“My name Susie. I your tour guide.”
A young Chinese woman with straight black hair hops on the minibus. Since 6 a.m. I’ve been jouncing through Beijing on this vehicle that is collecting foreigners for a day tour of the Great Wall. There are a dozen of us from Germany, England, Canada, Australia, Thailand, and Korea. Susie is the last to board.
As we pass the Forbidden City, she regales us with some history.
“There Emperor’s Palace. Many houses, many courtyards. Emperor have 1,000 concubines, 100 children, 2,000 eunuchs. You know eunuch? Half a man… have operation – cutting.”
She goes on, “Emperor have different concubine every night. Emperor a busy man! Concubine put dot on forehead… mean she got headache. Emperor no choose her tonight. Every night different one. Emperor a busy man.”
I smile to myself. This is going to be an interesting day.
Gathering speed we roar north on a six lane highway filled with late model cars and taxis. The highway is tree lined and landscaped with greenery, even arbors of roses. Old shacks and shops have been removed, the inhabitants relocated. There are high rises and construction cranes everywhere. The new Beijing is modern and western. Directional signs even have English written under the Chinese characters.
On the city’s outskirts our minibus pulls up to an unimpressive gray building. It turns out to be a jade emporium. I am immediately assailed by hovering clerks, and find myself being fitted with a solid jade bangle. The prices are outrageous.
Through the bus window I see mountains in the distance, but before we get close we stop again. We ‘re ushered into a cloisonné factory, where young girls are painting intricate designs on a vast array of vases. They stand on a cement floor leaning over wooden tables, a single light bulb overhead. With China’s work force so huge, the girls are fortunate to have these jobs. The factory store exhibits thousands of cloisonné plates, pots, and pictures.
Winding into the mountains we finally arrive at the Great Wall. The sign says JuYong Guan, not Badaling as our tour advertised. Whatever. JuYong Guan is a newly restored section of the wall originally built during the Ming Dynasty. It guards one of two key passes, and was crucial for the defense of the old city. Climbing steps to the highest point, I enjoy views of the terraced mountains. It’s peaceful and quiet, without the hubbub of China’s teeming humanity. Beyond my feet the mountain falls away as a sheer drop off.
Resuming the bus tour we are ushered into a concrete building where we’re lectured in broken English on the nature of Chinese medicine. When I volunteer, my pulse is taken and my tongue inspected. A Chinese doctor announces that my liver needs attention. He recommends a combination of herbs for a mere $50 U.S. I politely decline.
Lunchtime. The Chinese banquet is impressive with a dozen dishes in the middle of the table. We help ourselves clumsily with chopsticks.
Susie chatters, “This year of dog. Beijing dog restaurant close. No one eating dog this year. Dog safe. Eating monkey brain, snake, donkey. No dog.”
Our group has become friendly. The Australian discovers that we each paid a different amount for the tour and the Germans are incensed with the unannounced detours. I find it amusing.
A tea house is the final destination. The tea ceremony is performed, and yes, there is Chinese tea to buy.
Twelve hours after departure, exhausted but in good humor I return to my hotel. The tour was rich with unexpected turns – a true Chinese experience.
* * *
Previously published in Outlook by the Bay Magazine, Winter 2010
Over the years Pat has traveled abroad as a volunteer, exchange student, Sister Cities delegate, tour member, and solo adventurer. The lure of the unknown still inspires her.