Monday, November 29, 2010


I packed in the morning and jumped in a taxi to the airport with Luis, Carol and Kelly. We got there at around 11, and our flight was to be a bit after 1 pm. The airport was easy, and so was the flight. It was only 3 hours, but I was still recovering from LKF and slept through the entire flight. There were some points when I woke up because my peers were being incredibly loud and disrespectful, which was a little embarrassing.
        I organized my trip through TheChinaGuide, which is an American based tour company working out of Beijing. They had over 200 SAS students sign up for their “Sleep on the Great Wall” tour, and booked all of our flight and train tickets for us. It took 3 airplanes to get us all to the northern part of the country. My flight was probably 90% us, and 10% Chinese people traveling. Alcohol was free, and a lot of the kids on my trip were immature and irresponsible; this would be the first of many times I would be mortified with the behavior of my “friends” for the next 3 days.
        Anyway, we got in around 6 pm and our China Guide tour-guides met us at the airport and shuffled us into 8 buses. We split into 2 different hotels, but Kelly and I were roommates and stuck together which was great. We ate dinner at the lounge in the lobby of our hotel, which was relaxed and really neat with oriental decorations, lanterns and a lot of red interior design with gold accents. About 30 minutes after we ordered our food, loads of drunk SAS students suddenly piled into the lounge. There was a family eating there who was staying at the hotel, and an older English couple with a friend sitting at the table adjacent to ours. We waited another 30 minutes silently for our food, appalled at how these kids were behaving. The food finally arrived, and wasn’t that great. Kelly’s garlic bread was toast with whole cloves of garlic on it, sparsely topped with mozzarella. The service was slow because the hotel staff was running around trying to cater to drunk American teenagers. As we left the lounge on our way out after our meal, the couple sitting near us stopped me and told me that we should be embarrassed for the image we are creating of American college students. With our spirits low, Kelly and I apologized and went straight to bed around 11 pm.
        We left in the morning, and most kids bought panda hats that cost $1 at a stand just outside of the hotel. We all looked ridiculous, and walked over to the next hotel to meet our friends. After dividing into groups of 30, we filed onto our 8 buses and off we went to The Forbidden City. It was so, so beautiful. The architecture was incredible, the colors and designs in the ceilings and building exteriors were so intricate. There were vast plazas that I could just imagine large army parades going through, with the Emperor on a lifted seat floating through the crowds. What a neat thing to be in a place with so much history. If you’ve ever seen The Last Emperor, that’s exactly where I was. There is a scene where the young boy cries about having to take on such a big role and not see his family anymore, and his father says “it will all be over soon.” This was a real event and was seen as the bad omen that ended the rule of the Chinese Empire. I saw the room where this all took place, so that was pretty crazy to behold.
        After walking through many large structured gates, we were dumped out under an image of Chairman Mao and exited into Tiananmen Square through Tiananmen Gate, which means the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Huge permanent bleachers lined the streets so the public could view the communist party armies marching down the streets of Beijing. There were tourists from all over the world and all over China. Surrounding the enormous square (which is the largest public gathering place in the world) are the Chinese Parliamentary building, Mao’s tomb and the National Museum of China, among others.
        We left this for lunch, and then the silk factory, where we spent a couple hours haggling with ladies who laughed at my hat and called me “panda lady.” I bought a harmonica and have been working on it, but am not getting very far. After this, there was a three hour bus ride to the great wall, during which we all slept. When we got there it was dark and about 7:30 pm. Tons of food was brought out to us, and there were a lot of Chinese people on the other half of the huge banquet room. They were SO drunk. Of course this got our group going crazy, and a lot of kids had bought bottles of alcohol on the way in, so they joined in with the Chinese people and stood on chairs dancing and singing national anthems and Auld Lang Syne in English and Chinese, among other things. It was fun and such great entertainment!
        We all changed into our thermals and layers on the bus, and then headed up to the wall. On the way we were each given a sleeping pad, a flashlight and two 10-degree sleeping bags to carry in addition to our clothes and belongings that would sustain us through the next 18 hours. There was a huge staircase on the way up to the wall – it was a climb – and we had to stop and take breaks from being so out of breath.
        We got up to the wall finally, and walked along it in the dark for about ¼ mile until we threw our bags down and made camp for the evening. I was pretty happy a bunch of my good friends on the ship decided to do the same trip and ended up in my group! It was FREEZING outside. We were told to expect 4 degrees Celsius, and it ended up being about that – which is 10 degrees Farenheit. I bought a 20 degree sleeping bag, so after that didn’t keep me warm until about 3 am, I jumped out of my bag and doubled up with the ones provided by the tour company, and that was finally enough to let me sleep through the night. I wore socks but still couldn’t feel my toes for most of the night, and before I doubled bags, there were times when I woke up from trembling violently until my nerves calmed enough to let me fall back asleep. It was also hard to fall asleep for a while because a bunch of the kids who wanted to stay up late and party brought speakers with them, and we were provided with free beer though most of us didn’t have any interest in it as warmth was generally the #1 priority. For those who stayed up though.. they had a good, loud time until about 3 am.
        I woke up with a cold nose to the sounds of light chatter. Eventually I crawled out of my sleeping bags, reluctantly, and stretched – only to find myself overlooking the three miles of the Great Wall that lay ahead. I’d almost forgotten where I was! We ate some bread and apples and headed out. Our guides took our sleeping bags, and we walked down the wall until we saw them at the end of our three miles. It was SO rough out there. The hike was strenuous, and though Table Mountain in South Africa has been referred to as the “3-hour stairmaster,” the Great Wall could easily challenge it. Much of the trail is built to incorporate the mountains it sits on, meaning that if you climb the Great Wall, you really are “climbing.” It was fun though, and great to stop and take pictures. There were moments when I looked around and reminded myself of all of the history that took place where I stood, and of how profoundly beautiful the sights before me were. The annual Great Wall Marathon goes onto the actual wall; runners conquer almost 4,000 steps on the wall itself. It is known as the biggest graveyard in the world because it’s construction was so strenuous that many people died. Legend has it that their bones were used in the structures of the wall itself.
Quick history lesson – the Great Wall was constructed under the rule of Emperor Qin (pronouched “Chin”) Shi Huangdi. He had the shortest rule of any emperor in China (11 years), but left the biggest mark. “Chin”-a is named after him. The terracotta army in Xi’an was built for his tomb. He established written language systems and coin-currency rather than trade, as well as weights and measures. However, he expended so many of his resources that his empire fell very quickly.
Anyway – back to the wall - it was really neat to be able to be so casual about it, and to feel like I actually conquered something when we headed back down to the buses. There were points where we all had to stop and catch our breath. Some people actually got sick from all the physical activity.. often times, locals would stay within the forts with cans of pop or t-shirts for sale. They’re so impressive – these people wake up every morning and go out to hike on the wall just to sell their merchandise. It’s good to buy souvenirs there and support the locals, so I bought a t-shirt that reads “I climbed the great wall” and am pretty excited to wear it at home!
        We got back on the buses, which took us to a restaurant in Beijing (which was a few hours away) for lunch. After lunch, we went to the location of the Olympic stadiums used in 2008 and saw the Bird’s Nest, which was a stunningly intricate piece of architecture, and the Swim Cube which looks like it’s covered with big, transparent bubbles. Then we went to a teahouse called Dr. Tea (which is the biggest in Beijing) and learned about different Chinese teas and how to taste them and appreciate the flavors. Some of them are headache or stomachache remedies, which was neat. They also showed us a little device called the “pee-boy” which is a tiny statue of a boy, and when you aren’t sure if the temperature of your water is right – you dip pee-boy in the water and if it’s the right temperature, he pees everywhere. It’s ridiculous, but of course we all bought one because it was the funniest thing we’d seen all day. Our guides then took us to the train station, where we got McDonalds for dinner (mmm.... seriously) and waited for 2 hours to board our train. The station was very clean and as big as an airport, with giant screens flashing promotional China videos. We parted ways with our guides and hopped on.
        The train was SO fun.  Even though I didn’t stay up all night – it was still really cool to see how clean and tidy everything was and how technologically advanced it was too. There were flat-screen TV’s built into every bed-space, and hangers available for coats. There was hot water on the table for tea and little foot-handles that you could pull down from the wall to climb on the top bunk. Though we were rocking all night, I can’t complain because at this point I’m used to it (thank you, Ship) and it was nice to just be warm in a bed again. There were four pairs of colorful slippers in each room, and I was pumped about having ship-slippers, finally! We all had a couple beers and played some cards until it started to get late, and I got a solid 7 hours of rest (except for when I woke up in the middle of the night to scream at the completely rude SAS students who stayed up partying and drinking… third night in a row). Unfortunately, when the stewardesses came around doing wake-up calls, they sneakily swept our shoes up into garbage pails, so they were gone when we finally got up. :( We woke up in the morning in Shanghai, ready for a new adventure.

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