Monday, October 22, 2007

Happy birthday to me

I got back to Hong Kong from China today, and rather than blogging about the trip in chronological order, I want to start with the very best day. Because of the timing of our reading week, I spent my birthday, October 15, in Beijing. And with a little careful planning, we arranged to climb the Great Wall of China on that day.

I psyched myself up the night before by buying myself a little present: a jade rat pendant. I was born in the year of the rat, and my birth year happens to be next year, so it seemed appropriate. I'm about as confident as I can be that it's real jade (in China, this isn't saying much), and it looks to be decent quality. Jade rat hanging securely from my neck, I rose at 6 am to catch our bus to the Simatai stretch of the Great Wall.

Most tourists and visiting dignitaries in search of photo ops go to the Badaling stretch of the Great Wall. All along, we had doubts about Badaling. It's been heavily restored, so we'd get very little sense of what the wall should actually look like at its current age, and it's so heavily trafficked that one friend claimed she couldn't move forward or backward for certain stretches, but was simply stuck in the flow of the crowd. When we read in our guidebook that there was handicapped access to the wall at Badaling, it was decided: we were going to Simatai. With all respect to the disabled, I'm looking for a different experience. Simatai won our affection with its promise of largely unrestored stretches of wall, more strenuous climbs, and smaller crowds.

As soon as we got to the wall, the view was ridiculous. The Great Wall of China is not oversold.

I have to admit, as much as I love to travel, I am sometimes too blasé about the things that I see. I see a perfectly lovely castle or church, and depending on my mood, I might totally break it down as inferior to some other perfectly lovely castle or church. But from the first moment the wall came into view, I was in full-on eyes-wide, mouth-open mode.

The theme of the day was, "If they say don't do it, then we should definitely do it." The guide who accompanied us on the bus to the wall says that when we reach it, whatever we do, don't turn right? We turn right! It extends our hike by about 2 kilometers (from 14k to 16k), but we get the longest uninterrupted stretch of totally uninhabited wall of the day. A sign says not to go up a narrow, crumbling staircase? We climb! And in return, we are greeted with another spectacular vista of the wall. This picture sums up the prevailing attitude:

We took the picture after we'd already come down.

The first "small world" moment of the day came shortly thereafter. I figured my parents would want to talk to me on my birthday and decided I would call them when I reached the next tower (we'd be crossing through 30 over the course of the day). Before we even arrived, though, they took the initiative and called me. As we talked, I had a moment where I said to myself, I am on the Great Wall of China. I am talking to my parents in the United States in real-time and I am on the Great Wall of China. Brings global interconnectedness into real perspective.

We continued our daring-do trek over the wall. Twice, we approached towers that were marked off as impassible and provided trails that led around; and twice, we entered the towers and climbed our way out the other sides. Where the path was smooth enough, we sprinted through, bounding over cracks and and stray stones as the vistas of Inner Mongolia wooshed by. When we reached steep uphill climbs, we'd challenge each other in races to the top. Throughout it all, I maintained a mood of unrestrained, delirious happiness. This was reflected in the following photo, in which Britt and I sought to reprise my beloved Facebook profile picture from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong:

Just past the halfway mark, we experienced "small world" moment #2, as we crossed paths with another group of exchange students from HKU. We introduced ourselves, chatted, and compared travel plans. As we parted ways (we had to reach the end of the trek earlier than they did), I called out, "See you in Shanghai!" Immediately, I realized how absurdly awesome it was to say such a thing and mean it, literally.

When only about one quarter of the trek remained, Britt and I stopped to formally mark my birthday. I had stowed in my backpack a small bottle of er guo tao, a cheap (in every sense of the world) black licorice-flavored Chinese liquor. The stuff was 56% alcohol by volume (112 proof), and a bottle the size of a flask cost me 5 yuan (about 65 cents). We bought two bottles at dinner our first night in Beijing, and could only bring ourselves to drink one of them at the time. When Great Wall day came and the bottle was still around, I knew that it would never taste better than it would from the top of the Great Wall.

As Britt and I passed the bottle back and forth, another group of backpackers came by and said hello. We told them it was my birthday and, after offering the least appetizing description of the flavor of er guo tao we could concoct, invited them to partake. Each one of them - Alex from Germany, Dan from Australia, and Emily from England - took us up on the offer. As each one took a cringe-inducing swig, I decided that the moment captured everything I love about travel. 5 strangers from 4 countries sharing a bottle of obscure, foul-tasting liquor to celebrate one of their birthdays. People who have never met before and will probably never meet again, but it's the Great Wall, and it's a celebration, and why the hell not? Just perfect.

When we finally reached the end of our climb, there were two options for getting down: a 25-minute downhill hike along the side of the mountain, or a 1-minute zip-line down a flying fox to the mountain base (plus a 5-minute boat ride across a small canal). Given that I am terrified of heights, the choice was obvious:

Do 1 thing every day that terrifies you, right?

Thanks to a combination of distance, traffic, and a super inconvenient bathroom break that our bus driver just had to take, we had a nice long bus ride back to Beijing. I savored every minute, just me and my iPod, enjoying what might be the only 3 hours I've spent idle, quiet, and alone since getting to Asia.

But the day wasn't over yet. That night, we were due to catch a train to Xian, home of the terra-cotta warriors. And if we were conservative and responsible, we would have returned to the hostel, picked up our bags, grabbed sandwiches, and headed straight for the train station. But it was my birthday, and I wasn't about to be either conservative or responsible. And running late for trains is a personal specialty (haven't missed one yet).

So, humongous backpacks strapped to our bodies, we were off to Tiananmen Square to fly kites. I had been enamored with this idea ever since it was suggested to us by the same friend who had warned us about Badaling, particularly because I had never flown a kite at all. I can't complain about my childhood...I was loved, I was taken care of, I was often indulged in my interests and whims. But there are some very basic elements of an American childhood that were missing from my upbringing, and kite-flying was one of them. I doubt either of my parents have ever flown one...why would I have?

The area around the square was crawling with street hawkers offering cheap kites. I bought two for $1 apiece - and then two spools and strings for $1 apiece, since the tricky salesman hadn't made it clear that they were sold separately - and we set into the square, totally undeterred by the apparent lack of wind.

As we began tying our strings and preparing our kites, two curious locals kneeled down beside us and helped us lay them out.

"Do you think this is going to work without any wind?" one of them asked.

"Not really," Britt answered.

"But we're doing it anyway," I declared.

With that, we were off...and so were the kites. Newly 23 years old, and my first attempt at flying a kite was a smashing success. We sprinted through the square, oblivious to the weights on our backs, darting recklessly around pedestrians. We crossed paths and maneuvered our kites around one another. At moments, it was almost like our kites were brushing by the enormous portrait of Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Gate. The normally stoic guards stared at us bemusedly, looking up from their posts to watch the simple paper kites dance in the wind. For a minute, the authoritarian veneer of Tiananmen Square melted away, and all that remained was a beautifully lit plaza and two grown-up kids and their paper kites.

Finally reaching the far end of the square, we packed up our kites, hailed a cab, and boarded our train with three minutes to spare. I never believed for one minute that we would miss it.

22 was a decent year with a terrible start. I had a 15-page memo due the day after my birthday that I hadn't even started writing as of the night before. I went out to dinner with a small group of friends, and then spent from 11 pm to 7 am writing the memo. I don't know what kind of year 23 is going to be, but it sure as hell had a better start than 22. In fact, it had the best start of any year I can remember. I think that counts for a lot.

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