As you probably know, the thing about going out late and getting drunk is that the next morning can be difficult. And this morning, the day I was scheduled to take a tour of the Great Wall of China, proved to be a difficult morning indeed.
When I got back to the hostel the night before, in my drunken state I somehow thought it would be a good idea to set my alarm well before I was supposed to get up. The tour bus was supposed to pick us up at 7:30 or 7:45 if I recall correctly. I also opted for the additional breakfast at 7:00 served by the hostel at a hefty extra charge.
So, as I say, for some reason I thought I would set my alarm for 5:30, well before I needed to get up. I think my plan was that I would snooze for a while, and then get up when I was more ready. Getting out of bed for me is often a gradual process. Now, getting home the night before around 2:30 or so, 5:30am was only a few short hours away. And I did indeed wake up at 5:30, only to promptly turn off the cell phone's alarm and fall back asleep immediately. The next thing I knew, I awoke with a sudden rush to find that the time was 7:20. I only had 10 minutes to get ready before the bus would pick us up. I wanted to have a shower, but there was clearly no time for that, so I threw on my several layers of clothes still in a state of somewhat drunkenness, and shot out into the lobby. On my way to brush my teeth (remember the bathroom is out of my room and down the hall) I noticed a cold plate of eggs, bacon, and toast waiting on a table. I knew it must be for me, so after brushing my teeth, I quickly sat and wolfed down my breakfast in about two minutes. It wasn't that great anyway, but it was the first time in about 5 months I had had a truly western style breakfast.
By this time it was only about 7:35, so I would have basically been ready for the tour bus had it arrived on time. I looked at another tourist standing in the lobby, a bald headed English chap, and asked if he was going on the tour. He said he was. Now, at this point, I had another issue, and I'm going to be candid, forgive me if you get grossed out: the previous night we had spicy hot pot, and sometimes the little bits of pepper in the spicy hotpot water get into my food (they're really not meant to be consumed, I believe, just there to flavor what you put in the pot) and man do they give me the shits. I had already taken one shit that morning and I didn't even think I had time for that, but now, as the tour bus seemed to be late (things often are in this country), I felt I should shit again, because I needed too, and I didn't want to go through the long bus ride and day at the Wall in discomfort. So I asked the English chap to watch my stuff, and took another quick shit.
When I got out, I had another problem I was determined to solve before the bus arrived. My camera needed batteries (perhaps it actually didn't, it's just that extreme cold can make batteries dysfunctional, as we tourists would discuss later that day), and I was damn determined not to buy them at the Wall because I felt there they would be ridiculously over-priced for us dumbshit tourists. I remembered that there was a battery store I could buy them at about halfway down the block, so I shot out the door and got there. The store had just opened, and though they had batteries, the poor woman working their didn't have change for my 100 kuai bill. So together we left this woman's store unattended (bless her heart) and tried a few stores down at a sort of a convenient food shop. The woman inside this one, it being early morning, was still getting ready for the day, and was visibly still washing her face and putting on her makeup to greet the day. She didn't have change either, so together, we ran all the way back to the hostel. Finally, the front desk at the hostel changed my large bill, and I was ready to depart. Even by that point I still had to wait a few minutes for the bus. I don't think it departed until about 8:15.
As I got on the bus I met a German couple staying in the same hostel. The guy's name was Johannes, "Jo" (pronounced "Yo") for short, and the girl was named Lavinia. Jo would eventually become my man crush in Beijing, which won't surprise you if you know my hard-on for all things German. But at that point the morning was too fresh, the air too cold, and the hangover and tiredness still a stumbling block between us and true socializing at this early hour. So we all sat on the bus in relative quiet for the first hour or so, all drifting off in solitude. Plus I needed to shit again and my stomach was bothering me. Goddamn those little spicy flakes of pepper.
Approaching the wall, people got more talkative, and I started staring at the magazine being looked at by the guy behind me. The magazine was a German overview of the coming 2010 World Cup in South Africa, featuring a short introduction from Michael Ballack himself. After staring for sometime, I finally introduced myself to man who was named Mike and was from Switzerland. Our conversation was obviously from the start based in mutual fanship of soccer. A few minutes later, we were interrupted by a very nerdy and goofy American dork. I won't make too much a point of describing him, but he was really dorky, wore glasses, and had for some reason thought it was a good idea to wear shorts over his pants for warmth. That should say it all. Anyway, he had overheard me say I knew some French to Mike (as in Switzerland some speak German and some speak French), to which this kid jumped in and blurted out "OHH! Parlez-vous Francais?!" Obviously this kid had taken some French in high school and was elated with the chance at having something mutual to talk about. I responded with an awkward "Me?!" (I didn't really know what else to say that would handle it politely), and the kid quickly got the picture that he was intruding in our conservation and quickly started to beat himself up inside. I'm not sure I ever learned his name, but he figured into the day's experience.
When we finally arrived at the Wall, Mike and I were ready to be travel BFFs and climb up together. Our guide said to our group of about 20 that we could either walk up it, which takes about a half hour, or take a tram which takes 5 minutes. All of us burly westerners proudly exclaimed we wanted to walk, so we hit the trail, first walking through the small village at the base of the Wall where the usual barrage of aggressive merchants were to be found.
As we were walking through the village, the bald English guy from the hostel leaned in to speak to me discreetly and said "Isn't that American kid from Florida (the dork, who was evidently from Florida) a total dick?" I chuckled for a moment and said, "Nah, he's just a huge dork who has utterly no social skills." The English guy agreed. That poor dorky kid, I was really starting to take a sympathetic shine to him at that point.
Anyway, climbing a small mountain can be a tough endeavor for some, also if you insist on making conversation the whole way up as I did. If you are in decent shape, as I'd like to think that I am, you end up passing people stopping to rest as the trail winds on. Ones with less fortitude turned out to be the dork with shorts over his pants and Jo and Lavinia who had taken a break to smoke, I noticed. We also inevitable passed the occasional Chinese person trying to sell you something. These people were at every step of the way, offering to sell you overpriced Snickers bars (Mike bought one) and postcards at the top of the Great Wall, or violently offering to take your picture for you on your camera. Tossing aside their fervent solicitations, we reached the top of the mountain and the Wall itself in a short 25 minutes or so.
If you took the time to flip through my pictures, posted below under the title "Picture Extravaganza," you would have seen for yourself have unbelievably clear the sky was that day. There was not a cloud or trace of smog to be found. You could see miles and miles of rocky, snow capped mountains and the Great Wall which meandered over each mountainous crest and trough, drastically changing altitude and steepness. It was beautiful, a tourist's winter dream and perfect weather to snap photos. So me, Mike, Jo, Lavinia, the bald English dude, and a couple of French guys set off, hiking up the at times extremely steep stairs, and reaching the end point of the Wall. Beyond it was unrestored Wall, and we ventured into that a bit, too, but between joking with each others, snapping photos, and talking about previous travel experiences, we got our money's worth. You could even yell, as I did with my powerful and carrying voice, into the mountains and hear the echo. The French kids in particular were impressed with that.
But eventually it was time to go down. It was midday and we were hungry. To get down, we again had a choice: hike, or slide down on a metal track in these little plastic sleds. Faced with such choice, we started looking at each other, and eventually came to the conclusion, "Hell yeah! We can't not do it!" So we all paid the extra fee, 40 kuai I believe, and we slid down the mountain, curving through trees and past rock. I was a bit of a wuss driving, and was afraid of letting go of the brake, which caused the bald English bloke behind me to almost catch me and hit me from behind. At the bottom I apologized by saying "I'm sorry; I wouldn't fair well as a race car driver."
Lunch was served in the village at the base of the Wall, where we were treated to a typical Chinese style meal, comprised of several dishes served on a big lazy susan. I sat next to Jo. Our friend in the shorts was also at the table, again beating himself up for getting ripped off by some of the merchants in the village (he had paid 90 kuai for a deck of cards; recall that I bought a deck in Xi'an for 10 kuai and had just before lunch haggled my way into a t-shirt in the same village for 40 kuai, but it did take quite a bit of violent haggling). In my social-worker, want-to-be-shrink kind of way I told the kid to not beat himself, and just live and learn. I hope he appreciated that. He seemed to.
On the way back to the hostel in the bus I struck up a nice convo with a Canadian who had just finished a long stint in India taking photos in natural parks. My, he had some crazy travel stories that put mine to shame. Seems like India would be even more intense than China, but I still want to travel there someday.
That evening we got home and took some naps. I had agreed to meet up with Mike for a beer but it never transpired, so I think I just hung out in the hostel for a while and chatted with the folks there. But the climax of the day was undoubtedly the Wall. I had been there, seen it, and had a Hell of a time doing it. I knew Beijing had plenty to offer, but what was next? Plenty indeed.