Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Great Wall of China

We didn’t expect to visit the Great Wall of China, but that’s because we thought it was off somewhere in the middle of nowhere. In fact, a portion of it is 60 km from Beijing, and so we booked a tour through our hotel. We set off at 7:30 in the morning, only to discover we were the only Caucasians on the tour. When the guide started to speak in Chinese, I was surprised since I was sure the program had said it was an English speaking tour. Then we realized he was speaking English. We just couldn’t distinguish it from Chinese. We felt bad since the other 10 or so people had to sit through his English explanations until we learned that two of the ‘Chinese people’ were really Cambodians living in Melbourne who didn’t understand a word of Chinese either. As Thomas Friedman says “the world is flat”.

While I thought we were off to see the Great Wall, our first stop was a Jade Factory. It was very interesting seeing people sitting behind a glass screen carving away, but this is the trouble with organized tours. The guide is making a good portion of his income by taking his ‘passengers’ to different businesses where he gets a commission on whatever they purchase. We didn’t purchase any jade, but Sally did buy some ‘infinity matches’ that a young salesperson assured her will last for 20,000 strikes. (We’ve learned not to believe everything we’re told in China, ever since our visit to the art school. By the way, in case you are wondering, we did get our money back!)

After an hour, we arrived at the Great Wall of China. While I couldn’t actually see the wall, I knew we were there by the number of tour buses. We were given a choice by our tour guide. We could head west along the wall, where we would get a fabulous view, but the stairs were very steep; or we could head east, which was a much easier climb. We headed east. In most respects, I was quite impressed with what we saw. In others, I was a bit disappointed. While the view was very dramatic, a number of the amazing ancient statues along the way were being allowed to deteriorate. People were grabbing them for photos, (myself included), only to discover they were quite fragile and crumbling. I couldn’t understand why there weren’t notices warning people not to touch. After all, they were all over the Jade Store.

After our walk along the Great Wall, we reassembled at the bus and set off for lunch. I was curious to see what would be served, and still am. Other than the French fries and the beer, I didn’t recognize a thing. But it was all very good, and after a tour of the adjacent enamel factory and jewelry shops, we were on our way to the next stop…the Ming Tombs. Sally and I weren’t really interested in this, but still enjoyed being part of the tour and seeing what interested the Chinese tourists. Indeed, watching the other people was often as interesting as seeing the ‘great sights’. I particularly enjoyed watching a 7 year old girl, who could captivate everyone with her antics, and her mother who never got off her cell phone. I’m sure she was a real estate agent, although no one understood me when I tried to get this confirmed. We were also intrigued to see them enjoying a typical Chinese summer snack…peeled cucumbers. Now why don’t we do that?

On our way back, we drove by the Olympic Village which is still very much under construction. We saw the ‘Bird’s Nest’ which is being designed by a Swiss firm, and something you will see a lot of next summer. I was hoping to see the athletes’ housing but it is all wrapped in green gauze at the moment. But I can tell you that it is being promoted as very ‘sustainable’. I can also tell you that it sold for 17,000 RMB a square metre, (about $240 a sq.ft.) and re-sales have increased significantly. After our visit to the Olympic site, we stopped at a traditional teahouse where a lovely young lady told us about the attributes of different Chinese teas, and encouraged us to buy some to take home. Since we are not going home for a while, we passed, although we have been trying out all sorts of different teas since we arrived here. (Our favourite is ginger tea).

By 5 o’clock we were back at the hotel, and my new friends from the tour invited me to the third floor of our hotel for a drink. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that instead of beer, we were drinking more tea! It was all very enjoyable, even though most of them didn’t speak a word of English, and I don’t speak a word of Chinese. We communicated by doing drawings on the napkins.

As Sally and I had dinner that evening, we commented on how enjoyable it had been touring with people with whom we had very little in common. Over the course of the day, we had all become quite good friends. While it would have been easier being with a group of Americans setting off from the Hyatt, the day had been quite special. I just wish I had understood more of what our guide was trying to tell us!

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