The tour of the Great Wall cost about $40 US dollars. It included breakfast at the hostel and lunch after the tour. Our vegetarian breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, a hash brown, toast and a shiny white triangle of cheese. “Do you think it’s good?” Nicole asked, pointing to the cheese.
“No. That’s how the cheese is in Korea too. It sucks. More like plastic than food.”
“Well can you try it and tell me how it tastes,” she asked.
“No, I don’t want it. It looks gross and probably tastes like shit.”
She looked sadly at her cheese and then back at me. “Jerry would try it for me.”
“Well sorry I’m not your boyfriend. If you want to try it, taste it yourself.”
“Nah. I’ll just stick to the eggs…. Did you try them yet?”
We boarded the bus and sat across the aisle from two German men. As our bus bumped along from hostel to hostel, picking up more tourists, we alternated between chatting with the Germans and napping.
As we pulled to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, our tour guide stood to speak to us. She had a colorful dress on and a sweaty face full of makeup. “There is a saying in China,” she told us. “‘You are not a real man until you climb the Great Wall. You are foolish, but at least you are a real man’.”
The bus finally came to a stop. Nicole, who gets a motion sickness, was anxious to leave. “I’ve gotta get off this bus. It smells like hot,” she had said. We left the bus expecting the same sweltering heat that we’d been experiencing, but the weather by the Great Wall was much more tolerable than the city part of Bejing. It was merely really hot, rather than unbearably hot.
We walked through markets filled with slightly nicer junk than the crap we’d previously seen for sale. The merchants were grabby and pushy. One lady spoke to Nicole and me, saying, “I will give you the best prices. You like Chinese shirts? Best prices here. Take my business card.” And she gave Nicole a little piece of cardboard where she’d written her name and booth number. Classy.
“We’ll stop back here after we go to the wall,” I promised.
There were two ways to go up: hiking or riding a sky glider. Also there were two ways to go down: hiking or sliding down a luge. We opted for both easy ways.
Once we reached the top we could wander left or right. We met a slightly annoying Canadian who seemed to want to tag along with us. She said she was going to the right, so we went left. Sometimes you just want to be alone with your friend.
We hiked up and down miniature steps, each stone perfectly set in place with the others. Nicole paused often to stick her head out of the notches in the walls to catch a breeze on her face.
Occasionally the wall was interrupted by a little stone hut. The huts provided shade, and wind rushed through the windows, cooling off any people inside. Nicole lingered in each one that we walked through.
We were standing on the rooftop of a stone hut when a man approached us. “Excuse me, can you take a picture?” He was looking at Nicole.
“Sure!” She hopped up and reached for his camera.
“No, I mean, with you,” he said.
“Oh, um. Okay.” He handed me the camera as they turned to pose.
“Wow, your English is really good,” he said to her.
“Um, thanks? I’m from Milwaukee.”
“Oh really? I’m from California,” he said. He babbled away, trying to gain some sort of charm to cover his idiot remark while I smirked behind his camera. Douchebag American…
Along the way we found a white butterfly. Nicole picked it up. Then it flew to my shoe and settled there. She picked it off of my shoe and gently pushed him outside the wall. He flew in a little loop and landed back on my shoe. “He’s my fwiend!” I said. A little Chinese girl saw him and walked towards us hands extended. We nudged the butterfly and he flew to her shoe. She slowly walked along, glowing.
Later we saw another bug… a dead centipede that was about four inches long. We’d seen the same kind the day before on sticks in the market. Disgusting. The next centipede we saw was using all his little legs to run around the corners on the wall. “Run fast, bug,” Nicole said. “Someone might eat you.”
We took countless pictures of the wall stretching past us and into the hills, and we took pictures of each other. It reminded both of us of our trip to Peru and visiting Machu Picchu. And as much as we loved seeing these massive stone structures, going to see them came with a price. Cusco had stunk like urine, and Beijing stunk of filth, garbage and burning flesh. To make it to a gorgeous landmark, it seemed you had to survive a stinky city.
As we walked along, we passed several people who’d been on the bus with us. Everyone seemed to be in their 20’s and for the most part either on vacation from home (Europeans who were happy to have a strong currency) or on vacation from teaching English in Korea.
We saw the Germans along the wall. They were drenched in sweat. “Oh wow, you guys definitely hiked up, huh,” I said.
“Yes, and look wat happened,” one said. He pointed to his shorts. In the thigh/groin area there was a rather large rip. “It tore when I wus hiking.” We stared, perhaps a bit too long, at the flesh beneath the hole. He wasn’t quite exposed, but he was certainly in dangerous territory for a boy with no underwear on.
“Wow, good luck to ya,” I said.
After a few hours of hiking out, we hit a major uphill area. “Do you really want to keep going?” asked Nicole.
“Ah, I’d be good with heading back. I kinda want to get some souvenirs here before lunch.” We rode down the luge, stopping periodically because the Asian woman in front of us was afraid of going fast. She braked constantly.
Back by the markets we were sucked into the tourist traps. I bartered for some coasters while Nicole bartered for a fan. I joined her and argued with the arm-grabbing vender who breathed rotten air in our faces as she yelled, “hand painted! Very special!” We wound up getting fans for 60 Yuen each (about $11 US dollars). The vender acted pissed off for selling them so low, but as soon as she sold them. She was all smiles again. “Do you see anything else you like? You buy more please?” We later saw the same fans for sale for 10 Yuen each. We’d definitely been had.
A few arguments later, we were ready for lunch. I’d bought some wall hangings (handmade) a fan (handmade), coasters (handmade) and a t-shirt that boldly stated “I ♥ BJ.” Nicole even bought some fruit. ‘Handmade’ apples, imagine that. Nicole and I went to the restaurant with our souvenirs. We sat at a table with eight other people. The food dishes were placed in the center of the table, which was a separate, smaller glass circle than the table itself. The inner circle could spin, rotating the food from person to person. There was an endless supply of white rice along with other goopy side dishes, some of which were vegetarian. Aside from being greasy, it wasn’t bad. “This looks just like Chinese take-out in America looks,” Nicole said.
Turns out, America imitates correctly.
One girl sitting beside Nicole had an American accent. She was from California. Her friend was clearly not American, as she spoke with a nearly-German tone to her voice. “Where are you from?” Nicole asked.
“Ooooh. I was thinking you had a strange American accent. Like, are you from Michigan?” The girl flinched as soon as Nicole said ‘American.’ I kind of did too. Half the people at the table laughed sincerely, half laughed uncomfortably. Nicole cackled happily and saw me squirming. “Anna, am I embarrassing you?”
“Nah,” I lied.
After lunch we boarded the bus again. We sat across from the Germans who now were wearing matching new blue Chinese trousers. “Wow! Nice purchase,” I said.
The one who’d previously ripped his pants spoke up. “My shoarts ripped even moare so I had to buy sometheen to cover myself.”
The other, taller German spoke up. “Yes, and then I found a much betteh deal than him, so I bought a paiw too. I figuae tomowow I can weah them to the mahket when I shop so they will think I am Chinese. Then I’ll get cheaper pwices. I will say to them, ‘you twied to twick me.’ And I’ll roll up my shirt and slap my belly.”
Nicole and I laughed. “You twied to twick me!” Nicole repeated, imitating his speech impediment. “You twied to twick me.” After a few more minutes of talking it hit Nicole that his lack of r’s were consistent. She turned to me and whispered, “hey, Anna… I think that guy can’t say his r’s.”
“Oh my God! I’m an idiot! I thought he was just mimicking Chinese people and I thought it was really funny so I kept repeating him.”
“Yeah, Nicole, you’re kinda an asshole.”
“Why can’t I do anything right. First the Austrian girl, now this…” After that Nicole was determined to make a good impression. She needed to establish a common ground. After listening to me speak to the Germans about cola-weissen (Weiss beer with coke) and the Berlin wall, Nicole put in her two cents. “My dog is German.”
“Yes. His name is Deisel.”
“Like Vin Diesel?”
“Yes. Vaughn Dieshul.” She Germanified the name.
“Ahhh! Okay,” they said.
We arrived back at our hostel and decided to nap. It was Saturday night, so we wanted to go out, but only after a much deserved rest.
We woke up, got dolled up, and went to the hostel’s bar. We drank wine and played cards. Nicole left to make a phone call, and by the time she returned, I was playing jenga with the other travelers in our hostel. It was drinking jenga, and were I not a jenga master, I would have been worried at the thought of having to buy ten shots. In the end, a jenga virgin knocked over the stack and had to pay about $20 for ten shots. So apparently in China, it’s cheaper to buy a round of shots than a shitty fan.
All the foreigners collectively decided to hit up the bars. We piled in three cabs and headed for the bars. “Never take a cab without a meter,” one veteran to Chinese travel told me. I thought back to my initial cab ride to the hostel. I’d paid about $20 for a ride that should have cost maybe $5. It was fifteen unnecessarily-spent bucks that I’d never get back.
We found a bar with outdoor seating and hookahs. Nicole and I settled in with two lone male travelers and some minty tobacco. I used the bathroom before leaving, and found a dirty squatter toilet in the ladies room. I had come prepared with hand sanitizer, as most Korean bathrooms were sans-soap and I’d assumed the same from China. “Hey, the toilet is a squatter, just so you know,” I said to Nicole as I squeezed some Purell into my hand.
“Ugh, you mean those floor toilets? I saw one of those before you got here and I thought I was in the men’s bathroom. And I was about to walk out except that there was another woman in there. She pointed to the toilet and nodded but I wasn’t about to go in that thing.”
“You’ve never used a squatter?”
“You say that like it’s normal to use them! No, I’ve never used a squatter.”
“I guess I got used to ‘em in Africa. At least the ones here are porcelain and flush, not just a hole in the ground.”
More of our hostel crew came walking up the street and joined us at our table. We finished our drinks together and moved along. The street was clearly a bar street. Various food smells and colored lights poured from each building to the street. We went in clubs and back out to the street. Eventually Nicole and I split off.
We were ready to head in for the night. We were walking down an alley filled with cigarette stands and midnight treats (more meat on sticks) when we ran into some Frenchmen and a French woman. “How do you like Beijing?” One of them asked.
“Um, it’s a hard place to travel but the big wall was really cool and…” I started to try to represent my feelings accurately and tactfully.
“Beijing SUCKS,” said the woman. Nicole started laughing. “It smells like shit and nothing is pretty here. It sucks.”
“Oh my God,” said Nicole. “You are the French version of me! I keep feeling like a pregnant woman because I can smell absolutely EVERYTHING!”
We joined our new French friends on their way to a dance club. It was a long, sobering walk, followed by a hefty cover charge, but inside was swanky and dark and mazelike. Each room had different music, lights and atmosphere. We mingled and danced for hours. When it was time to go, we left the dance club and stepped into the morning. 7 a.m. above ground, and the club had still been bumping. Beijing’s nightlife was crazy active.
(written in 2010)