Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 4 - Friday, July 9

Morning: Figuring on a long day at the Great Wall, Joe suggested that we take in the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Lots of interesting dishes, fruits and salads offered. I stuck to the things I could easily identify. The steamed buns were interesting but the mystery filling caused me some concern. A lighter breakfast may have been a better idea we learn a little later that morning. Brandon arrived at the hotel a little after 9 and our driver, John Ping, showed up at 9:30. Brandon had used John Ping when Mary Ruth visited. She had raved about John and wanted me to make sure I got a photo of John with Brandon. Brandon liked using a driver and private car instead of taking a tour bus. He said it would be faster and more convenient. I soon learned what he meant by “faster.”

John Ping would make a good NASCAR driver. No wait, they have rules in NASCAR, don’t they? Picture this: a four lane highway – two lanes going and two lanes coming. John decides that traffic in his two lanes going is moving too slowly so he just goes out in that third lane (part of the coming lanes) to pass. Did I forget to mention the oncoming traffic? I was beginning to understand why Mary Ruth couldn’t wait until we met John Ping. As we got closer to our destination, John told us he had applied to be a driver for the U.S. Embassy but had failed the driving portion of the exam. I can’t imagine why.

John Ping, like every other driver in China, must have learned how to drive from a “Fast and Furious” video! Beijing taxi drivers actually believe that two objects CAN occupy the same space at the same time. And while they are the craziest drivers I have ever seen, we saw only two accidents and only one person getting a traffic ticket (he must have killed a dozen people to get that ticket). Two things must wear out quickly on Chinese cars: their brakes and their horns. Chinese drivers honk at everything, especially pedestrians. Even scooter and bike riders like to honk their horns or ring their bells at you to get out of their way. And since cars are allowed to park almost anywhere, you’re not even safe walking on a sidewalk! But I digress…

After miles and miles of flat land, the mountains just suddenly appeared. The Great Wall is not one wall but many walls, some connected, that stretch hundreds of miles across China. Sections were built under numerous dynasties. The section we visited at Mutianyu in the Huairou district outside Beijing is not the closest section to the city, but Brandon likes this section because it is less visitor friendly than the section nearest Beijing with its handrails and safety barriers. (Obama visted the user-friendly Wall closer to Beijing. Bill Clinton came to Mutianyu.)

Afternoon: “This is my space,” John Ping said parking his car in the through lane of the lot. I slung my Jack Bauer bag over my shoulder (complete with sunscreen, camera, umbrella, etc.) and off we went. The entrance is surrounded by numerous food and souvenir stands. In addition to the all the Great Wall trinkets and T-shirts, we spotted a “I (heart) BJ” T-shirt. I think the Chinese wanted BJ to mean “BeiJing.”

We hit the public bathroom before getting on the cable car that takes you to the top of the mountain and the Wall. It is a beautiful area and reminded me of the Endless Mountains in Sullivan County. We mounted the Wall by way of steps from a staging area outside the cable car building. The Great Wall is great. Richard Nixon said that. Actually he said, “The Great Wall is a great wall, built by a great people.” I have seen photos and videos of the Wall but standing there and looking to my right and then to my left and seeing no end of it gave me a new appreciation for this human accomplishment. I marveled at how it had been constructed. How did they get the materials to the top of the mountain? How was it planned? How many died in its construction?

My sense of wonder began to fade as we started walking. First to our left. “Just a little,” Brandon said. He and his brother had gone as far as tourist are allowed on the left side in April which included a section so steep they were crawling on their hands and knees. But not this day. While the sun was hidden by clouds, the air was hot and humid. I had lathered up again with sunscreen and some of it had begun to run into my eyes causing them to water and burn. It was on this side of the Wall that we met our first Penn Stater. Seeing my PSU hat, a young man asked if I was a graduate. He was. I said I was and so was Brandon and Joe. As we progressed on the right side of the Wall – the section leading to the only way down the mountain – we met a family from Maryland whose members were either Penn State graduates or a soon to be PSU student. Nittany Lions are everywhere!

The Great Wall could easily be renamed the Wall of Many Great Steps. Again, my gym visits and conditioning were paying off. But I was moving slower and slower. My eyes burned from sunscreen and sweat. We stopped frequently to rest in the huts atop the wall – so did lots of other people. Mary Ruth had warned me to stay hydrated but my water supply was running out. Merchants manned card-tables set up along the Wall selling water, soda, beer, T-shirts and Pringle potato chips. Now who would drink a beer on the Great Wall on a blistering hot day? Not even I could do that.

As we neared the exit steps, Brandon discovered that he had lost his keys – or he thought he had lost his keys. He hoped they had fallen out in John Ping’s car. I hoped so, too. I didn’t want anything to dampen the experience of being on the Great Wall with my son.

We found John Ping playing cards with some other drivers at one of the fruit stands. After grabbing a few cold drinks for the ride back to Beijung, we were ready for take-off. Brandon’s keys were not in the car.

When Mary Ruth, Michael and Brandon visited the Great Wall, John Ping had taken them home via some small towns with shops and a porcelain factory. He obviously gets kick-backs when the tourists he brings make purchases. Brandon, concerned about his keys and wilted father, suggested we go directly to Beijing.

Beijing is a pretty much a modern, westernized city but the countryside outside the city is something else. I saw lots of modest living, if not downright poverty, on the country roads we raced along. I saw large high rise housing projects out in the middle of nowhere sitting empty. I saw other housing and road projects abandoned in mid-construction. I saw modern multi-lane highways with only a trickle of traffic using them. Not too many days after our visit to Mutianyu, I read in the China Daily that the government wants to relocate 400 families from a small town near the Great Wall to develop the area into a tourist attraction. China seems to be alive with growth, but sometimes it appears to be misdirected and unplanned growth.

We arrived back at the hotel. Joe and I showered and settled in for a nap. Brandon placed a few calls regarding his apartment and workplace keys. He made arrangements to meet one of his roommates back at the apartment to at least get him in. Then as Joe and I slept and snored our way to happiness, Brandon also took a shower, curled up in a chair and fell asleep.

Evening: Beijing is a diverse city and Brandon has embraced its diversity. Granted, attending a German World Cup soccer game at the German Embassy was not a great leap for him since he studied German in high school and college and has been to Germany several times, but when he told us we were going to a Muslim restaurant that night, I was surprised. The restaurant had several things going for it, he said. First, the food was really good. Second, it offered entertainment including belly dancers and a bongo player who sang Frank Sinatra songs. And finally, if you bought three beers, you got a fourth free. Now how can you beat that?

Everything he said was true. The food was good. (I don’t think I ever ate lamb before.) The entertainment interesting – especially the belly dancer who placed a large live snake around the neck of an audience member. And, of course, the beer was pretty good, too. Friends of Brandon (FOB) Kyle and Jackie came along. Brandon met them through a mutual friend, Cassandra Kane, a high school classmate who had met Kyle during a Washington, D.C., internship program. Kyle and Jackie are engaged and are in China teaching English to elementary school children.

It had started raining we discovered as we left the restaurant and began looking for a cab back to the hotel. It took a long time to hail a cab. Traffic drastically reduces in the evening in Beijing so fewer cabs are available. I had my umbrella and a Chinese gentleman invited Joe to share his until a cab finally stopped. We were dropped off at the hotel and Brandon took the cab back to his apartment. As Joe and I settled for the night, the phone rang. It was Brandon. Somehow he had dropped his keys in his apartment. Despite the evening rain and burning eyes on the Great Wall, that bit of news capped a rather nice day.

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