The Ladybug Chronicles, part III

One of my goals during our trip to China to fetch the Ladybug was to post pictures to Flickr and to update the site with stories from the Far East. Unfortunately, I neglected to remember the fact that I can’t remember to do anything on time, and so I didn’t. Nevertheless, I’d still like to document the voyage (no matter how late) simply for myself, so that I can remember all the interesting details when I tell the story to the Ladybug years down the road. So, I present The Ladybug Chronicles.

Day 3: China’s past and present

The late, great Douglas Adams The order of the day for Saturday, November 11, 2006, was more sightseeing. Our first stop was to that most famous of Chinese landmarks, the Great Wall. Because of the popularity of the monument and the proximity of the day to orientation, our tour group increased from 2 adoptive families to thirteen. We piled onto the bus, together with tour guide Mei and our adoption agency liaison Les, a delightfully talkative Englishman who reminded me a great deal of Douglas Adams, with the notable exception of being not dead. The Wall is about an hour’s drive to the mountains north of Beijing, another white-knuckle excursion into Chinese traffic made enjoyable insofar as the Queen B and I could could take solace (and, it must be said, some degree of bemusement) from the looks of abject terror on the faces of our new companions as they experienced it for first time.

As we drove, Mei and Les filled us in on various aspects of China and the Great Wall, partly to help acquaint us with Chinese culture but mostly to distract us from the insanity of the traffic below, thereby preventing a few heart attacks and averting a nasty class-action lawsuit. Les explained that three commonly held “facts” about the Great Wall were, in fact, myths. (Warning! Educational content follows!)

  1. The Great Wall is a single wall. It actually consists of many individual segments, separated by particularly nasty mountain passes. As Les explained, since the Wall was built as a fortification against northern invaders, it was only built over those parts were the terrain itself wasn’t a sufficient deterrent.
  2. The Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. This is certainly false nowadays, as any modern city is easily visible at nighttime. Of course, more to the spirit of the claim, even though the Wall stretches for almost 4000 miles along northern China, it is only a few yards wide and is mostly the same color as the terrain around it, making it invisible to the naked eye, even from low Earth orbit.
  3. It’s called the Great Wall of China. It was actually called the Long Wall for much of its history, and the trip there suggested why: for much of the last ten miles it could be seen running along the ridge of the mountains to our left, like the spine of the world’s longest scoliosis patient. It was only when Western explorers saw it that the West upgraded its status.

No matter whether you call it Long or Great, though, the Wall is a monumental thing, an immensity of brick and earth that winds its way up and down ragged mountain crags from horizon to horizon like a giant stone snake, or, more appropriately, a Chinese dragon. The Wall zig-zags through the terrain, passing through several check-points, large stone fort-like structures that break up the enormity of the Wall into sections. Where we toured, the Wall runs more or less north-south, bisecting the village of Badaling, which consist of a single road flanked on either side by vendors selling masks and carvings and eateries offering various mammals cooked up to your specifications. The road passes under the Wall through an insanely narrow tunnel and past an old Chinese military fort, which acts as the entrance to the Wall itself. The only tacky bit is giant billboard erected right by the Wall hawking the 2008 Olympic Games. The billboard depicts a stick figure running towards the words “One World One Dream,” which I assume is the official symbol of the 2008 Olympics. (The unofficial symbols, as seen in every storefront in China however, are the Beijing Friendlies, cutesy mascots that might be best described as the feral cousins of the Powerpuff Girls.)

When we arrived, we noticed that the northern portion of the Wall was completely devoid of people, while the southern portion of the Wall was occupied by what appeared to be everyone in China. Though the reason for this was unclear — neither Mei nor Less had ever seen such a thing before — it did mean that we were able to catch a few bits of snap-shot gold: up close and personal with miles and miles of Great Wall in pristine condition, unspoiled by seventeen thousand tourists in cheap Chinese knock-off apparel and digital cameras crawling about all over it:

So I snapped some pictures with my digital camera, tightened up my cheap Chinese knock-off jacket, and headed to the southern portion of the Wall, where I was promptly joined by seventeen thousand other people.

Being on top of the Wall is an entirely different experience than looking at it. Whereas from a distance the Wall is a straight and imposing piece of engineering, up close it rolls and undulates in a manner that suggests its engineers might have had one too many glasses of rice wine during its construction. It’s also tough terrain, alternating stretches of flat and slippery rock inclines with wild staircases of irregular steps whose depth changes from a few inches to a foot-and-a-half with little rhyme or reason. The rolling of the Wall and exertion of the hike, coupled with the inhospitable weather (just a few degrees above freezing with biting wind) and close proximity of seventeen thousand other people trying to climb the same insanely inclined narrow stretch of real estate, means that everyone on the Wall wheezes and wobbles as if drunk, as if the entire Great Wall of China were populated by the cast of The Real World.

There’s also a lot of graffiti carved into the bricks of the Great Wall. Mei remarked that many of the bricks were inscribed with the names and numbers of the army platoons who fashioned and installed them, although I’m sure much of it is the toilet-humor vandalism of modern teen slackers. Nevertheless, I found myself hoping that maybe, just maybe, they instead were bits of toilet-humor vandalism from the army platoons who fashioned and installed them: millennium-old insults like “Northern invaders can kiss the unblinking red eye of Qin Shi Huang” and “Atilla the Hun sucks panda balls” and the like. Call me a romantic.

Like all hikes, getting to the top is only half the journey, although in my case, it was only four-fifths of the journey, since the Chinese military abruptly closed one of the check-points on the Wall and redirected all of us back to the northern section. Descending the Wall is a scary exercise, a vertigo-inducing trip during which is its easy to lose your footing, and I speak from personal experience. (Twice, actually. Stupid new tennis shoes.) As we descended, we learned the reason for all the shepherding on the Wall today: African diplomats were visiting, and the Chinese army was clearing out stretches of the Wall to protect them from the masses of tourists.

In fact, the army closed the one tunnel through which visitors to the wall could leave in order to allow the Africans a swift departure. In essence, this meant that all seventeen thousand tired hikers were forced to wait outside a single tunnel no more than 20 feet wide for a half hour before allowing them to enter. And unlike body heat or body odor, one of the things seventeen thousand tired hikers do not posses en mass is patience, so when the tunnel was opened, every single one of ’em rushed into the 20-foot-wide tunnel at once. I will let you do the math on that, but the end result is that (1) the Queen B and I got a lot more personal with several thousand Chinese tourists that we ever expected and (2) the B and I have a profound and uncomfortable understanding of the “birth” experience that makes us even happier that we chose to adopt the Ladybug.

After the hike, Les decided we were all feeling a bit “peckish,” so he sent the bus down the road to the Friendship Place, a sort of Chinese department superstore and restaurant. We ate a delicious meal that only included two dishes of meat with the head still attached before the womenfolk descended to the bowels of the store to shop for knick-knacks and souvenirs. Apparently, one of the highlights of the shopping experience was the factory at which Cloisonne was made. I’d never heard of Cloisonne before, but apparently its French for “pretentious pottery” and involves a multi-step enameling process to create pottery with detailed scenes of flowers, fruits, and women with perky breasts and not a lot of clothes. (Why it’s not more popular with men I can’t tell you.)

After the shopping, we ventured back into that famous Chinese traffic. As dusk approached, we returned to Beijing to a district called Hutong. Ostensibly, the Hutong is a collection of densely packed neighborhoods of “courtyards,” clusters of buildings arranged around central open spaces. Each courtyard, every single one of them, is exceptionally old, uniformly gray, and and seemingly in a state of disrepair. However, the Hutong is not a Chinese slum, but is instead a highly desirable plots for communal living: each courtyard is home to several different families, sharing common kitchens and bathrooms, and working together for the benefit of the group as a whole. Indeed, everything about the Hutong is rich in Chinese history. Much of the Hutong is several hundred years old, and were once home to generals and scholars of dynasties past; their grey color indicated the class of the occupants relative to the emperor and high-ranking government officials, whereas the stonework on the doors to buildings indicated the occupation of their long ago inhabitants. The courtyards are packed together, connected by a spaghetti mesh of alleyways too narrow for most cars.

Hence, to experience Hutong fully, we vacated the monster bus for a more intimate mode of conveyance: rickshaws. Well, their modern equivalents, anyways: the small, two-person cart of the rickshaw is attached to the back of a bike rather than carried by hand. Our tour group split into pairs, assembled themselves into rickshaws, which then raced single-file into the ever darkening Hutong, zipping through the murky maze of sharp corners at breakneck speed and occasionally crossing heavily trafficked side streets with suicidal abandon. Think of it as Mister Toad’s Wild Chinese Ride, but with the omnipresent threat of certain death. The Hutong is home to many small businesses as well — local grocers, hole-in-the-wall eateries, fortune tellers and acupuncturists — which meant that the Hutong alley would be dark at one second, lined only by the ornate gate-like doors of residential courtyards, and then aglow the next second, illuminated by the neon signs hawking vendors and mystics.

At least, that’s what the Queen B told me — I kept my eyes closed and prayed the whole time.

Our cavalcade of rickshaws took us deep into the Hutong, eventually stopping at one of the many nondescript courtyards. There, a small Chinese woman with a warm smile appeared from one of the doorways, inviting our entire group to drink jasmine tea and share conversation with her in a house probably half the size of our hotel room. She told us about the history of her home and her family, and answered our questions about Chinese holidays and schooling. The meeting was brief, perhaps only a half-hour, but the friendliness of this woman, who brewed hot tea for 26 strangers she welcomed into her home, spoke volumes about the good nature and good heart of the people of the Hutong, and of the Chinese personality in general.

One final rickshaw ride back to the bus, and one final drive back to the hotel, and the Queen B and I fell restlessly to sleep, knowing that tomorrow was orientation, our last chance to learn anything new about the Ladybug before we met her on Monday…


You can check out more pictures from our trip to the Wall and the Hutong over at Flickr.

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