The Great Wall is greater than great. Its enormous. Gigantihuge. Absolutely impossible to comprehend, unless the thing is being experienced directly, in person, feet on the stone and hands on the parapets. Someone once told me that no reproduction (IMAX film, glossy photo book) can do justice to the Grand Canyon. I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon but I can't find fault with the logic. I can say that the same truism applies. Although the Grand Canyon was carved by nature and the Great Wall most certainly wasn’t, the enormity of the construction makes it, in some ways, more impressive, more astounding that the goddamn thing was ever made. Taking into account the sheer number of workforce, the weight of the stone that these men worked with, the thickness and height, and the length my god, the length. Like the canyon, there can be no descriptions that do the thing all its deserved glory. But what am I, if not a poetic-urban-journalist with a tendency to hyperbolize? So, with an army of synonyms and a clutch of photographs, I’ll attempt to describe my Great Wall experience.We decided to take the extra time and head to one of the Wall’s lesser touristy sections. Mutianyu, an hour and a half outside of Beijing, albeit hardly the tourist-free spot on the Wall is still farther from the crushing hordes than its better-known counterpart Badaling. Alisa hired a private driver and van, as well as assistance from a pretty, lovely private tour guide, a 29 year old Beijinger with perfect English named Eileen, courtesy of www.personalchinahelper.com. At first I was reticent about taking this very posh, very personal experience to the Wall and back – being a world traveler who prides himself on his budgetary restraints, via couchsurfing, street eating, using public transport and/or biking, (but ALWAYS hiring a GOOD TOUR GUIDE at the sites!) etc. I found having our own private van and driver, along with the guide, was a new, interesting deal. By the end of the day I acknowledged that in certain circumstances, hiring a private driver and van can be a windfall for reasons, one of which is explained below. And if the guide knows his/her shit, and is a compelling, interesting, personality, then that can be the best purchase of them all.
On the way to Mutianyu we drove past one of Beijing’s outer-suburb fruit farms – another corollary to the NY-Beijing parallel worlds (but it was too cold for an emergency session of THE LEVYS’ ANNUAL APPLE-PICKING XTRAVAGAZNA BONANZA SPECTACULAR 2007! EVERY APPLE MAKES IT UP TO HEAVEN!) Upon zipping past an enormous fiberglass cornucopia-bounty-of-fruits-overflowing-from-a-walnut-shell prop, we had the driver pull over so we could snap ridiculous pictures. The rest of the drive was a calm, quiet ride through the outer districts of Beijing’s countryside. Then we got to the Wall.
First things first were the souvenir hawkers (ESB parallel = the Virtual Reality ride ticket shillers outside). Another NY parallel - The Nigerians in Battery Park, who need to take serious lessons from the tiny Chinese men and (mostly) women at the souvenir stands and tourist markets. Those Nigerians got nothing on the Chinese. All sorts of tourist souvenir gifts: from “hand-carved” wooden Dragon masks to cheap-ass canvas Chairman Mao messenger bags, from dried fruits and macadamia nuts by the gram to ugly paintings of pastoral Chinese scenery, from silk robes stitched together in an outer-province sweatshop to more kitsch garbage prominently displaying the face of everyone’s favorite pickled Commie; all sorts of unbelievable crap for sale with the standard white devil markup of approximately 200-1000%. There’s really no telling how much this shit should sell for, other than nowhere near the price they spit at you. The best way to go about shopping with these vultures (best as I can tell, being a White Devil of course,) is to ask their price, chop it into a third or a quarter or a fifth or a sixteenth and spit it back. Then when they get incensed and bust out with the exact same comical routine of “NO! I MAKE NO MONEY. NO GOOD! YOU GIVE ME . . .” you barter and bargain and back and forth until you get to a price you’re happy to shellout. It helps to walk away sometimes, to threaten to take your fat American wallet next door, where everybody is selling the exact same crap. It also helps to have a calculator to whip out and point at emphatically. It also also helps to shoot the same over-exaggerated faces back at the merchants when they act up on you. No matter what kind of price gets settled on, trust us. They’re making a fat stack of yuan.
We opted to take the chair-lift (ESB parallel = the 3 elevators) up and the plume-ride down. Well worth the $2 – $3 it cost each way. Our cable car once carried the holy Dalai Lama when he visited in the mid-90s. Sadly, we missed the cable car that carried former President Bill Clinton, who visited in ’98. At the top it was a short hike up the stairs to the Wall itself (parallel – the ESB elevator lets you off right inside the gift shop, to which it’s a short walk to the observation deck). And then . . .
Simply incredible. Indescribable. The thing just went on for miles and miles. Winding along the tops of the mountain ridge, snaking topographically so that it dipped and weaved and wound it way around off into the countryside, disappearing, reappearing, sliding into the endless China of mountains and cities. It was impossible to follow the line as it twisted and turned from one mountaintop to the other, just simply noticeable as the top-most crenellations zigged, zagged & zugged, seemingly into infinity. This section of the Wall (which, contrary to popular belief is no longer continual – parts of the Wall have fallen apart; only the reconstructed sections can be visited) was built in 1368 and renovated in 1983. There were massive guard towers situated every couple hundred kilometers and one rather large guard station, with enough room for beds, a kitchen, and storage, apart from the standard sentry posts. A super-rare feature here – both the inner and outer parapets had merlons (holes) in the wall so sentry guards could shoot at invaders. According to Wikipedia, “The Mutianyu Great Wall has the largest construction scale and best quality among all sections of Great Wall.” It was absolutely awesome. We took lots of ridiculous pictures.(Another fun comparison to the ESB is that as we were making our way around the Wall, Eileen, who was peppering us with facts and stories and dispelling more myths [was built by soldiers and laborers, and not slaves are is commonly misconceived], sent us off to walk some of the wall off a ways, and she hungout at one of the 3 watchtowers, cos it was a whole lot of walking around the wall that she’s done before. This just so happens to be a tour guide trick that we employ when bringing groups to the Empire State Building – instead of the hours-long wait on millions of lines, we just hangout at the bottom of the damn thing, and wait for our groups to go up and come down.)
Finally we get tired of marching up and down these tiny little half-steps and posing for multitudes of pix, and we trudge up and down the myriad hills that makeup the wall towards the toboggan-on-wheels-track-cart-slide-thingie that take intrepid souls from the top back downhill. And hells bells, you better believe we rocked that shit! With a level to control the braking mechanism, and some 30 degree luge-track-style turns, I hammered-ass down the slope, slowing only enough to kick Jonah in the back as he had gone before me and his cart wasn’t zipping too fast. At the bottom we posed for a picture with two bozos dressed like Genghis Khan, did a blitz of tourist shopping, and boarded the van for the ride home, with a lunch stop.
Here’s where the private driver thing kicks ass. Not beholden to a bus route or schedule, and on the super-hungry side of things, we instructed Eileen to tell the driver to take us to a local small-city restaurant that he likes, where it wouldn’t be a problem for us carnivores to get meat, and for Alisa to get fish/seafood and veggies. We ended up at this place called Mom’s Family Restaurant. Located inside Mom’s house, we were given a private room in the back, complete with couch (not pictured). Eileen took all the orders, and the food arrived and was placed down on the Lazy Susan (almost all restaurants in China have this thing, further exemplifying the Family-style dining concept) and we dug in. It was fucking incredible, a veritable xplosion of taste, texture, smell, spice, hot, cool, together. We had a mutton Mongolian Hot-Pot, a whole broiled fish with tofu and some kinda sweet brown sauce, butterflied fried chicken breast in a not-too-sweet honey sauce, the requisite Szechuan noodles, a roasted pork plate, some greens with garlic, white rice, possibly more dishes I’m losing in the recollection. We fed 6 people (including the driver) with 7 or 8 dishes, 3 big beers, ate until we felt close to bursting, and the whole meal, everything included, $15. I wanted to cry it was so beautiful. We rolled ourselves into the van and took off back to Beijing. The most wondrous food coma came quickly.
7 months ago