Want to start reading at the beginning of the trip? Click here.
North Of Beijing, Oct. 17
Before we got to the Great Wall of China, Jack warned us about the vendors. We were to climb a distance from the bus park to the gondola that would take us to the top of the mountain, and he said the vendor gauntlet along this path was particularly intense.
The vendor gauntlet is particularly intense at the Great Wall, but every hawker seems to be selling the same three ugly T-shirts that proclaim, “I Climbed the Great Wall.”
There are street vendors almost everywhere that tourists go in China, hawking hats, postcards, T-shirts, and a bizarre panoply of cheaply made souvenirs from Mao hats and medals to Amish-style quilts. If you make the slightest eye contact with the seller or cast a sidelong glance at the goods, they’re all over you—and will follow you for many paces, reciting their goods and prices, which always get lower as you walk away. “Postcard, one dollar,” a hawker will start, waving a pack of 8-10 postcards. As you pass by, the postcards will be thrust in your face and the price repeated, often with an adjective or question such as, “Very nice postcard, one dollar. You buy?” Avert your eyes and walk on, and the price instantly drops: “Hey sir, very nice, two for dollar.”
Except in the government-run “official” tourist stores (selling mostly Olympics goods) and higher-end shops, you can bargain for just about anything in China. My new Mao Zedong watch started at 20 USD and got knocked down to 5. I could have driven it even lower by feigning my departure, but there comes a point where the whole thing becomes embarrassing. The watch is a piece of junk as far as timepieces go, but the chairman waves his right arm once a second, as if exhorting the cadres, and the second hand has a bright little red star that circles Mao once a minute. The downside is that you have to wind it every four hours, but who’s counting?
I have bargained for postcards, seven-packs of Tsingtao (5 USD), fried dough, Diet Coke, and dried fish. American dollars are useful, but many vendors prefer Chinese yuan because of the proliferation of counterfeit foreign money, most of it printed right here in China. The exchange rate is about 7 yuan to the dollar, so it helps to be able divide by seven. I just think, “Seventy is $10” and extrapolate up or down from there. One night in Beijing, seven of us left the usual tourist streets and had dinner at a place that segregated us into a private dining room, served us a great meal with beer all around, and presented us with a bill for 176 yuan. Do the math.
Getting to the Great Wall from the bus was easy. None of the vendors expect you to buy on the way up. But they tout their wares as you trudge up the steep slope to the cable car, saying, “Remember me.” Rest assured that if you have paid the slightest attention to anything, they remember you.
The gondola ride was swift and exciting, and in about three minute, we were just a short climb from the wall. It was about 10:30, and the morning haze was just starting to burn off, promising a fine day. One Swarthmore traveler described the Great Wall as “preposterous,” and it was. How did this thing get here? It seemed almost like one of those conceptual art pieces by Christo, except this is permanent—and 2,000 miles long.
The gondola ride was swift and steep. We caught our first glimpse of the wall from the gondola, high on the ridge above.
We had about 90 minutes to explore. I got as far as the third blockhouse west of our entrance point. There were a lot of visitors on the wall that morning, but it wasn’t too crowded. It was such a privilege to be there that we were all pinching ourselves and exclaiming with awe. I still cannot believe that I was there, but I took these pictures, except the one that proves it.
At an elevation of about 2,000 feet, the trees were just beginning to turn. Quite pretty foliage—and oh, there’s this big wall that seems to have no beginning or end.
A magazine cover if I ever saw one.
Or maybe this one? The word “Swarthmore” will fit nicely in the upper right, don’t you think?
I made it to the second blockhouse shown in this photo before time ran out and I had to turn around. It was such a fine day that I could have tramped the wall for hours.
Pinch me. I’m standing on the Great Wall of China.
I think this guy with the flag was hired to make everyone’s pictures more colorful.
There is a blockhouse about every quarter mile.
The gauntlet again, this time on the way down.
On the way down from the gondola, I tried turning the tables on the vendors. I had brought some Swarthmore College postcards to give to people I met, so I tucked two in the cargo pocket in my shorts. When a postcard vendor approached me, I looked at what she was selling, then reached in my pocket. “American postcard,” I said, showing her one of Parrish Hall and another of the Scott Amphitheater. “Two for a dollar.” She looked puzzled until she realized what I was doing. Then she smiled and went on trying to sell her cards to me as if nothing had happened. It was a perverse game, so I stopped after the first try, but I managed to get down the hill with only one purchase in my hand—a Diet Coke. One dollar.