Thanks to an early and the magical powers of jet lag, I up at 4:30 in the morning to watch the city awaken from my hotel room. By 5:00 the cars down below were honking as they rounded the corner, by 5:30 the construction across the street was in full swing, and by 6:00 the sun and I had risen. I took advantage of the hotel wifi and the 12-hour time difference to message my family and friends back home and update them on my travels. I tested out the VPN I had downloaded and was able to access the forbidden sites of Facebook, Google, and Instagram. The breakfast buffet in the lobby was the best I had seen. They had all the classics from the West- bacon, scrambled eggs, orange juice- but also plenty of Asian breakfast foods such as fried rice, pork buns, and noodles. My favorites that morning were the small and sweet Asian pear, and a fried and flaky roll called chu tiao. Following a delay in exchanging cash, the group walked to a hotel a few blocks away for a short orientation and review of what we would be doing for the rest of the week. Soon we were on a bus headed for the Great Wall of China.
Once boarded, we met Uncle Joe, another tour guide and a friend of Dr. Li. Though he told us he wasn’t very good at English, Uncle Joe was an incredible tour guide, talking for an hour as we drove through the city and cracking jokes along the way. Joe lectured on politics and history of Beijing, pointing out the city gate towers we drove past, and explaining how the six ringed roads of Beijing now stand where the city walls once protected the royal palace. He made an interesting comparison between the former emperors, Chairman Mao, and sitting President Jinping, essentially calling them all dictators of China. After we left Beijing I spent some time poring over the class’ “textbook”, a book on Chinese culture. I learned about Chinese at home, the importance of family names, health tips, and getting around in China. Lunch was in a similar style to the night before, where everyone shared a family-style meal around a Lazy Susan. My favorites from lunch included fried green beans with peppers, and a soft pancake shaped like pita bread. After lunch it was time to take on the Wall.
To get to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, we walked through an open-air market to get to the shuttle bus, which took us up to the base of the mountain. From there, we climbed nearly seventy flights of stairs up the side of the mountain. Upon reaching the top, I was sweaty, out of breath, and awestruck by the monument that stretched over the mountain in front of me. After a couple of minutes the rest of the group clambered up the stairs, and we agreed to meet again in an hour. David, Jimmy, Jacob, and I spotted a tall corner tower on the next peak and we decided that we needed to reach it. We set off in reach of our lofty goal, motivated by Lilliana’s wise words, “The boys make it to the top.” The steps on the Great Wall varied wildly in size, from three inches to three feet. It was a hike and a half, and we paused at every guard tower to rest and admire the view. Lots of these towers were graffitied, with words or characters scratched into bricks or painted on beams; this didn’t detract from the impact of the architecture, but it was sad to think that people would deface this wonder of the world. Upon reaching our lofty goal, we found that it was called Dajiaolou, or Great Corner Tower, and it guarded two strategic passes through the mountains on either side. The effort it took to get there made the view from the top all the more worth it.
To get down from the Great Wall, the Asia Institute had paid for all of us to take a toboggan down a metal slide that winded down the mountain. It was such a thrill, I was ready to hike up the mountain just to ride down again.
On the bus ride home, I learned my numbers. After learning one through ten, I was able to say all the numbers up to ninety-nine, since anything above ten was said almost like a math problem. For example, thirty eight is sān shí bā, or three-tens eight. After learning one hundred (bǎi), I was able to say up to 999 using the same structure. I also learned some simple phrases like “I don’t understand” and “Excuse me”. Pronunciation didn’t come naturally, as vowels in Mandarin could have four different intonations, and most words in English didn’t need this higher level of vocal control. Luckily, I had my friends Alana and David to help me out.
For dinner, we were on our own. We originally were going to get hotpots as a group of thirteen, but the restaurant was much smaller than we thought and a group of seven broke off to go find food elsewhere. We didn’t need to walk far in the mall to reach a restaurant that looked good. To order we were given a checklist of the menu and a picture menu. We first spent some time matching the text underneath the pictures to the text on the checklist, but eventually called our waiter over and pointed at the pictures while he filled out the order. A few minutes after our waiter had disappeared, another man came to our table and explained in Chinese that for seven people, we should order at least seven or eight dishes, and we had ordered a grand total of four. After ordering a couple more dishes and using Google Translate to explain that Chris was allergic to nuts, we were served very quickly. It was a surprisingly large amount of food, especially because the total for each person amounted to 30RMB, or about 5USD.
Following dinner, we spent some more time exploring the mall and eventually set off into the city in search of “the Times Square of Beijing”. With only a vague idea of the direction we were headed, our group of seven walked for a few miles along a larger highway that ran past the hotel. Even after 9pm, many small grocery stores and bakeries were still open. We stopped at one and Sarah and I split a large flaky pastry with raisins for only 2USD each. The group continued a little longer, and we found ourselves in the luxury district of Beijing, with beautiful hotels towering above, and stores displaying luxury cars in their windows. Still not convinced that we had found the street we were looking for, we wandered for only a little bit longer before turning around to go back to the hotel.