Wednesday, December 03, 2008

12.2.08 GREAT WALL

If I'm being honest, I really wasn't that excited about seeing the Great Wall of China, as compared to other sights planned for the trip. It's probably because the only other "wonder of the world" I've seen--Stonehenge--was a little underwhelming. Pile of rocks. Whoop-de-do. However, low expectations have served me well in the past and yesterday was no exception.

Seth was kind enough to take the "easy route" with me, while most of the group took the "challenging route," and holy crap, I was so glad because the easy route nearly killed me. It really IS a wonder how this thing was built, because it winds over the top of the craggidiest mountain peaks I've ever seen. (Craggidiest? You know, very craggy.) The workmen obviously didn't have the benefit of the ski lift that we took 3/4 of the way up! Ammy told us that at a time when the population of China was 5 million, 4 million people were working on the wall.

One of the amazing things about visiting in wintertime, during an economic crunch, is the relative lack of other tourists. In this case, we had one of China's greatest attractions almost entirely to ourselves. Our only other companion on the entire ski lift in either direction was our trip-mate, Joan, a 48-year-old mother of two from Scotland who recently put her daughters through college, sold her house, and is now on a year-long trip around the world. Go, Joan!

The lift ride was breathtaking for its beauty, with bright-blue sky capping seemingly endless miles of ancient brick ahead of us and an almost ethereal purple mountain range to our rear. The only mar to the scenery was poor Seth, whose face was turning a disturbing shade of green while we swung tenuously in our little metal cart high above the rocky landing pad.

We made it to the top, Seth managed to keep his breakfast inside his stomach, and the climb began. Admittedly, after the first several flights of stone steps and rocky inclines, my old-lady hip tried to convince me to be satisfied with viewing the wall from a distance, but I'm glad I didn't listen. Actually, it was pretty good teamwork. I helped Seth calm down after the cable car ride, Joan and Seth encouraged me to get to the top, and Seth and I aided Joan--who happens to be afraid of heights--on the way down.

(It really is pretty great.)

The wall is actually a series of stone towers, strung together by pathways with walls on either side. The towers were used both as shooting/guard posts and as means by which to send smoke signals all the way across China (Think Lord of the Rings.) We made our way between about six of the towers and then hiked all the way down, rather than putting Seth through the cable car experience again.

Now, the downside of being the only tourists is that we were also a magnet for the aggressive tchotchke vendors. We were warned that locals would approach us on the wall and "befriend" us in order to eventually suck us dry via useless Great Wall memorabilia. We did meet three such ladies on the way up and, being the only tourists in sight, we literally had no way to avoid them without jumping off into inner Mongolia. In the end, however, communicating with them turned out to be one of the most interesting parts of the trip. Their English was limited (they were not educated but actually learned just through speaking with tourists) but they were able to convey a lot of interesting info about the wall and to help us navigate the trickier bits. They walked with us for the better part of an hour, and hey! We needed some postcards anyway. :-)

The part of the wall we were on was "only" about 600 years old, and probably my favorite image of the day's journey is of Seth videoblogging with his new Flipcam atop this structure three times older than the United States. How China is that?! The very, very old meets the very, very new on a sunny afternoon.

(Seth vlogging on the Great Wall)

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