The first time I visited Paris was my first real trip abroad unchaperoned and fully in control of my own destiny. That journey helped start me on the path to who I am today. I have a lot of great memories of that trip. Now I’m back for a few days and I’ll try to find out what’s changed – both here and within myself – and rediscover my younger self in the process. This is part of a series of my reminiscences of Paris.
After the night of reminiscing in my old Paris neighborhood I woke up relaxed. I lazed around a bit and ran a couple of errands before heading out to the airport. Life was good and I was in no hurry. But my last errand took a bit longer than I’d planned. Not too bad and I’d still have plenty of time, just not enough to take the Metro and train. I’d have to grab a cab instead.
It’s been quite a while since I wrote the original pieces on Beijing, so my memory has faded a good bit. But I’ll hit the highlights and try to give you a general feel of the city.
I went to my first clown-themed party while I was in Beijing. Some of Elyse‘s friends were throwing a party for their other friend and she invited me to tag along. I didn’t have any clowny gear, so instead I just puffed up my hair as best I could and put some lipstick on my nose. I didn’t look much like a clown, but it worked well enough. That crowd wasn’t too picky about the outfit, they just wanted to have fun.
The party is hosted at a bar so there is a lot of room. Some of this is taken up by contests and booths set up, in keeping with the carnival like atmosphere. There is an “Adult Kissing Booth” for taking some pictures of the guest of honor with his friends in compromising positions. There are also some setups for the games we’ll be playing, like “Pin the Penis on the Donkey,” “Sexual Position Balloon Pop,” and “Lipstick Kissing Contest” where you cover each others’ bodies with lipstick kisses. We are all in teams of 3-4 for this, which really helped me get to know people quickly. We all fought hard and gave it our best effort, but our team didn’t win. On some controversial calls, we came in second.
The party ended and Elyse and I went off to get some food with one of her friends. We ate at a place named for a Scandinavian Table Tennis champion, if I recall correctly. The food was pretty good. Then we headed off to this cool bar in the penthouse of a hotel down the street. It reminded me of a Western style bar and felt very trendy and European. Lots of funky colors, just a bit retro, and top notch drinks. We spent an hour or so there, and I met some really interesting people: journalists, actors, etc. All expats living in Beijing.
The trip to the Great Wall was pretty nutty. Brian and I had heard all sorts of things about fake wall ruins close to or inside the city that tourists would get shuttled to, so we stuck to just what the LP said. We decided to go to one of the least traveled spots (Simatai) which turned out to be very complicated and hard to figure out. Getting there and back involved buses, minibuses, taxis, and walking. In the end we spent about 6 hours getting there and away and only about 3-4 hours on the wall. But it was certainly worth it.
We woke up fairly early, around 8am, and got our breakfast in the Pub connected to the hostel. It was good and filling. Then we went to the long distance bus station about a mile away. No one spoke English, so we pointed in our book at the Mandarin characters and eventually someone understood what we wanted. We located the bus, bought a ticket outside, and got on board. Only a few minutes after the scheduled departure time, we left.
As we rode out of the city, the bus made a few stops to pick up those who were standing at the side of the road and waving. There didn’t appear to be any regular bus stops, as we sometimes stopped twice in 50 yards to pick up people standing and waving, rather than running towards a spot. Just before we left Beijing, we were ushered off the bus with only a few people, and put onto one with quite a few more.
There were several seats in the middle of the aisle that folded down and we were put on those. Inevitably by the time we were full, people were riding on each others laps and on the floor by the door. It was not until no other bodies could fit into the vehicle that the driver refused to accept payment and let people board. We rode in this cramped position for about three hours and were encouraged to get off the bus in seemingly the middle of nowhere. However, thanks to the Lonely Planet, we’d expected this. A minibus was waiting for wall climbers to save them the 15km trek — for a fee, of course.
The area at the starting point of the hike to the wall looked like it would have been nice in Summer. In Winter, however, it seemed to fade into the background of gray. There was a dam across the small river there so there was a moderately sized lake alongside the switchbacking trail running up the hill to the part of the wall we were going to climb.
We collected some friends as we ascended the trail: two Chinese women who wanted to sell us some books or postcards or something. We told them “wo bu shu yao” (which means “I don’t want it” in a respectful tone), but they continued to follow us. When we reached the wall, they began to tell us things about its history when we stopped to take pictures. They were great climbers, having done this probably several times a day for many years. We ran into very few others climbing the wall, including a group of three Canadians who were traveling at roughly our speed. They were fairly critical of the Chinese women, scolding them for following us and telling us to watch out for ourselves, that we’d be hustled for money at some point. But we’d dealt with our fair share of hustles by then. At one point, one of the Canadians started speaking in Mandarin to the Chinese women and shooed them away. It was probably better for the Chinese women to not waste their time on us, but we didn’t mind them talking to us and it seemed pretty rude.
There were parts of the wall that were too dilapidated to cross or that were under construction, so there were trails heading down the side. Many of the old lookout towers, lived in by guards, were crumbling with little attempt to repair them. It was apparent which stones were old and which had been put in more recently to fill a gap. This is the way the wall had been built and maintained over the centuries since it was originally built. At first it was several separate walls guarding different cities, then it was joined to keep out the Mongols to the North. It didn’t succeed. And now the wall has become a reason to come to China, spurring tourism. This was an irony not lost on us. As a barrier to entry, the Great Wall of China has to be the most spectacular failure in mankind’s history, actually doing the opposite of its intent on a grand scale.
The farthest traversable point for the section of wall we decided to climb was high up on a hill, called Watching Beijing Tower. This spot has a tremendous viewpoint for seeing Inner Mongolia to the North and all the way to Beijing, 120km to the South. However, due to the smoggy conditions, we were only able to see a kilometer or two into the distance. It was still a gorgeous view and we rested for a while there.
We were able to head down much faster than we’d gone up, but it was also more dangerous. Some parts of the wall were nearly vertical for a few dozen yards, so traversing these sections was especially difficult. When we finally made it to the base of the wall and to the concrete trail where we’d begun, our legs felt like jelly. Brian decided that it would be easier to take a zip-line down to the base of the trail, across the dam from where we’d originated. Meanwhile, I decided that I would rather take photographs and videos in case the Chinese engineering didn’t save him.
When we both reached the parking lot, we had a couple of taxis to choose from. So they did what taxi drivers do in that situation, they fought over us. We finally negotiated a price for a ride back to the spot where the bus would pick us up. The cabbie spoke pretty good English, so we were able to speak with him a bit. We ended up making it back with only about 15 minutes to wait before the next transport back to Beijing, so the driver waited with us and we sat in his cab. When the bus finally came, he flagged it down and spoke with the bus driver — something we couldn’t have managed as well. However, the bus was obviously full. The bus driver wanted us to get on board, so he kicked someone back to a further back seat and offered something filthy for us to sit on. The cab driver, however, siezed the opportunity to offer us nearly the same price for transport to a different bus station which had traditional motor coaches instead of requisitioned minibuses. We happily paid and he delivered us with some more conversation.
It was nice to have the chance to spend a half hour or more speaking with a local and we used the time to find out about his life. He was getting ready to head back home when we’d come down the trail and had already called his wife to tell her he’d be on his way home. He lived about a half hour in the other direction, so he’d have some explaining to do when he got home. It apparently wasn’t worth the price of another phone call home. He seemed to be very happy to be doing what he was with his life, which was nice to hear, and his demeanor suggested he was telling the truth. But you can’t always tell when Chinese people say something like that because you don’t know what kind of pressure they’re under to appear happy whether they are or not. This can be both political and social pressure in their culture.
When we got to the other bus station, the driver pointed out the correct bus to us and we were overjoyed to see that it looked like something a High School might have chartered to take a long field trip! We thanked the taxi driver and wished him well on his trip home and in the future. We paid our fare to get on the bus, sat down, and napped most of the way back into the city.
Buying a ticket to embark on the Trans-Mongolian Express was an adventure in itself. The timetables we had were not quite right and the schedules had changed a bit. That’s not a small thing in this case, as it meant we might have to wait as much as a week before heading to Mongolia or take a series of buses to the border where we’d find a fairly regular train into Ulan Bator.