around 450 USD – the apparent going rate), but asked that his new patient email if he wants to continue.  All in all, though, it was still worth going.  I got a 40-minute Chinese reflexology session out of it! (Not as good as Mr. Yeung at Kelly’s, as my reflexologist was a bored-looking student, but still good.)

Finally, the famed Peking Duck for dinner!  It wasn’t great, but according to one of my tour-mates, it wasn’t very good Peking Duck. 

My day concluded with the usual excursion to Starbucks for internet access (it’s rather expensive in my room), where one of the Partners (I am currently reading How Starbucks Saved My Life, so I know the lingo) asked if I would come back often.  She wanted me to help her learn English.  Sadly, I explained I am leaving Beijing the day after tomorrow.  If I were staying here for the rest of my trip, I would have great fun teaching her English and learning some Chinese along the way!  The difference between being a pure tourist (waltzing through the key attractions and moving on) and actually staying in one place to soak up the culture….too bad. On that note, I am very much looking forward to the “real” (old) Beijing tomorrow!

P.S. On the bus back from the Great Wall, I pulled out a bottle of fruit juice, opened it up, and……..weird.  It didn’t taste bad, but there was certainly an unexpected flavor in there.  What could be so different about Chinese fruit juice?  As I couldn’t exactly read the ingredients, I peered at the images on the label: assorted berries, an apple….normal things in a dark red fruit juice. Sip……weird, there it is again!  Is that….tomato???? (Yes, that’s “to-mah-to”.)  So that isn’t an apple on the label.  I suppose it is a fruit.

P.P.S. Still on the bus near the Great Wall…. I recall some years ago, I laughed at a motorcyclist I saw somewhere in the U.S., riding on a highway without a helmet?  I found it so funny that I shared the photo.  Really, what could be more ridiculous?

Looks like the kid might be wearing a helmet, at least. 

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