Great Wall or Bust! – Episode 1

You can’t really see the Great Wall of China from space. That is just a myth. You can, however, take a bus tour there from Beijing. I found the brochure in the hotel lobby. It advertised an exciting day visiting the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. Visiting a tomb didn’t sound very exciting to me (dead emperors!), but if you go to Beijing it is obligatory to visit the Great Wall. Otherwise when you get home your friends and family will ask you.

“What was the Great Wall like?” asks Grandma.

“I don’t know. I was too busy fighting with soggy noodles in my hot pot,” I would reply.

So we signed up for the tour. The bus picked us up promptly at 8am. It was a modern, comfortable touring bus. We were the first people on the bus. Our tour guide was a polite young Chinese girl named Lily.

“Welcome to our tour to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall,” she said in her halting English. I think she had memorized her opening lines. Lily was an international business major at a local university, who worked on her English while leading tour groups.

The bus slowly wound around Beijing, pushing its way through the heavy traffic. At one point the driver even drove the wrong way up an elevated, curved freeway exit ramp so we could skip the line waiting to get on the freeway. I guess when you are driving one of the biggest vehicles on the road you can do what you want. Until another car comes the other way exiting the freeway at 70 mph.

We picked up an assortment of tourists, about twelve of us in all. There was a French guy, a Brazilian father and son, a family of Mongolians, and Chinese peasants from the countryside visiting the big city for the first time. Our last pickup was an elderly Chinese gentleman dressed head to toe like Chairman Mao. He was clothed in a dark blue tunic, dark blue pants, shined black dress shoes, and a cap. He looked just like the picture of Mao on the outer wall of the Forbidden City.

Our first stop was the site of the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs are underground (they’re tombs!), but it turned out that they were closed for renovation. Going into a cave to see a tomb of a long dead emperor is not my idea of a good time, so I didn’t really care. Lily gave us a summary of the place, most of which I couldn’t hear or understand. We all piled back into the bus.

Ming Tombs
The Ming Tombs

“Now, we are going to stop at the jade factory,” said Lily. “We will show you how jade is carved.”

Shopping is one of my least favorite activities. It doesn’t matter if I am at home or on vacation, I don’t want to go shopping. It didn’t say anything about a jade factory on the tour brochure. It occurred to me right away that this stop was pre-arranged to part tourists from their yuan.

The factory sales manager led our group along a walkway which circled the factory floor. We could look through windows at the workers hunched over their grinders, furiously turning the jade pieces back and forth to turn them into dragons and butterflies. We ended up at the showroom. I admit that some of the larger items were very impressive. They also were very expensive and hard to carry home in your suitcase too. The sales job wasn’t too obnoxious and soon we were back on the bus.

Jade Carving Factory outside of Beijing
And here is Vanna to tell you the prizes you have won

“It is now time for lunch. We will have a traditional Chinese meal and a rest,” said Lily.

That’s good, I thought. I am hungry from all of this non-touring and non-shopping.
The restaurant was a very old building surrounding a courtyard. The group was led into a large room filled with round tables. We appeared to be the only customers. Lily ordered the food for the group from the waiter who magically appeared with tea cups. There were no menus. The circular table had a large round tray in the middle of it. We were each given a small bowl and chopsticks. Even though we had talked about it twenty times, I had forgotten to bring my plastic fork. I am completely inept at using chopsticks. If I have to use chopsticks at every meal, I will starve to death in no time at all.

The Chinese peasants at the table started chattering in their local dialect, no doubt discussing which dead emperor was their favorite. We tried to talk with the French guy, but his English was even less than my French, so we didn’t get very far. The Brazilians were on the far side of the table from us, and we don’t speak Portuguese anyway. Chairman Mao stared at me intently like I was from another planet.

The food arrived in a dozen large bowls. The food servers put the bowls on the tray. There was no dinner bell, but the diners from our group instantly attacked the food in the bowls like it was the start of the Indy 500. A race to see who would get full first and get the food they wanted the most. It was a little like a church potluck picnic, with some people edging their way towards the front of the line to get the deli drumsticks and gourmet chocolate chip cookies instead of Aunt Madge’s Spam hot dish and leftover jello salad.

The tray was spinning back and forth. The hungry tourists would grab the tray and spin it towards them to make a stab at dumping some of the contents of a large serving bowl into their personal small bowl. I tried to get in the game and grab the tray. I spied some fried rice on the far side. I didn’t want the unidentified brown mush in the bowl on my side of the tray. It was probably mashed fungi. I got a grip on the tray and heaved. The tray started to spin my way. I could see the rice coming along clockwise, here it comes.

It got to Chairman Mao. He grabbed the rice bowl and dumped some into his bowl. I’m a polite and patient American traveler; I know how to wait my turn. As I reached for the bowl someone on the other side of the table flung the tray again, back their way. Away went my rice, counter clockwise to oblivion. The mashed fungi came back into view. I am hungry, but there is no way I am eating that.

The tray kept rotating all the way around the circle. It looked like some spicy chicken was coming my way. Yes, keep spinning oh mighty tray! Just then one of the Mongolians stopped the tray, dumped the last of the spicy chicken into his bowl, and let the tray go.

What stopped in front of me was a green vegetable looking substance. I had no idea what that was, and even if I did, it did not look edible by humans. I’ll pass.

lunch on a tour to the Great Wall
Chariman Mao has left the building.

The tray kept spinning. The tourists devoured the contents of the bowls like a plague of locusts. I did manage to finally get some noodles into my bowl. However, getting the noodles into my mouth with chopsticks was a struggle. Abandoning all attempts at proper etiquette, I grabbed the bowl and slurped them down. Nobody noticed my dining faux pas, they were too busy using their own chopsticks as serving utensils into the common bowls. Which didn’t bother me, but was a major rules violation according to Lisa.

When the tray stopped spinning, the food was all gone, the tourists were full, and I was still hungry.

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