My father likes to say, “The difficulty with communication is the illusion it has been achieved.” In setting up our trip to The Great Wall we had asked to be taken to the least traveled portion of the wall that was accessible from Beijing. While we didn’t want to spend days getting to a remote section, we hoped that with a bit of effort we could get to a spot where we might sit quietly and ponder the architectural wonder in relative solitude.
Somehow what they heard was “we would like to see the most significant portion of the wall near Beijing.” As one might imagine, the “significant” section of something might be visited by a few more people than a “remote section.”
After a 90 minute drive we found ourselves in a traffic jam of buses full of tourists. A serious traffic jam, to the point where folks were bailing out of their buses to walk along the side of the road. As you can imagine we began to suspect we weren’t headed anywhere remote.
The guide explained that with all the VIP traffic to this section traffic can be a nightmare. Oh boy. Eventually we began crawling forward again. It reminded me a bit of arriving at the Disneyland parking lot but with more food stalls, no attendants providing directions, less space, and no lines painted in the parking lot.
After securing tickets, not a quick experience, we rode a gondola a short distance up to a higher point on the wall emerging into a crowd of Chinese tourists reminiscent of a group of SF Giants fans all in good spirits crowding through a tunnel jostling to get to their seats.
(As a side note, of the 1.3 billion citizens in China, my data indicates about 1/3 are armed with selfi sticks ready to be deployed at a moments notice.)
The guide pointed up the steep incline along the top of the wall (jam packed with folks making their way up) and said she would meet us “back here” when we were done. As she wandered off looking at her cell phone, we joined the masses (moving against the tide wasn’t really an option anyway) and slowly moved upward.
About five minutes up the wall, I pulled everyone over to one side and we huddled against the railing. As the tide of happy tourists flowed around us I said, “Ok, clearly this is not what we envisioned.” Everyone’s eyes were a bit bugged out and Colin, being the shortest of us, was looking especially distraught. “We have two choices, we can be upset that this isn’t the experience we expected, which would be understandable. Or, we can decide to have a different experience, laugh at our predicament and embrace it.”
If I had hoped for a response along the lines of “Yes, Dad. Great idea, let’s do it!” I was disappointed. I could tell that if I called for a vote, option 1 was going to be a clear winner.
I tried again, “Look this is clearly a two on a scale of one to ten.” Colin’s quick response, “Really Dad, a two? I was thinking maybe one and half.” In my best Marty Feldman voice from Young Frankenstein I struck back with, “Well, it could be worse…could be raining.” That did it. We all laughed and the fun began.
We merged in with the crowd, exchanging “ni haos” with our jostling neighbors. We stopped for photos with the boys leaning out over the wall, talked about the poor air quality (we should have been wearing masks according to the US Embassy monitoring system) and posed for photos with folks.
Colin opted to embrace having his hair ruffled by the ladies who were declaring him cute, rather than groaning, and Bryce was a hit with the teenage girls asking for photos with him.
Aleix and I held hands (partly out of affection and partly to not get separated in the crowd) and I tried to take pictures of the portion of the wall not open to tourists so I would have them as a juxtaposition to the reality of our experience.
As we moved with the mass of humanity down the wall towards the exit we realized that we were headed away from where we had left our waiting guide. I mumbled to Aleix, “Holy cow, she thought we were going to go up the wall and then turn against the tide and make our way back to her? What the hell?”
We came to a juncture in the path along a large barricade and boy do I wish I had photos of what we did next. If we could only get over the series of barricades we could get back to the entrance and then “flow” with the new arrivals back to our guide’s resting spot. A Chinese gentlemen was standing next to me, clearly pondering the same thing. Our eyes met and he jumped up on the wall and around the first barricade. Not hearing a shout from an authority figure I turned to my team and said,”OK, what the heck…Geronimo!” to which Colin responded with a grin as he jumped up on the barrier.
We all made it over the series of barricades! Not quite as fast as the other folks who joined us in our escape but with grins on our faces. The guide was a little surprised when she looked up from her cell phone to see us coming from the direction of the entrance.
We headed back down in the gondola to the parking lot area and started the search for our driver and his van. We asked the guide if this site was always this busy, “Oh yes, she said, very important to Chinese history, everyone comes here.”
A final note in the experience: As we made our way back to central Beijing we passed a section of wall that had only a few folks on it. Aleix asked the guide, who was texting in the front seat, “How come we didn’t go to that section?” Our guide’s response, “This part not so important.” The boys both giggled at their mother’s barley audible groan.