Sunday, February 13, 2005

In China, Day 5: Great Wall, Ice Sculpture (and Shopping)

Today's plan was to go to the Badaling section of the Great Wall and to an exhibition of ice sculptures. This was to be our first trip outside of Beijing proper, as the ice sculpture place was beyond Badaling, which was the outer (frontier-side) wall on the main pass that connects the Beijing area with the north. It turns out that Amy had never been to the ice sculpture before so we really had no idea what to expect.

The weather was again clear but the polution pall had gotten worse, becoming a thick white haze. It had also warmed up a little, which was nice.

We got an early start and headed out, following a brief attempt to find a cash machine that would take my card. I had used a cash machine earlier in the trip with no problem and I was close to being out of cash, both dollars and yuan and I didn't want to be caught with no money. But unfortunately the machine convenient to the hotel didn't take my card. Doh. But both Amy and my father offered to front me some cash should I need it. Should have used the cash machine when we were downtown yesterday.

Finally on the road. But then just as we're settling in for a long ride, we stop at the jade factory. Surprise! We had no idea.

The jade factory was very cool. These "factories" are really state-run stores with a few craftspeople there to demonstrate how the craft is done. Some of these places are pretty iffy, but this jade factory was pretty nice. The advantage of these places is that you can be assured that you're buying what they say you're buying. The disadvantage is that you can't negotiate the price, which is usually a fair price, if higher than you'd like to pay. This factory had two floors, downstairs for Chinese tourists, upstairs for foreigners.

We were herded upstairs and given a brief tutorial on jade, how it's worked, the different types of jade, and so forth. Then we were led into the main showroom where we could buy stuff.

The stuff was pretty amazing. We ended up spending a long time there, longer I think than Amy had planned on.

Bill was looking for two things in particular for friends back home and this was clearly his best opportunity, having failed to find what he wanted at the antique market or the Artistic Mansion. And of course the women were almost giddy with delight, dazzled by all the shiney things. Actually, it was mostly shopping for gifts. Jade does have the advantage that it's compact and uniquely Chinese. It also helped that the place takes all major credit cards.

Julie got a nice surprise. At the market a couple of days before she had bought a small jade cicada pendant, not really knowing if it was real jade or what (we certainly don't have the knowledge to distinguish). We thought we got it for a pretty good price. Julie showed it to the women at the jade place and they all exclaimed that it was very good quality.

Finally we tore ourselves away from the jade and got back on the road toward the ice sculptures. The drive was uneventful until we got close to the sculpture place. Suddenly we were stopped by a knot of people, one of whom argued with Mr. Liu at length. It seemed a little tense, because we had no idea what was going on. It felt a little like a road block out in the middle of nowhere. But it turned out it was a just a parking scam--they wanted us to park far from the exhibit and use one of their carts, at a stiff charge, to get to the place. Mr. Liu wasn't having any of it. Finally a dude on a motorcycle charged us 20 yuan to escort us up to the closest parking area.

The sculpture area is tucked up into this fjord-like valley, below a big dam that spans this steep, rocky gorge. It reminded us a lot of the fjord that Julie and I had landed in during our trip to Norway several years ago, where we took this train down into a frozen fjord where we were supposed to spend the night and couldn't find anyone. And it was cold.

When you arrive at this place, you start in this small plaza with a bunch of scuptures arranged about. These were pretty interesting and, since we had no expectations, we were like "hey this is pretty cool", just digging the experience of being somewhere far off the tourist track.

We clowned around with the scuptures a bit and enjoyed the festival atmosphere. They had created this huge ice slide built like the great wall, which I decided I had to do. It was fun, like a brief luge ride, but the slide was curvey and it kind of slammed me into the sides, which hurt a bit. Wah.

But then we realized that the scupture plaza was just the warm up act. The real exhibit was in this covered area, where the theme was famous buildings from around the world. This was a very surreal place, with colored lights incorporated into the ice. We clowned around some more and generally marveled at the sculptures.

As we were leaving Amy pointed out that there was a area set aside for setting off fireworks, so I had to buy some firecrackers and some big stuff and set it off. It was great fun. I bought this cluster of small mortars that went up about 100 feet and then exploded in a nice shower of color and a loud bang. Of course it would have been better at night, but when will I have a chance again to set off dangerous fireworks without fear of arrest?

Finally it was time for lunch, which we took at a fancy hotel near the ice sculpture area (this area is also near to a small ski area so it's clearly a minor resort spot). Lunch was good, as always, but not othewise remarkable.

Finally we were off to the Great Wall, which was back in the direction of Beijing.

The section we went to, Badaling, is the most famous section because it was the first section opened to tourists, back in 1956. This is the place they always take foreign dignitaries for photo ops. It's an amazing complex, spanning both sides of the wide valley that provides access to Beijing from the north. The scope of the wall is just breathtaking--it goes forever and when you consider that this is just one part, it's sort of staggering. Of course it was built over centuries, but the sheer effort required is amazing--the cost in lives and diverted weath is almost beyond comprehension. I don't think anything in Western history can compare.

We all took lots of photos, of course, but Julie won the photo contest with this composition.

As the guide book suggests, we went to the left, up the southern section, while almost everyone else goes right. You can see the hordes of people in that direction in the picture above. We climbed around, going up until we got to the point where you can "officially" say you've climbed the great wall. Coincidently, this is a point where a gaggle of souvenier hawkers lie in wait, pressing you to buy T-shirts and commemorative medals with your name in Chinese. We didn't buy any.

The sun was getting low in the sky and it was getting colder, so we headed back down and out. But on the way out we stopped to buy some hats. Bill had an order to buy 10 Beijing Olympics hats, which Amy had assured us we could buy from any of the many souvenier stalls there at the Great Wall. This part of the Badaling complex reminded me of nothing so much as Deadwood, South Dakota--you come around a corner on this mountain road and suddenly you're surrounded by the tackiest tourist stores arranged along both sides of the narrow road. The only real difference was the language on the signs.

Amy had already determined that we could buy hats for 6 yuan (less than one dollar), which we proceeded to do. We all bought hats and Julie and I got some postcards. I felt like I overpaid at 5 yuan, since I could have bought similar cards for 4 from one of the roving people, but I think the quality of these was better.

Finally we slipped the grasp of the souvenier sellers, who did not want us to leave, and made our way back to the van (which happened to be parked next to a black Lincoln stretch limousine) and so back to the hotel. We had fun on the way back trying to tell jokes with Amy, testing the limits of her English and the ability to translate jokes across broad cultural rifts.

And as it happens, I ended the day with exactly 2 jiao, which is 2-tenths of a yuan (20 fen). Yow.

Another great day of sight seeing. We are all clearly falling in love with Amy, who is just as sweet as could be and a very good guide. We will be sad to leave her care. She will not be going to Guangzhou with the other families, so today was our last day with Amy as our dedicated guide. Tommorrow she has to collect the remaining GWCA families at the airport and then on Tuesday we will be part of the big GWCA tour going to another part of the Great Wall and to the Forbidden City.

Tommorow (today as I write) we will visit Tiananmen Square and the Wholesale Market with Amy's friend Snow as our backup guide.

One thing that I'm finding very nice about this part of the trip is that since we had no particular plan and no expectations at the start of it it has been impossible to be disappointed. We had put ourselves entirely in the hands of fate and we could haven't asked for a more interesting or pleasant experience. We have been tremendously blessed and for that I am grateful.

Now it's time for a sauna and breakfast....


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