Saturday, July 17, 2010

Probably The Most Unusual Place We've Ever Celebrated Our Anniversary...

...And one of the most rewarding...

~Steve and Desi

Friday, July 16, 2010

On The Great Wall, In The Rain...

...With a million of our closest Chinese friends...


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Put On Wet Underwear This Morning

After days of soupy, motionless air, we have hit the tipping point in the Balla household. As the clothes hang there, refusing to dry, we have stockpiles from which we can draw, at least for a few days. For me, though, the stockpile has dwindled to the point where I now have to raid the window sill. The best I could do this morning was a shirt and shorts that have a distinct musty smell and the dreaded damp underwear.

More information than you needed or wanted, I know...


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It Was Not Without Danger

One of the more beautiful Great Wall hikes deserved a repeat engagement as we made our triumphant return to Shanhaiguan (the city on the Bohai Sea where the Great Wall meets the ocean).

As we entered through the da men, I looked up...way, way up. I recalled our previous experience here...After climbing the tourist section of the Great Wall at Jiao Shan, we reached a blockade. But as we were about to turn back, we were encouraged by a warm-hearted German, Andeas, and his tour guide, to continue past the barrier to the crumbling wall (always our favorite type of Great Wall). With the promise of unforgettable views, we followed.

An so, as we made our way through the tourist part of Jiao Shan the other day, we faced those blocks again. This time, on our own, we climbed past.

Echoing Andreas' sentiment last time..."It was not without danger." Once you venture past the tourist section (which has been restored for the public), the terrain becomes quite dicey. Getting around the barriers themselves, of which there are two, first requires a climb over part of the wall that consists of a few two foot wide steps, with a twenty-foot drop beside them, and later a rod-iron fence with barbed wire at the top, which you must shimmy around...over crumbly rocks, I might add.

Now, last March, when we first came to Shanhaiguan, I was in much better shape. Seven months of living in Beijing at that point and the backing of five miles of walking per day prepared me well for this undertaking. Yet after a year back in the States, much less exercise, all those carbs, and only two weeks of Beijing walking under my belt, I was unsure if I would be up for the climb.

Step by step, rock by rock, it was as tough, but as beautiful as I remembered. There were certainly a few struggles, especially around the blockades and up a couple of fairly steep rock faces, but I am pleased to say that this journey was a success.

As I told Julie in an inspired moment when we reached the summit, you don't get to see stuff like this unless you make the effort...pushing past your fears and past your mental and physical limits.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

It Isn't That Hard To Get To Jiao Shan

So there we were, standing on a street corner in Shanhaiguan, filling up our Camelbacks with water we had just purchased from a small shack, getting ready for a hike up the crumbling Great Wall. This is the first time this year we have ventured out of Beijing, into what we have taken to calling the "other" China.

"Other" China is different from Beijing in a number of respects. Everything is smaller...the cities, the buildings, the cars. In fact, the entire transportation network is a throwback to the China of yesterday. Rickety old buses. Small three-wheeled "cars." Motorcycles, mopeds, and bikes. All kinds of motorized and pedal-powered vehicles, just waiting for a chance to take you somewhere in this small town where the Great Wall meets the ocean.

In fact, as we looked up from our Camelbacks, there it was...a three-wheeler, put-putting idly on the street corner, while the driver intently watched whatever it was we four waiguoren were doing. Deep down, water delivery devices were the farthest thing from shifu's mind, which had to be fixated on figuring out how to separate us from a few of our hard-earned kuai.

This separation turned out to be an easy task. In a moment of well-intentioned weakness, I encouraged the gang to jump on the back of the car (or whatever you call a three-wheeler that drives like a motorcycle and has a rear cab, complete with two small bench seats and a canopy over the top). Negotiating what I thought was a fair price (actually, in retrospect, too fair), we headed across town, in the direction of the Jiao Shan, the mountain we were going to be hiking for the day.

A bit of the way there, the first ominous turn of events occurred when shifu pulled over to the side of the road and told us he had designs on taking us somewhere different. Shifu argued that if we went directly to the gate to buy our tickets, we would pay one hundred kuai, way too much. Shifu knew of a much cheaper way to make this happen for us.

For our part, we were very skeptical, as we had hiked Jiao Shan last year, and recalled that the price was nowhere near one hundred kuai. But shifu would not be deterred. In fact, thinking we just didn't understand what he was saying, he drove us past a small stand on the side of the road and invited a man to jump aboard. This guy, obviously a local travel broker, tried to convince us that he could arrange a nice itinerary for us, complete with tickets for all of Shanhaiguan's main attractions. It was finally after a lot of explanation that we managed to convince our "kidnappers" that it was they who didn't understand what was going on. All we wanted to do is get to the bottom of the mountain and go for a killer hike...No tour guides with bullhorns...No recitations of canned speeches...Just the four of us, nature, and the Great Wall.

It was at that point, seeing that there was nothing any of us could do for one another, that we parted ways. For our part, we were out of ten kuai. For our kidnappers, there were to be no ticket sales and commissions.

With the base of the mountain still several kilometers away, the four of us started walking down the road, until a tiny car approached from the opposite direction, coming directly toward us. Seeing four waiguoren, the driver quickly stopped (so quickly, in fact, that his car kept rolling as he jumped out, in The Gods Must Be Crazy fashion) and we explained where we were heading. After a brief negotiation, the squeeze was on and the little engine that could was cranked back up again. There was a slight incline to the road as we set out, and it certainly felt like we might need to get out and lend some leg power. But, there we were, just a few minutes later, unfolding our bodies and tumbling out.

"Other" China, it's great to be back! (I'm sure you feel the same way! Nothing like an overeager waiguoren to fill up your coffers...)