Today began damp and dreary in Beijing. It was raining – hard – which you’d think would help wash away some of the smog. It didn’t. The moisture only served to make the pollution cling to your clothing, skin and hair.
By lunch the rain had ceased and the air was a bit cleaner. My mood was buoyed both by less toxic air and the news that our colleagues here were going to take us on a tour of the Great Wall.
Lunch today was sort of a Chinese fondue. You get plates of all sorts of different raw meats and veggies, which you cook in oil at the table, then dip in a peanut sauce which has been mixed with spices and herbs. Most of it was delicious. The octopus balls weren’t my favorite, but the rest was quite good.
After lunch we set off for the nearly hour-long drive to the Great Wall.
The Great Wall is endless (nearly 3,900 total miles), so there are many options when visiting. We were taken to the section just outside Mutianyu village, the same region President Clinton toured in 1998.
The village was charming, and plays host to countless merchants hawking can’t miss items like bright yellow t-shirts featuring Mao Zedong or silk robes which you absolutely must have before climbing the Wall. Each merchant seems to be selling exactly the same things and each seem shocked that, having turned down everyone else selling identical items, you’re not just dying to step into their stall and purchase one of everything.
Once you reach the Wall you can’t help but be awed. I’ve seen pictures, of course, but it’s another thing entirely to see it up close, and still another to walk along its miles of ramparts, traversing stairs that can vary drastically in height and depth from one step to the next. I’m not sure if this is a design flaw or the original worker’s way of getting back at their masters.
(I couldn’t help but have this image of ancient Chinese warriors scurrying around atop the Great Wall during battle, stumbling on misshapen stairs, breaking ankles, weapons flying everywhere. The more I pictured it the more I giggled. I got the simples – couldn’t stop laughing. No one else was in on the joke, no one had even heard a joke uttered. All soon began to fear the Beijing air had finally done me in.)
The ascent to the Wall is made by cable car. To get back down you can take ski-lift like chairs, or a toboggan, which hurtles down a half-enclosed steel tube. It comes with a warning to “Sled at your own risk.”
I have a chemical imbalance which prevents me from resisting these sorts of bad decisions.
I believe I may be the first to shoot down the mountain in a suit. My colleague’s fears about my failing senses were confirmed.
Dinner tonight was a Beijing specialty, and for the first time on this trip “delicacy” didn’t equate to slow, painful torture. Beijing’s famous dish, happily, is braised duck, what Americans know as Peking Duck. And it’s scrumptious.
As we were seated at dinner I was maneuvered around to the seat facing the door. It occurred to me that I’d been so placed at each meal for the past week. Sia explained that the seat facing the door is the place of honor at a dinner gathering and is reserved for important guests. I was suddenly quite embarrassed, both that it hadn’t occurred to me to notice sooner and that all week people had been rearranging themselves just for me.
The duck, still in one piece, was brought to our table for inspection, and the chef began peeling away slices. Apparently there’s an art to slicing duck in Beijing – people actually must be trained for it. A properly sliced Peking Duck will yield 90 pieces of meat – no more, no less. Who first came up with this, and why? (No one seemed able to answer the why, yet everyone accepted that this was indeed the only reasonable way to do it.)
They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Apparently ducks are less accommodating.