Friday, August 17, 2007

A Busy Day

Lots of fun today. Started off with a decent buffet breakfast in the hotel....congee is actually palatable with raisins and brown sugar. Met some of the rest of our group. Then gathered for the tour with eight other families, a few with kids.

The ride to the Great Wall took about an hour and a half, during whcih our guide taught us a few phrases and discussed Chinese history and culture. Beijing is a city exploding with construction ... the guide joked that the new national animal is the crane, and indeed cranes were plentiful, lifing steel and equipment above questionable-looking scaffolding. The traffic wasn't bad, as this was the first day of a grand traffic expiriment -- the government decreed that only people with license plates ending in an odd number could drive today. Even numbers tomorrow. Our guide was amazed at the impact. It's designed to address both Beijing's growing traffic crunch -- 1000 new cars are registered every day here -- and its pressing polution issue.

The last half-hour was through pleasant (but for the lingering smog) countryside, with a wide variety of young trees. Our guide explained that most of these were planted by volunteer groups, thousands upon thousands at a time. They are designed for beautification, pollution control, and to help reduce the terrible sandstorms Beijing experiences seveal times every year.

We arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and walked through a steep and narrow guantlet of aggressive trinket-vendors to get to the cable cars that took us up to the Wall. Mutianyu is in a mountainous area -- the mountains remind me in size and shape of the San Gabriels, only far more lush with a riot of trees and bushes. The tram ride took us to a staging area from which we climbed several flights of stone steps to a plateau with our frist grand view. From here we could see the Wall stretching in both directions, sinuously meandering up and down hills and up to distant peaks at the edge of our line of sight.

Here we committed the ultimate cultural attrocity, or if you prefer, the act of a techo-carnivore at the top of the digitial food chain -- we called home on a cell phone from the Wall. The reception was flawless. I was struck by the two kids of technical feats coming together: the first two millenia old, requiring unimaginable devotion and physical strength and engineering ingenity, and the second a few decades old, allowing me to speak with people instantansously on the other side of the planet. (For a ruinous fifty cents per minute, but still.) The kids were happy to hear from us, and we were able to wish Evan a happy family day, the sixth anniversary of the day we picked him up in Korea. They told us they news. (1. They got ice cream cones. 2. Their tongues were, as a consequence, funny colors. 3. They missed us. 4. Did they mention the ice cream cones?)

Having amused ourself with technology, we climbed the last narrow stone stair to the top of the Wall proper. It was in the 80s, I'd say, but terribly humid, and we soon felt as if we'd been in the front row at Sea World. This section of the Wall was repaired on a large scale in the 1500s, and the conditions are very good. We walked a kilometer or so in one direction (hey, it's steep and muggy -- YOU try it) and enjoyed the views from some guardhouses and promontories. The view was regrettably marred by the smog -- it must be trully breathtakng after a storm. It was still impressive, though -- mostly because of the steep drops into valleys on either side, leaving you to wonder how many man-hours it took to haul all that stone up there, let alone construct it.

After a time we joined some members of the group and headed back down the mountain, enjoyng the tram cars again (though a metal box suspended far above any shade is not necessariy where you want to be in that heat.) We navigated the guantlet of aggressive souvenier salespeople again -- somewhat less successfully this time, as Katrina twice decided to buy something and then left the negotiation for me. I got about 50% of initial asking both times, which was probably still about 200% of what I should have paid. The vendors are quite bold; they jump in front of you, shaking their wares and yelling ONE DOLLAR! ONE DOLLAR!, by which they actually mean about 100 yuan (or 13 dollars or so) as a starting point.

We made our way to a shady outdoor cafe and enjoyed just about the most satisfying semi-cold bottle of soda I have ever had.

More later. Going out to dinner with some other members of our group.

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