Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'm kind of famous

My blog was chosen as one of "50 blogs for those interested in teaching abroad." Seriously! Check it out!

Three of my friends are on there too: Alisa's Adventures in Korean, LaToya's A Sistuh's Soul, and Sarah's Mokdong Magpie. You should check them out too!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Great Wall

I awoke to chaos. "My alarm didn't go off. It's 8:20!" screamed a voice from somewhere in the distance. I opened my eyes to see J waving his arms wildly. I jumped out of bed and threw on some clothes. I couldn't quite remember what was going on at 8:40 but I knew it was something important. J did not wake me up that early for no reason.* I ran to the bathroom and while I was there, it came to me: the Great Wall. Our van was going to leave at 8:40 and we were supposed to be outside by 8:20. Shit. I hurried and ran to the common room to join J, but instead I saw him leisurely checking his email. "It's 7:30," he said, nonchalantly, "I guess I made a mistake." I was only slightly peeved because it meant I got to eat a big breakfast**.

The day before we'd stocked up on fruit, cereal bars, trail mix, and water bottles. We packed our backpacks and the van picked us up promptly at 8:40. We joined about 8 others, mainly young adults, decked out in hiking shoes and other outdoorsy paraphernalia. I looked down at the hipster sneakers I'd picked up the other day and wondered what I'd gotten myself into. Then I hoped that maybe the wall was closed that day. You know, for renovations.

Naturally, I slept in the van, and I think it was about a 2.5 hour drive (J would know, he can't sleep in moving vessels). The scenery was stunning as we approached the wall. For the first time since being in China (and one of the few times since being in Asia) I saw raw, untamed wilderness untouched by city life or pollution. I saw green. I think I might have even seen some birds that weren't pigeons.

Before arriving at the base, the van stopped at the side of a dirt road with a small shack-like structure with a cardboard sign saying "Toilets." Our guide told us that we should go now because we wouldn't get to again until after the hike. I wish I'd taken a picture of it because it looked like the worst place I could ever possibly relieve myself. It was so short, you could see the heads of guys while they were peeing and there was a very small divider separating the female toilet from the male one. I went inside, dreading what it would be like on the inside. It turned out not to be so bad and I was proud of myself for using it.

OK, enough toilet talk. No wait, one more thing. We got back in the van and drove about ten minutes to the actual base of the wall, where a large tourist building with real bathrooms awaited us.

We approached the trail (we couldn't see the wall yet, "Not a good sign," I thought to myself), and our guide handed us each a 1.5 liter bottle of water, a Snickers bar, and this map. "We'll meet you at the end in 3.5 hours."
It was actually to the right, not the left.

We had to take a number of stairs to get to the actual wall and once we got to the top, the view took my breath away. It only got better from there. And steeper. We actually had two guides, one stayed in front while another stayed behind to make sure no one got left behind.

It started off with fairly sturdy steps, but as went along they began to crumble. At parts, there was only rubble left. A few of the climbs from one watchtower to the next (22 in all) seemed almost insurmountable (I think one guy may have turned back). A few times I had to stop half-way up to catch my breath.
Started off pretty sturdy.

It was hot, but not Kyoto hot, and each watchtower provided cooling shade and a bit of breeze. We took frequent water and snack breaks.

Starting to look a little less sturdy.

There was a good number of people, just enough so that we didn't feel stranded, but few enough that I got plenty of pictures without anyone in them. I think our tour was the only one on that part of the wall. At each watchtower we'd meet up with the rest to commiserate.

Not the safest place ever to hang out.

Along the way we were followed by a small group of resilient merchants trying to sell us ice water, coca-cola or souvenirs. These elderly Chinese and supposedly Mongolian hikers apparently climbed the wall daily with large backpacks filled with beverages and other stuff. It was impressive. I was struggling with just a bottle of water and some snacks, and I'm in the prime of my life. There were also a few women with their kids. The girls put on a little dance routine. On the Great Wall.

As we were walking along, we wondered about the sheer audacity of those who built it. They must have lugged stones and mortar to the tops of those hills day after day, in the summer and winter. We wondered how many had died doing so.
This was when it got rough.


It seemed to go on forever.
The walk took less time than we'd expected, about 2 hours in total. At the 22nd watchtower we waited for everyone to catch up and get a break. We descended on a trail, followed by a stray dog. What was a stray dog doing on the Great Wall? Our vans awaited us at the bottom. The dog did not join us.

When we got to Beijing, J and I hungrily grabbed some McDonald's.

*I'm not a morning person.
**I think I got an omelet.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Temple of Heaven

Another easy day. J let me sleep in and after a leisurely breakfast, we took the subway to the Temple of Heaven. It's located in the middle of a huge park, hidden among groves of cypress trees. It was a nice change from the bustle of the city. The temple itself is beautiful and held together without any nails. Each part of it is symbolic: it has 4 pillars for the seasons, 12 columns for the months, and other stuff too but most of the explanations were in Chinese.

We found out that it was at the Temple that they would pray for good harvests. They did this by sacrificing a calf. We saw the sacrificial oven and various dining areas. There was also an echo wall - supposedly if one person was at the East Annex and another at the West, they could talk to each other. We weren't able to try it out because there were so many people there that it would have been impossible to hear each other. There was also a 3 claps stone, where you could clap once and 3 echoes would respond. Unfortunately we couldn't try that out either because so many people were clapping we'd never be able to tell whether the clapping we were hearing was an echo or just someone else clapping.

After we were done there, we went back to the hostel for quick break (and nap). When we awoke it was nearing sunset, so we thought we'd try to catch the lowering of the flag at Tiananmen Square. We got there just in time and could just make out the flag and soldiers as they left the square under Mao's infamous portrait.

J and I resolved to do some souvenir shopping. We went back to the hip hutong, where I got some fantastic kicks and J got some souvenirs for his friends and family. We also got the best damn mojitos I've ever had. While we were backing to the hostel, we passed a large parking lot in which dozens of couples were swing dancing. It was pretty fantastic to observe and a different side of Beijing than we'd seen. This was carefree, fun, a sort of rhythmic chaos. I tried taking pictures but it was dark and they didn't come out well. Something about seeing those dancers made me realize how small the world was and how similar we all are. I wanted to join then but my potential dancer refused.

Before the evening was done, J signed us up for a Great Wall tour. There were a few options, from the easy tourist-friendly one with a cable car ride, the intermediate one, and then the most rugged one. We'd decided to go with the one that had the smallest crowds and therefore picked the most rugged. The poster suggested bringing good shoes and a backpack to hold water and snacks for the 6km "climb." I was sufficiently intimidated. The van would leave at 8:40AM from our hostel, so we called it an early night.