The Wall May Knock Your Socks Off …




… but I know where you can buy more. I land in Beijing and pass through an eerily vacant airport, just the one flight arrived. No lines at immigration. Just zipped on through to baggage. In no time I was on the express train into the city. The area outside Beijing is a bit of a wasteland and apparently the city can fall victim to the occasional sandstorm. The first thing I saw outside the airport was a big frozen pond. And a man sitting at the edge of it. With a hole cut in the ice… Fishing??? You’ve got to be kidding me. I come halfway round the world from Wisconsin and the first thing I see is an ICE FISHERMAN?!? And on the TV on the train is a sports channel. China is taking on Korea in… curling. Of course. (We had a curling club in Marshfield, Wisconsin and maybe still do.) China was up 2 to 1 after the second end.

Beijing didn’t impress me much, but to be fair I was stuck in the developed zone where tall buildings were spread around with Starbucks, KFC, McDonald’s and glitzy malls. It wasn’t until my last day there that I discovered a street of food vendors and the market atmosphere I would have expected, but tucked in between two towering developments. For me Beijing felt like a city without a center. For a friend of mine it was open and endless, a very positive experience. Both takes have merit depending on your mood or taste. The pollution, however, is really something. The sun goes red like a sunset while still quite high in the sky.

Thanks to an educational consultant/agent I had met in Hong Kong, I had a driver for half a day just after I arrived and I was able to sneak off to see the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass. You can now take a train out there, otherwise it’s about an hour drive out of the city. The wall climbs the mountains steeply there and it is not a modest hike. Warnings are posted for people with “heart or brain disease” to climb according to their abilities. It’s March so still low season, so the crowds are far less than normal. I have been told that during the high season it is better to go just a bit farther out to the Badaling section to avoid the tour buses a bit and see the best preserved example. But in March, maybe it doesn’t matter much. It is still too cold and patches of snow lie tucked along the inside of the Wall. Was it all I expected? Yes, but I would go far away from the city next time and hike a good distance to be alone with the wind and the wall. It’s an astonishing structure.

The Forbidden City requires a full day to fully explore or a couple hours just to walk across. It’s located just across the street from another famous site: Tiananmen Square.

For me, growing up in the 70s and 80s, it is a bit of a thrill to think this was that place once demonized in textbooks. China was my generation’s North Korea, a radical place, a political loose cannon capable of what exactly we didn’t know, but whatever it was, it was horrible. Now I can get Starbuck’s at every other corner and I find the soldiers and guards to be good photo opps. My, how times change.

Along the streets near my hotel (Jinglun Hotel) there are pushy vendors, men with watches, women with socks. In a nearby market a walk through the aisles is a steady barrage of hawkers tugging at my sleeve or elbow, “Cashmere for your wife? Shoes? Pants? Socks?” Not my favorite travel experience. The women with the socks are aggressive in the street and practically follow you all the way down the street. “9 socks! Good price! Very cheap! SOOOOOOOOOCKS!!!!” I find myself half running to get away.

Walking back from dinner one night, my friend Alan and I saw someone moving toward us from the side. “Keep looking forward. Maybe I should pretend I am Turkish. Nobody would know Turkish here.” (A previous attempt to throw out Spanish revealed a few people at the market knew it. Damn.) The woman came up on us pretty fast, cutting us off, and touting her wares. Here we go again… and then I stopped. I turned and looked at her hands. Nothing there. “What did you say???” She repeated. It wasn’t “socks” but it was close. So much for subtlety. Sometimes they start with “mah-SAH-gee” (massage) and then immediately move on to…er… socks.

And one other thing, if you hear someone say, “Excuse me! I’m a student!!!” keep walking and don’t look back. This is the opening line for all sorts of peddling, scams and trips to an “art exhibit” to “just look at my paintings.” And lord knows what else.

If this was the four-star bathroom, I hate to see the one-star.

Very cool, but less so without the amazing lightshow and fireworks.

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