XIV: The Great Wall, Paid for by China

Mutianyu, May 21st—We go to the Great Wall because we must. We hire a driver. He has children and is recommended to us by Mom’s flight attendant friends. I take from these facts the suggestion that he is careful and competent about what he does. As it turns out, the friends are untrustworthy and this driver hopes death will be his deliverance from family. Speeding, tailgating, weaving, whatever chronic driving illness there is, this man suffers from it. I rip off and bloody my fingernails within ten minutes. How I maintain composure is by justifying to myself the fact that this man is alive, he is driving, and these should count for something. But these facts are true for all road death statistics at one time or another, and this man will certainly be one.

Getting out at the Mutianyu section of Great Wall is a celebration of life. We take a short bus trip to the to hills that hold the wall, and from there we have a choice to ride in an enclosed gondola or open ski-lift. There’s a way to climb up, we believe, but it’s a ladder of an ascent and it’s drizzling now. We take the ski-lift. Our metal seats are wet and this means our bums are saturated. But we have fog and a hundred-foot gap below to kick our feet into. We hear the wind and the gears of machinery clank the further up we move.

Moving around the Great Wall is a task. Fog is lace on the stones and makes the descent between stairs, which can be more than a foot, fearsome. The particular segment of wall we’re on has been rehabbed, but there is a connected and cordoned off section that’s been left to decay in whatever way nature determines. The towers there have been scalped by disrepair. The surrounding area is woody, tied together with branches and looping roots. These have curled into the seams of that wall and drawn its stones away. The inner rubble is spilling out. Trees grow through the ramparts. Ours is not like this. It is crenelated, intact; two-story towers are set at intervals, but climbing a tower isn’t necessary to gain altitude since the wall smartly follows the contours of steep hills. Were there no wall, making the hill summits at all would be difficult. Even cresting one of the lower saddles would involve a great deal of effort. The slopes are high and slick. There are loose rock faces and dense underbrush. I wonder if the wall was necessary at all. What invader would overcome the numerous and vast natural obstacles to arrive at this wall and look at its eighteen feet of stone and think it’d be much more of an impediment? Had the subjects of the Qin Dynasty thought of this, would they have so enthusiastically chanted at Qin Shi Huang rallies, “Build the Wall”?


We stop at a cloisonné artist colony on our way back to Beijing. Cloisonné pieces are meant to be decorative. The body is copper, which is malleable and cheap. It’s formed into whatever shape—a bowl, goblet, vase—that might look attractive on display. Metal wires are laid into different patterns on top. These are the partitioning patterns that will sequester the later enamel and gemstone insertions and give the art form its name.

The final products are beautiful and astronomically priced. Large vases have a parade of zeros after them. Smaller pieces, like a teacup, are more affordable and promise to be heirlooms. Impressed at the cost, I make a comment about price tags to the saleswoman who is shadowing me around the showroom. She’s also the one who led us through the various workshop rooms where people were bent in artistic toil. She’s curt in her answer, “Price increase every month. Very valuable.”

Her sales tactic is to utilize a calculator: whenever I stop to gaze at a piece for more than a minute, she punches a few arbitrary percentages into the calculator and says, “Price can be $11,000. Not $15,000.” I have the power, it seems, to reduce a storage canister from $375 to $300 just by asking. “Any more?” I say. “No, rock bottom price.” Not quite accurate, since if I offer to buy this and that, or that and that, the price will drop more. I buy four cups. What I’ll use them for I haven’t the faintest clue, shots of mescal most likely, but they’re within budget and look neat and are not difficult to transport. Mom gets a vase. Neither of these cost enough that we’d blush to admit the price, but still, we guard them like royalty once we leave.


I crave waffles every day now. The hotel breakfast has a waffle iron that I make expert use of it. First I brush it with a brush that’s absolutely congealed with butter. Then I make sure that each cooked batter square is drowned in fake maple syrup. I’ll do this once or twice more. I haven’t had a waffle—nor have I craved one—since 1996. I must be tired of China and need to move on. Tomorrow I go to Mongolia.

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