Day 4 - 13th July 2009 8am - Picked up by a local guide for a long drive to the great wall of China. The section we were going to was Badaling, seventy or so kilometres from Beijing. There was a closer section to the city but it would have been full of tourists and stalls where we would have been pestered by stall holders to buy T-shirts and knick-knacks for ‘one dollar - only one dollar!’ No, instead we paid for a more personal experience and went one and a half hours in a private car to another section of the wall that was full of tourists and stalls and where the stall holders pestered us with their one dollar knick-knacks and T-shirts.
The good thing about this location was the cable car that took us all the way up to the wall and back again. The section of wall at Badaling is renowned for being one where you can see mile after mile of wall and tower after tower of each section stretching over hillocks into the distance. Once up on high however, we realised we couldn’t see more than 100m in any direction, such is the smog around greater Beijing. Having walked down a few of the towers and sections, up to maybe three kilometres distance, we started back. There was another cable car further on that you could use as an alternative route back down the mountainside but not knowing exactly how far it was we decided against it. Another hot and extremely sticky day soon made its impression on our clothes and bodies as we perspired profusely. An Indian gentleman who had been leading his mother and father on a tour of the wall asked my travelling companion how much further was it. Being a bit of a wit, she said about 7200km. After the laughter died down he explained that he meant to the next cable car, but how we guffawed! Simple pleasures for simple people, I suppose. I wonder how many times a day that joke is played out on the wall? As we walked we were observed closely by giant but wispy gossamer winged dragon flies. They flitted around the castellated wall with curiosity and moved with an elegant hum that breathlessly whispered a timid ‘welcome to our wall‘. Back on the cable car sweating, we were glad to go back into the heavy mist below. Again, given my fear of heights I was quite happy that I couldn’t see the drop in front of me all the way down the mountainside.
Stepping out of the car we ran the gamut of the T-shirt people. Sidestepping one dollar offers of life changing proportions. Che Guevara images on red stars and hammer and sickle emblems. I didn’t know Che had been so instrumental in China as well as Cuba! We made a quick stop at a pre-arranged meeting spot by a souvenir shop to look for our driver. He had a habit, we later found out, of wanting to stop at restaurants that co-incidentally happened to be next to factories for lunch, pee stops etc. These were of course a ruse to make us go into the said factory to buy something. Presumably he would then get commission on any sales. Okay, so we bought a few things. The fascinating things were the factories. This particular one that we visited was unlike any other we had seen. Maybe only fifteen workers producing these beautiful enamel bowls and other items for sale. The factory was straight out of the 30’s and 40’s and hadn’t changed one iota in sixty or seventy years. Basic hand produced goods, each section completed in a dingy little room in poor conditions. A personal guide gave us the short but extensive tour. Taking a well earned break from hammering out each section of pot in sheets of copper and then soldering them together, the workers sat at their workstations staring at us while eating their lunch of rice with well worn chopsticks. After the joining, the next room was where the copper wire was connected like fretwork, in scrolls and shapes, and fused to the main body of the pots which created a framework for the liquid enamel to be poured into. After each section is filled with enamel in yet another room, it is fired in a fourth room to fix the colour and then begins the slow laborious job of polishing in the fifth room. After various grades of polishes are used a burnished finish to the copper fretwork is completed by using lumps of charcoal as a rubbing agent. The whole process is finally completed by electroplating each finished pot in 24 carat gold. Sounds expensive but in reality the gold is so thin that it takes just pennies to get the desired effect. Once we had seen the process we were taken to the shop across the factory courtyard and tempted to buy a few things from one or two Euros up to €20,000 for vases bigger than the average man. After a bit of wheeler dealing we came away with some small items and also the conclusion that this small factory unit could not possibly complete all these varieties and styles of enamel work. There must have been an industrial sized unit nearby with mass producing machines to create such an array of products. The poor looking factory we had visited was just a tourist sham to make us feel sorry for the poor workers. Still it was interesting, and so was the fact that our driver miraculously re-appeared as soon as we had made purchases. When he saw that we had bought something he disappeared as quickly back into the shop to claim his commission. We returned to an even thicker, pea soup, smog laden and sticky 30 degree Beijing a little shaken as his driving was erratic to say the least. Considering that the other drivers on the road were every bit as erratic, it beggars belief that we arrived in one piece at all. After flying us past the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium and front crawling through heavy traffic past the ’Water Cube’, we stopped at a bank to change Renminbi to American Dollars for use in Russia - bureaucracy gone mad, with quadruplicate forms being filled out by section after section of humourless worker ants with no name, only numbers for identification. We came across that a lot. A number instead of a name badge seemed to rob the worker of their humanity. “So, number two five seven three six six four, did you do anything interesting at work today?” “ Nah, five one six nine four three eight, the same old forms - in quadruplicate of course.” After 45 minutes we finally had all the stamps completed and got our currency. We high tailed it outside before they found another form needed to allow us leave the building.
The driver dropped us off at Tiananmen Square in the beating heart of Beijing to experience the spectacle of Mao’s mausoleum (it was closed and he was out visiting, apparently) , the square itself and the Forbidden City. The heat was oppressive and was compounded by the crowds of people milling around. Hawkers tried to sell you everything under the sun including my favourite - a Mao watch - his arm waved up and down to count off as each second passed. Unfortunately I talked myself out if buying one and waved bye-bye to Mao in return. In hindsight I wished I had bought it. It would have been a nice, if tacky, memento of touristy kitsch. Next, we walked to the forbidden city where the emperors used to live in complete isolation from their people. So called because unauthorised entry would mean certain death for any individual. The emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties spent their days in spectacular surroundings and relative safety inside the walls. Keeping themselves occupied in their Chinese harem of concubines apparently filled their days. After leaving by the back gate the sky looked extremely ominous and heavy with rain. People who knew better were grabbing every available taxi and rickshaw in an effort to avoid the coming deluge. We decided that it would be more fun to walk in the heat and proceeded towards our hostel on foot, approximately 1km away. The skies grew darker and darker and rumbles forewarned of greater things to come. Common sense finally won over and we managed to get a little motorised rickshaw to take us back to the area of the hostel. The rickshaw was a wonderful if unnerving experience. We faced backwards side by side with no cover or door - or seatbelts! Riding by the seat of our pants, literally, we hung on for grim life as the driver crossed through the streets and threaded his way through the traffic like a sewing machine on speed. Cars came within inches of our feet, so much so that I could feel the cooling fan sucking air into the engine. I could have actually counted the flies on the front grill if I hadn’t been concentrating on holding on to the seat so hard. Once or twice the rickshaw hit a bump or pothole and sent us skywards towards the roof of our little motorised metal coffin. I noticed that the roof was filled with upward dents. Unfortunate previous occupiers who arrived at their final locations in a semi-conscious state perhaps? Having been dropped off around the corner from the hostel in Wangfujing Dajie (meaning ‘Well of Princely Places) on the main designer shopping street of Beijing we paid 20 Yuan fare only to be told it was 20 each. As I said, every possible chance to overcharge westerners was taken. The price had been agreed previously so we knew the driver was just chancing his arm. Having been told “On yer rickshaw mate!” he accepted the agreed fare without another blink. We were just stupid white ghosts to be taken advantage of if we were gullible enough to accept it.
Then the skies opened! A curious situation as the temperature was still well into the 30’s. We stood under a shop overhand and waited and waited and waited for it to die down enough for us to walk the 100m back to the hostel. Waited and waited.... Waited some more as the streets flooded and cars stopped with water ingress. People waded through the river and those with umbrellas (not us unfortunately) turned them upside down, climbed into them, and floated down the street. I’m sure I saw Noah go past in a golfing umbrella with a pair of pandas under his arm….
The rain finally eased a little so we decided to take a chance and walk back. My neck was still giving me terrible pain and we happened to be passing a massage parlour. No, not that type - the real thing. We went in and both got a deep body massage that helped sooth away the pressures and tiredness of jetlag. When the masseuse climbed onto the bed and stuck her knees into my back I thought my eyes would pop out under the pressure but the overall effect was a good one and I all but fell asleep. The massage didn’t involve any oils as you would usually expect, but simply a towel placed on top of whatever area of the body the masseuse was working on. Far cleaner and every bit as effective. Another room off the massage room revealed multiple bunk beds where the staff lived when not working. A far cry from our lifestyle in the west. A short hop across mini lakes to our hostel, and an hours sleep put me in form for our next adventure. We were whisked off by our student friend to a fantastic Japanese tepanyaki restaurant curiously on the fourth floor of a skyscraper. Our personal table chef was attentive and dextrous and produced a ballet of hand and arm movements that would have made Bobby Crush jealous. The piano was replaced by prawns and scallops but the melodious sauces sang sweet in the air and were accompanied by strange, exotic vegetables not seen in the west. A feast for the eyes and a first for the stomach. Satiated with satay and the like, we made our way back via the underground for a well earned rest and dreams of Hughie Green, Opportunity Knocks and umbrella juggling rickshaw drivers……