Wednesday, April 26, 2006

China's Safety Belt

Early the next morning, a mini-bus picked me up to take me to the Great Wall. As the bus drove around picking up other passengers, it dawned on me what was so different about China this time around. Back in '97, China had yet to enter the digital age. (Nor had Japan, actually.) Where I'd only seen a handful of cell phones, (and those were only in trendy Shanghai) now even cabbies would text their girlfriends as they idled in traffic. Buses carried ads for Nokia and Yahoo, the latter using the kanji for "kidnap." The signs I saw most often were for breast augmentation surgery.

Our own driver's cell repeatedly rang as he joined the long lines of traffic entering Beijing's ring roads. Not long out of the city, we stopped at a jade museum which served as a front for a large shop beyond. This was somewhat frustrating as I'd chosen this tour because it supposedly didn't stop at such places. But no reason to get upset, the day was too nice. I went out and sat in the sunshine, trying to ignore the dust and diesel fumes waltzing in my nose. No one in my group seemed too interested in buying anything, so it wasn't long before we heading further into the countryside and up the main road leading to the Ming Tombs. Built according to feng shui principles, its 7 kilometer length was shaded by fruit trees. A shepherd in a Mao suit tended his flock. A couple dromedary camels lay in the dirt, looking obstinate. Some buildings had strange numbers written on them. The main tomb, Chang Ling, had an impressive hall with tall cedar columns. The Chinese tourists seemed more interested in our small cluster of foreigners than in the exhibits themselves. A large courtyard had a few cherry trees in full bloom, their pink petals a sharp contrast to the bright green grass of the burial mound beyond. (Which had the amusing name of "Soul Tower.") A small stone structure overlooked the mound. Climbing atop it, I had great views of the mountains in the distance, traces of the Great Wall climbing along the ridge. I was amazed at how much the area resembled Arizona. I'd heard of the desertification of the area, the sand racing toward Beijing at a rate of 2km a year. And looking at these mountains, it was easy to see why. Their rocky faces had wrinkled brows; straight lines of small trees had been planted to prevent further erosion. Erosion originally caused by deforestation, of course.

We travelled across this desert landscape, passing a forlorn-looking abandoned fun park. Nearby was our lunch stop. Before eating, we had to suffer through a short tour of a cloisonne factory. I was more curious about how much these workers were being paid. Probably far less than this English speaker leading the tour. When it was finally time for lunch, our group of ten ate communally at a round table with revolving platter at center. (Is the round table not the perfect design for a socialist banquet?) Unlike backpacker tours I've done in the past, none of these more well-heeled tourists seemed to want to intermingle. I was the only one who tried to talk to these Aussies, these Mexicans, these South Africans. I did spend a long time in conversation with Ken, an Assemblyman from Maryland. A personable and bright guy, he had lots of interesting insight into China and Asia in general. He and I were also the only ones to get into the spirit of baijiu, that incredibly strong rice wine. After lunch, walking past recently abandoned tables, it was easy to see which groups had eaten where. While the foreign tourists had left mere sauce stains on the white tablecloths, the Chinese tables were littered with food that extended onto the chairs and floors. I made my way downstairs, where a Japanese-speaking salesgirl tried to sell me some traditional-looking robes. I was more interested in conversation, but as she grew more persistant, I smiled and begged off. The heavy lunch and the baijiu had made me sleepy, so I took a nice nap in the warmth of the bus. I awoke as we pulled out, passing some PSB guys doing goose-step John Cleese imitations in the parking lot. Why are the PSB always so skinny? You'd think with their authority they'd be better fed than all but the highest cadre members. Instead, they look like GIs in an old 1940's WWII film.

Finally we arrived at the Wall. The parking area was the worst of tourist hell, so I briskly made my way toward the entrance. In pictures, the Wall looks fairly flat, but there are some pretty steep parts as it snakes its way up and down the low peaks. At certain intervals, there are former guard houses, now containing touts selling their wares. There were thousands of Chinese tourists around, but I was one of the few Westerners. Despite this, I wasn't singled out or harrassed. On my last visit, hawkers were constantly trying to seperate me from my money. It had become so bad, I'd even gotten a T-shirt with the kanji for, "I want nothing," hoping to fend them off. Today, things have certainly changed.

I had recently heard that the myth of being able to see the Wall from the Moon is just a myth. Instead, I'd hoped to see the Moon from the Wall, but it was too early in the day. I strolled on, enjoying a couple hours in the sun, walking the stone hillsides. Middle-aged men wore their leisure attire of cheap sport coats over polo shirts. Old women smiled for photos. An overly dressed woman talked on her cell phone in one hand and grasped a handrail tightly in the other. Another woman was trying to prevent a young smiley guy from filming down her blouse as he stood higher up the slope. A young mother smacked the crap out of her toddler son, her arm raised well above shoulder height. I eventually came to a series of rails running down the mountain. As it was nearing the time of my bus to leave, and wanting to further explore the kitsch factor, I caught a ride on this rollercoaster down into the parking lot. People standing in front of small stalls shouted at me to buy beer or coke. I chose instead to look at the bears feeding on slop in a pen at the bottom of the tourist circus. One of the bears was frolicking in his trough, literally coating his upper body in the stuff. An attendant came over wielding a shovel, and when the bear turned its head to look, it got whacked in the face. The dude had swung really hard. All the other bears growled at the violence, and I was amazed that they didn't tear this guy apart. The beaten bear hardly looked fazed. He simply sat in a high tower, merrily licking the slop from his body. Animals seem far smarter than some humans.

Back in Beijing, we encountered a massive traffic jam. Our driver did some incredibly selfish and offensive driving to get us through. From an overpass, I saw two horse-drawn carts amidst the buses, cars, and trucks of rush hour. I thought we were soon to be home, but we stopped yet again, this time at a silk factory. I'd had enough. It was our third superfluous stop, when we were supposed to have none. We'd spent more time at those other places than at our intended destinations, and this seven hour tour had stretched to eleven. So I left, walking into the Beijing dusk. I was near the site of the future Olympic village, an area thick with cranes. Nearby was the Stadium called, "The Nest," but instead it was a Gothic mess out of Batman's worst nightmares. I wandered awhile, then caught a taxi to Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant. I'd heard that there were tables in an old converted train car, but today they were closed. So I settled into a corner table and ordered the spiciest thing on the menu, hoping to purge the dust from my sinuses. And I finally got a huge glass of Tsingtao on tap, which I'd been searching for but had eluded me until now. On the way out, an African guy offered me ganja, but I preferred a shower. It had been a long day, and the worst sort of packaged bus tour. All the start and stop and wait makes you tired, destroying an sort of momentum or enthusiasm. I was in bed by ten...

On the turntable: Miles Davis, "On the Corner"
On the nighttable: Adeline Yen Mah, "Falling Leaves"

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