Sunday, September 16, 2007

Great Wall, Little People

We’ve been here a month and a half (is that really all?), and so it was time to go see the Great Wall at last. Yesterday we hired a van to take us to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, about an hour away from home. We went with our friends the Davises and their twin two-year-olds.

The van arrived on time, and we started loading car seats in, only to discover (grandparents, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph) that the van had no seat belts. Still, we buckled the small ones into their car seats and tossed ‘em in – there was no turning back at this point, as we were all determined to get to that wall. The ride wasn’t bad: the roads were fine, and the driver wasn’t crazy. He did have a fondness for his horn, which he used at every bend and crosswalk, warning all within honking range that he had no intention of slowing for anyone foolish enough to challenge his ownership of the road. There were a couple of close calls when we played chicken with an oncoming car, but it was mostly okay.

We made it safely, and the driver walked us to the ticket counter, where Bart and Drew bought tickets for the cable car. We thought. But when we went through the turnstile, we discovered that we had been routed onto the ski lifts: open benches that you sit on for the ride to the top. Jen and I mutinied. No seatbelts is one thing. Taking small children onto a metal bench that flies through the air thirty feet above the ground is quite another, and all of you mamas out there know exactly what was going through our heads.

Jen: But I saw a cable car on the way up.

Me: Me, too. It had closed sides. That’s what we need.

Bart and Drew to workers, in English: Cable car?

Worker gestures towards flying bench. Bart and Drew shrug and look resigned.

Jen and Donna together: Ask them about the cable car. How do you say cable car? Tell them we need an enclosed car. How do you say cable car? We can’t go on this. We saw a cable car. How do you say cable car? Maybe just say car. How do you say car?

Bart and Drew to workers, in English: Cable car?

Davis twins: Bagel car! Bagel car!

Donna: There is no way we can take the kids on that thing. There has to be a cable car.

Jen: What good are you guys to us if you can’t say cable car in Chinese?

Bart and Drew look visibly frustrated - clearly they are thinking of pushing their own wives off of the flying bench.

Jen: How do you say “car?”

Donna: It was red. How do you say “red car?”

Jen: How do you say “enclosed?” Say “enclosed red car.”

Twins: Bagel car! Bagel car!

Bart and Drew: (insert something Chinese-y here, likely a curse word)

Back out through the turnstile we go, Drew and Bart plotting something evil while Jen and I complain about how obvious it is that our husbands were not studying enough during their ten months of Chinese if they can’t even come up with one simple word when called upon.

Somehow, though, the husbands managed to get our money refunded and we were pointed further up the hill, to where there was, indeed, a red, enclosed cable car.

We took the car up (throughout the 5 minute journey, Aidan kept muttering nervously “I don’t like this mountain…. I don’t like this mountain…”) and there it was – the Great Wall of China. It’s just a wall, you know – a long, long, winding wall curling across the surrounding peaks into the middle distance. But it’s an odd sensation to stand in the middle of a postcard. I mean, there WE were, and there IT was. I had the same sensation standing in Red Square for the first time, or at the base of Mt. Ararat. Am I really here?

All five of the kids took off. Even Kyra insisted on walking the length herself, and she became quite angry when we picked her up to maneuver the steps and steep parts. The kids peered out of the holes and tried to figure out if there were any bad guys still out there. All of the other tourists stopped to admire the kids – Aidan’s curls were a big hit as usual, and Jen and Drew’s twins were as popular as the mustached lady at the circus. Everyone stopped and stared. At one point, Aidan got a bit too far ahead, and as I ran to catch him, a Chinese guy grabbed his arm and wouldn’t let go. He wanted to take a picture. I caught up to find a terrified Aidan trying to wriggle free. I grabbed Aidan’s other arm and let the guy take a quick picture before saying “zaijian” and taking off. I never know quite how to handle those situations. In the States, we tell the kids that if a stranger touches them, they should kick and scream and bite and do everything they can to get away. Here, people don’t mean any harm when they touch and smile and try to get a picture, but it’s unnerving for a kid who has been lectured about stranger danger. And while I don’t want my kids sinking their teeth into the locals, I also want them to feel empowered to decide who touches them and when. That’ll be an issue we’ll struggle with throughout our tour.

Anyway, the kids all loved the Wall, and they even survived the gauntlet of vendors on the way back down to the van. Vendors all block your path, saying “lady, lady, I give you deal.” They try to put something in your hands – or worse, in the kids’ hands – so you’ll have to stop. I lectured the kids about not touching anything, and then we told them they could each choose one souvenir. Aidan easily settled on a stuffed panda doll. Shay, as usual, had more difficulty choosing, but finally settled on a gold dragon statue.

We had almost made it safely back to the van when Aidan started screaming “He bit me! A bee bit me!” We stopped to check, and sure enough, he’d been stung near his eye. Drew, who was clearly an Eagle Scout in a previous life, somehow procured some ice in a baggie, which seemed to sooth Aidan. We continued down the path, trying maneuver past vendors, when I realized Aidan had fallen behind yet again. I stopped to look up the hill and saw him taking a little toy horn from one of the vendors and putting it in his mouth. This in a country with rampant TB and hepatitis. I hollered for Bart and yelled at Aidan to Put The Toy Down. We grabbed him and wiped out his mouth with baby wipes – not the tastiest thing, but who knows where that toy horn had been?

Finally, finally, we made it back to the van. We returned home and collapsed on the couch for a celebratory pizza and movie. All in all, I’d have to say that the kids were all remarkably well behaved throughout the day. And this morning, Aidan asked if we could go back and ride in the big red car again. No whining, no complaining, no accidents bigger than a bee sting and no lost kids – another successful family outing.

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