I know my last post was a bit negative. But there are times when traveling is not fun. Having written that post, I actually feel good now. Plenty good enough to focus on the positive. Which is easy when you’ve done something you consider not just the highlight of a particular day but one of the best parts of the entire trip. It was a fun and spontaneous thing as you’ll see….
Tuesday in Beijing we woke up tired from the day before but excited at the prospect of seeing and walking on the Great Wall of China. The frustrations and disappointments of Monday were over.
One of our cell phones rang at 6:26am. I answered. It was the tour operator. He said, “Maybe we pick you up before 7:30 this morning? Yes?”
We had previously agreed on 7:30am.
“Maybe we’re ready a little before 7:30am,” I said, not wanting to rush the kids.
We dressed and ate our breakfast, then went down to the hotel lobby. The tour mini-van was waiting for us at 7:30am. We rode the bus with a 20-something Swiss couple, a young Spanish couple, and a father and son from Norway.
We had hired a tour operator to take us to the Great Wall as part of a small package that was supposed to include the Ming Tombs and the Olympic Park.
There were other stops on the schedule, including a jade factory and a silk factory. Neither of which I minded. We ended up buying some very nice souvenirs and gifts. I do understand this is the point of these stops on the tours, so that the tour hawker/hustler/operator can get a commission based on what we spend at those places. We are seen as giant dollar signs who can expel money at will. Even if by Western standards we live modestly, compared to most people in China, we are extremely wealthy.
According to the tour agenda the Great Wall was a two-and-a-half hour drive. Which it is, when you stop twice before going there.
Our first stop was the jade factory. There is no doubt about the beauty of jade and the difficulty of working with it. Real jade pieces, even in China, are expensive. At the factory you could buy pieces as small as earrings (like Stephanie did) to life-sized lions which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I think the lion would look awesome on our front lawn back in Michigan.
After we were given a chance to buy things in the factory store, we were ushered back into the mini-van. To the Great Wall? No, to the Ming Tombs. The emperors of the Ming Dynasty had themselves buried in a beautiful elaborate setting on the sides of a few mountains.
Meredith decided to play hide-and-seek from the camera.
Then it was back into the mini-van.
Even we, who had so far avoided the stereotypical death-defying tourist bus drive during our time here, were not to leave China without being subjected to one. We got ours on the drive from the Ming Tombs to the Great Wall.
In the hour-long drive there were dozens of near-death experiences as the bus wound its way up the mountains at speeds far exceeding reason. We passed every car we saw on the road. Each turn was attacked by the driver with the intensity of a pro-bowl linebacker blitzing a quarterback.
Henry was not happy about the drive. He sat cowering between me and my wife. Our daughter Meredith, who had been prodding and poking her brother, got put next to the window, separated from Henry by Stephanie. She proceeded to put her face out the open window and shout “weee!” and “awwwwwwwww!” My wife had to keep telling her to keep her hands and face inside the van.
Now, my wife Stephanie gets motion-sick under far less dramatic circumstances. With the way the driver was going, I thought she was going to have to pull Meredith aside and stick her head out the window and puke. Thankfully, she didn’t have to do that.
The Norwegian father took out his video camera and filmed some of the drive, particularly the times when we burst past other vehicles.
After we arrived at the parking lot outside the entrance to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, Stephanie found the nearest curb and sat with her head between her knees. Henry wouldn’t even look at her, hiding behind a car. He was afraid she was going to puke.
Meredith was oblivious.
It took Stephanie a good 10 minutes to get to where she felt she could stand without feeling woozy.
Meanwhile our tour operator had led the rest of the group up to the Wall Entrance. He came back wondering where we were and why we hadn’t gone up with the rest of the group. I explained that my wife was sick. He wasn’t fazed and proceeded to lead us to the entrance.
Henry and I had to make a pit stop and use the public toilets. I don’t care about squat toilets. They don’t bother me or make me squeamish. What I do care about is the lack of toilet paper when I have to do Number 2. There wasn’t any toilet paper. The main dispenser at the entrance to the toilet was empty. Good thing we carry baby wipes with us at all times.
We had to fend off the usual hawkers who lined the path up to the entrance to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.
The tour operator guided us through the entrance (included with the tour price) and then to the cableway, which I thought was the gondola pictured on the wall opposite the ticket booth.
After carrying Meredith up to Sun Yet-Sen’s Mausoleum, I was not going to carry her up the side of a mountain to the top of the Great Wall of China. I knew there would be plenty of carrying once we were on the Great Wall.
At the ticket window we asked would we be able to take the kids on the toboggan slide down the mountain? No. They were too small. So we would take the cableway up and down.
That was a shame. Because the toboggan slide looked very cool. It was one of the reasons I had suggested we go to the Mutianyu section. There other reasons were that it was less-filled with tourists and had beautiful scenery.
Oh well. We bought what we thought were round-trip tickets for the gondola. Only it wasn’t the gondola, nice and enclosed and safe for small children. No. It was the ski lift.
Have you taken a four-year-old on a ski lift? I hadn’t before. Nor would I have recommended it. Not a four-year-old who could easily squirm her way through and off and fall to her death. That’s what we rode up and down to the Great Wall of China.
That picture was taken on the way down. On the way up, she sat with me and I had an arm wrapped all the way around her. I got over my fear about the ski lift and focused on what we were about to do: walk around on the Great Wall of China.
The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, though farther than the more popular Badaling section, provides views of ample beauty. We were not disappointed.
We walked around for about an hour. The kids ate lollipops bought from one of the many sellers on the wall. Lollipops are not the only thing you can buy. You can buy water, pop, and even beer. I think the lollipops were 10 yuan for the two. Outrageous by Chinese standards. But then someone had to haul them up there.
The highlight of the day for me was something spontaneous. It started with a young man. My wife, kids, and I were standing atop one of the guard towers with several other tourists. A young man started doing dance poses and had his family take pictures.
Henry said he thought it was silly.
I said you only live once. How many people can say they danced on the Great Wall of China?
Then I got an idea. I grabbed Stephanie and said I want to kiss my wife on the Great Wall of China. Meredith, who we had been letting take a picture or two with our big 35mm camera, said she wanted to take the picture.
We handed the camera to Meredith, hanging the strap around her neck. My wife and I put our arms around each other and kissed. Meredith aimed and shot with the camera.
I would show you all the picture Meredith took. It’s quite good, centered and in-focus. But it’s just for us. I’m not even going to post it to Facebook. It’s too personal. Too precious. When we get back to the States I’m going have it printed and framed.
I kissed my wife on the Great Wall of China!
When we were done walking around, we headed back to the ski lift. Only, we didn’t have a tickets for the ride down. What we had bought were not round-trip tickets. I had to shell out another 100 Yuan for us to ride down. Grumble, grumble….
You can see the toboggan slide here. It’s my view from the ski lift ride down.
The Norwegians were late to lunch because the line for the toboggan slide was long, and they got stuck behind several people who went very slowly down the slide. But they said it was worth it to say they rode a toboggan slide down from the Great Wall of China.
When we got to the bottom of the ski lift, we bought a handful of souvenirs from the hawkers and then met the rest of our group for lunch at the restaurant where our tour operator had told us to go. Mr. Yang’s was a two-story restaurant filled with loawai tourists. The food, which was good, was included as part of the tour price. Though we had to buy our own drinks.
While we ate, Stephanie began to worry about the ride down the mountain, wondering if she should risk eating much if at all.
The ride down the mountain and back to Beijing was far better than the ride up. The driver with Formula One Dreams got stuck behind a line of a half-dozen cars until we reached the highway. Which meant we had to move at a normal speed, one which didn’t make my wife motion sick.
The kids leaned against us and fell asleep. They slept for most of the hour-long trip to our next stop. The Europeans all nodded off, heads periodically lolling down then snapping back up.
Next stop was the silk factory, the Beijing XinAo DongWu Silk Company.
Once we got there, the young Swiss couple took off. They said they had done enough for the day and wanted to get back to their hotel because they were returning home the next day. They had been traveling for a few weeks. We had talked to them at lunch. Turns out they had come to Beijing a few days before from a tour of North Korea. They told us how strange the weird it was, and how the government checked all of their cameras before they left to make sure they hadn’t taken any unofficial photos.
So they hired a taxi and left.
Having already toured the No. 1 Silk Factory in Suzhou, my wife, kids, and I knew what to expect as far as the process. But honestly, the process is still pretty amazing. Stephanie and I had a few questions, and unlike at the factory in Suzhou, our guide Michelle was more than happy to answer them. I wanted to know how long ago the Chinese started using silk to make clothing and other things. She said over 5000 years. I said, wow.
We spent some money there. We were feeling in need of some Retail Therapy. But my wife and I also wanted to get something for us. Something special we would have for a long time. So we blew our budget and bought a silk-lined comforter for our bed, a silk cover for the comforter, and matching pillow sleeves. It was a lot, but far far less than what we would pay in the US.
When we got outside the factory, Henry wanted to sit down. He seemed lethargic. We sat on the steps and I felt his forehead. He was warm, fever warm. I told Stephanie and we talked it over. We assumed we were nearly done, that we had one more stop, at the Olympic Park, and then back to our hotel. We figured one more stop would be okay.
But it wasn’t one more stop. The next stop wasn’t the Olympic Park. It was a tea house, where we were given a demonstration of tea-making and got to sample some teas (all excellent). But we did not buy any tea.
Okay, we thought, so now the Olympic Park and we’re done.
Oh, no. Not at all.
We got in the mini-van and it wound its way around and then down a main thoroughfare and then off onto a side road and then off onto what was a block-long driveway to some building.
Everyone gets a free foot massage according to our tour operator. At this point, we say the hell with this. We have a sick kid who needs to go back to the hotel, eat, and rest.
My wife told the guy that our son had a fever and we needed to leave. Why didn’t you tell me before? he said.
My wife replied, because we thought we were heading back to the hotel.
This will be 30 minutes he tells us, then pictures at another place, then back to the hotel.
At this point, it was just after 5pm and there are too many additional things on the schedule. So we told him we were going to get a taxi back to our hotel.
“It is customary to tip your guide 30, 40 yuan,” he suddenly told me.
I gave him 30.
“For each person,” he said.
I turned and kept walking.
We made it to a main street and began the patience-testing process of hailing a taxi in Beijing. One stopped and we all got in. I started waving around money and showed the driver our hotel’s address. Because it’s after 5pm, that means it’s Rush Hour and we are going to spend a fair amount of time sitting in traffic. She looked the card all around as if she had never seen the address for a hotel that’s so close to the Forbidden City, like she didn’t know how to get there. (Why do all taxi drivers in Beijing do this?)
Well, she drove us to our hotel and we gave her a fat tip out of pure relief that she hadn’t refused us and that we were no longer on the Tour of Indefinite Stops.