Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Beijing, the Great Wall, and Chinese Nerds

"Hey man get up, time to go."


Its 2am. I can't remember where I am. I can't figure out how to turn off the alarm clock. Music is throbbing and for some reason I seem to be sleeping on a piece of wet cardboard that smells like the backdoor of a bad seafood restaurant. Am I drunk? Am I hungover?

Nope, I'm in a Chinese guest house. Good morning!

My erstwhile traveling companion Nate is attempting to rouse me after my 16 hour flight and hour and a half of sleep. Fortunately, I've planned ahead. I'm already wearing thick socks, tough pants, and a sweat-wicking shirt. And a headlamp. I somehow managed to fall asleep with my headlamp on. Fantastic. Well, time to go.

We stumble out of the guesthouse into the "street," which is really more like a giant pit because whoever owns the block chose that week to dig up every inch of traversable ground to put in new pipes (if you've been reading this blog for a while, you will recognize this as the very same situation I encountered on my first morning in Cambodia).

We make it to the end of the block by employing various technical climbing techniques, coupled with extreme leaping, and find a car waiting. Putting faith in our ability to overcome would-be kidnappers, we get in and start driving. We are paying way too much money for the privilege of a 2 hour car ride, a 5 hour hike, and supposedly lunch. Guess how much of that happened? Fortunately, we have a guide, sort of.

"Good morning! Do you want breakfast?"

Yes of course we do. Our guide (whose name I've forgotten so I call him "Pouty") digs into his bag and proudly hands around slices of white bread.

Value of trip so far relative to cost: low.

The driver rapid-fires some Chinese at the guide.

"The driver would like to be able to smoke a cigarette so he doesn't fall asleep."

It takes a few seconds to realize this is a question, to which we are only too happy to respond affirmatively. Smoke in a car from a cigarette is infinitely preferable to smoke from an exploding gas tank.

Confidence level in our survival: low

We drive and drive, through haze that sticks to you in nearly tangible gray clumps. My head lolls on the headrest, and I'm only aware of our movement when it stops so that our driver and guide can ask for directions. This happens far more often than you would hope. Finally (oh god...FINALLY) our driver pulls over on the side of a dirt road (a very steep dirt road) and orders us out. Glad to be doing something else, we hop out, flip on our headlamps and look around.

Goats look back at us. As does a towering, steep forest. Our guide takes a few tentative steps forward, smoking a cigarette. Eventually, something occurs to him (perhaps that he is a guide and not a tree) and he starts moving.

It feels good to be moving. Early morning, hiking up a nearly vertical wall, I remember several years ago when Nate and I were doing the very same thing half a world away in Chile. I smile, and press on, eventually looking back to realize our guide has stopped to smoke a cigarette. He is out of breath and looks confused at our pace.

Verdant greens flash under our lamps, and the damp ground gives just enough to make each step interesting.

Eventually, we see the high brick towers of the Great Wall of China. Sweaty, exhilarated, we stop for a moment to catch our breath

I know this looks like a sweaty morning in 'Nam...but it isn't. Thats just smog.

What do you mean I look ridiculous? Explorers are sexy!

Preparing for the final ascent...it was about 20 feet.

We climb a narrow flight of stairs, arrive at the top, and begin our wait.

We waited a long time. Japan may be the land of the rising sun, but in China its more like the "sun that drags its ass out of bed and sort of makes it up eventually." It crested a high mountain in front of us and took about an hour and a half to finally get up over the darn thing. Of course, we could only see it like a bit of egg yolk on some cotton given all the smog.

These are ancient Chinese portraits of the greatest warrior-poets in all of China.

Finally (finally!) the smog began flying away over a lower section of the wall, looking for all the world like ghosts fleeing a blinding light. You could watch the white tendrils stream over ramparts, and what it left behind speaks for itself:

And of course we took awesome-dude pictures, since we are awesome-dudes.

After snapping away for well over two hours (joined by a small group of hard-core Chinese photographers who had camped at the top all night just to get good morning shots), we hiked back down along the Wall. It is a remarkable structure, less for its height (which is impressive) but more for its depth and width. It would have been easy enough to build a high thin wall, but the Great Wall of China was easily wide enough for carts and people to pass each other comfortably. I'm sure I could google some measurements for you, but what fun is that. Just stick with the cart/person image and you'll be well served.

After making it back down to our car, we headed back to the guesthouse. Nate, having already done the "Beijing thing" too the afternoon off, while I hopped in a cab to go see the Olympic structures. I'm going to be brief here because I can be. The buildings, sculptures, memorials, and other variegated hoo-ha related to the Olympics were all:

1) very large;

2) very interesting looking;

and 3) very crowded.

Crowded with NERDS!

On a hot day, surrounded by people and having trouble breathing, I wandered about for a while, paid way too much money to get inside the "water cube" (an honestly cool building, worth a visit) and then paid way too much for a cab back to my guesthouse.

...which largely ended my time in China. We hadn't intended to spend much time there in the first place, as we had other, different goals in mind. Goals specifically involving yaks and horses...ONWARDS!

Next: This train ride is HOW long?...Ulaan Bataar, its everything you could want in a post-apocalyptic future, with Communism!...and our first foray into sustainable-eco-green-local-agri-feelgoodaboutyourself-toursim!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Go forth, young lawyer

*Note to new and long-time readers: given that my blogs tend to run to roughly book length, and I have been informed on more than a few occasions that this makes each post somewhat difficult to muddle through. Thus, I will be telling the story of my time in China, Mongolia, Croatia, and Italy, with Nathaniel the insane, and Taylor the beautiful, in shorter, episodic posts. Think of them as the tapas to the porterhouse steaks I used to serve. If that analogy makes you groan and hate me, think of these shorter, more nimble posts, as the oompa-loompas to my previous willy-wonkas. Sure, you can take a whole book to explain what happened, but really all you need are some funny people singing a song to sum up the points, and maybe some technicolor wonder to keep you engaged. Consider the following my oompa-loompa songs, for you, dear reader:

94 hours after wearily boarding a plane in Buffalo, New York to return to Washington, D.C. with the New York Bar exam under my belt, I find myself in the ultra-modern airport in Beijing, China. My body thinks its the day before, my eyes think they'll never get moisture again, and my stomach is already rebelling against what will inevitably be a month of, shall we say, interesting food.

What am I doing here, half way around the world again, with an enormous backpack, a heavy pair of boots, and a med kit full of antibiotics? Well, I had always heard that nearly starving to death in the vast grassland steppes of Mongolia was a thrilling experience, so why not give it a shot before starting my new life as a corporate litigator?

How much yak do I have to eat?

A window! China is so crazy!

Four days ago, I was concerned with torts and arson and the law of mortgages. Now, all I can think about is how the hell I'm going to find a guesthouse without an address, with an unpronounceable name somewhere in the middle of Beijing. Lucky me, my innumerable e-mails, phone calls, smoke signals and telepathic thoughts have been received by the guesthouse and someone is there waiting for me when I get through customs.

Stepping out of the airport, I immediately begin coughing like I have a new and instant form of bird flu. There is nothing I could say about the air in Beijing that has not already been said far better by better writers, so I will limit my comments about it to this: if you can imagine what it would be like to walk into the smokers lounge of a bar that still allows smoking, while you yourself were smoking several different things at once, and there was a machine producing smoke blowing directly in your face, it would still not be as hazy as my drive into central Beijing. Breathing was similarly difficult, in that, it was impossible. For all of you who have lived in Beijing, two questions: 1) Why? and 2) How?

Arriving in a dark, narrow alley, the driver gets out and signals that I should follow him down an even darker, narrower alley, past sparkling arc welders and dangling telephone lines. At some point in my life, this may have seemed strange, but you spend enough time following people in developing countries to guest houses, and inevitably you're going to end up in a dark narrow alley, hoping against hope that the person leading you believes they can make more money from their commission at the guesthouse than by just grabbing at your wallet. We get to another street and I see a sign for a guest house...sigh of relief, its actually where I'm trying to be.

I have traveled half-way around the world to find my friend, Nathaniel Weiss, so that we can go have a look at Mongolia. For those of you readers who don't know Nate, all I can tell you is that he spent the last several years in Afghanistan and Iraq, then spent the past year traveling pretty much anywhere in the world that suits his fancy. Nate goes from deep under the ocean to the top of mountains the way most people go from New York to Boston. What I am saying is that he does so regularly and with a minimum of hassle.

Communist Beer...no smiling

Nate and I have been travel companions on many occasions, and, as before, reuniting with a fellow adventurer requires specific and timeless rituals

We are underwater here

Now, of course since I arrived into China at 6pm, after flying for more than a day, and just a few days after the most stressful period in my life, Nate had booked us to climb one of the highest parts of the Great Wall of China. The next morning. In time to see the sunrise. From the top.

It was shortly after the above beer was finished (roughly 11pm) that Nate informed me that our start time for this first adventure was 2am.


I'm actually trying to indicate that there is a terrifying insect above me...please someone get it!

Fortunately, I am a hardy sort, so rather than going home and, I don't know, getting some freakin' rest, we set out to see the sights

This is entirely photoshop...I've never even been to Guam.

And of course, got some dinner

Little known fact: starfish are the natural enemy of the seahorse...they are enemies in the battle of whimsical entities

What's better than sticky rice? Sticky scorpion! (Ooh! pun!)

After some late night jostling to find a cab back to our construction-zone lit hostel, I flopped down on the bed (which, incidentally, flopped me right back...you really do get what you pay for sometimes), and got a whopping one hour and thirty five minutes of shut eye. That was just enough sleep to get excited to see one of mankinds greatest triumphs: a super-long, super-tall wall, that inspired a thousand ships to sail...and at the end of that sailing they opened a thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States named in honor of that great big accomplishment.

Next: Defying death in the early morning, pictures, oh so many pictures, and the beginning of a great journey.