Sunday, July 14, 2013

WTB: Day 6, The Great Wall of China/ Last Night in Beijing

Day 6: This will be a long one, so brace yourselves. Thursday marked the last full day of our time spent in Beijing, which made for a very bittersweet morning; of course, we still had one hotel breakfast left on Friday, so that was a relief. We began our day bright and early again, but I didn't care. I was so extremely ready for that was Great Wall of China time.

The bus ride was almost two hours long in the early morning, and I think everyone in my class napped on the way there except for me. I was sleepy, but I was much too excited at the same time. I mean, THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA! That, to me, is something I never thought I'd get the chance to see, or if I did, I assumed I'd be very very old and complaining of my foot arthritis from all the walking. But it just so happens that on that day I was only 19 years old, still a kid and without arthritis, getting to walk the Great Wall of China (or at least a couple miles of it).

To get to the wall, we rode up the mountain in cozy cable cars, some of which had plaques that said the name of a famous person who'd ridden in that car on such-and-such date. I don't think ours had yet held anyone too famous, but someone's car said Nelson Mandela, while another said JFK. Before walking up the wall, we learned the valuable skill of ignoring people who want to bargain with you and get you to buy crappy stuff. Street vendors were set up everywhere, selling the same things for different prices--magnets, busts, hats, fans, and other touristy things you apparently can't live without.

Once we'd passed the vendors and ridden our cable cars up the mountain, we were there. We were at the top, approaching the Great Wall of China, and suddenly--we were on it. It was one of the most dazzling feelings I've ever experienced, I kid you not. To look all around you and see nothing but mountains and a trail of brick wall that stretches on for thousands of was a dream come true, one I couldn't believe was coming true. I snapped away, taking picture after picture of the gorgeous scenery. Every snapshot came out just beautifully, and I didn't even have to do anything special. When you're surrounded by something so naturally captivating, you don't have to edit the pictures to convey that beauty to someone.

We walked along a two-mile section of the wall, lingering at our own pace with a liberal amount of time to wander the wall. It only took about 35 minutes, however, for a girl on our trip to run into another journalist hiking along the wall. You may have heard of him: Charlie Gibson, former host of Good Morning America, and later the anchor of World News with Charlie Gibson?

We were all a little starstruck, especially Haley, who he'd sauntered up to and begun chatting with while she was filming herself at the wall for our final class project. Once she realized who he was, she got him back to the group and we all convinced him to get a picture with us. I mean, when else are you going to run into Charlie Wilson at the Great Wall of China? There are not a lot of second chances in life, so you have to take them when you first get them.

                     So we did. (I'm in the maroon pants...that's him behind me!)

After seeing Charlie and his friend (woman on far right), our class hung around together and eventually made it to the end of our journey on the wall. When we reached the "end," we didn't walk down, or even take the cable cars back the other way. No, we tobogganed down from the Great Wall of China. Approximately an 8-10 minute ride down the mountain, these toboggans were the complete cherry on top of my perfect Great Wall experience. By pushing/pulling the stick shift, you could make the toboggan go fast or slow, which, of course, made for terrific fun.

Once we'd all reached the bottom again, I bought a couple of those sleazy gifts (hey, bargaining in China is what it's all about!) and then we all headed to a cozy lunch spot nearby called the Schoolhouse. When we entered the small dining area, who is there enjoying lunch already but Charlie Gibson, his wife, his friend from the wall, and her husband! They were at the table just behind us, so we all said our hello's again and he introduced us to his wife and other friend. I was glowing with how terrific the day was turning out to be. And this was only noon.

After another delicious meal (the desserts were heavenly...seriously, they were probably baked by an angel), we packed back onto the bus and headed for the hotel again. The rest of the day was ours to do with it what we wanted, so Jansen, Hannah, Misha and I headed for the real bargaining side of town: a big building called the Pearl Market. We had to take separate taxis to get there, and unfortunately, we had no cell phones to use for finding each other, so Hannah and I toured the market by ourselves after standing by traffic for 15 minutes, trying to tell one cab apart from another.

If there is one thing I learned while in China (although I'd like to think I learned many things), it is this: over there, they take their bargaining seriously. The Pearl Market, which was completely a black market, was a seven-story building with different types of kiosks on every floor--purses, women's clothes, men's clothes, sunglasses, jewelry, touristy things, scarves, watches, etc. Hannah and I had a hell of a time making our way through it all, and Hannah got grabbed at least twice by two different Chinese women trying to sell her things. I'd like to state for the record that I was damn proud of myself that day and thankful for the stubborn streak I've always had. I was an excellent bargainer, and helped Hannah save tons of money she would have otherwise spent by giving in much sooner. A lot of people don't like confrontation, myself included, which is why those vendors can get away with murder when it comes to pricing. However, I stood my ground that day and, yes, I'm quite proud.

After spending more than three hours at Pearl Market, we caught a taxi back to the hotel to see what was going on with everyone else. Jansen and Misha were still MIA, so we chatted with some of the other girls--and the only boy of the trip, Michael--in their rooms. Our dinner plans were up to us according to the schedule, but we were all planning a group dinner with an IU grad who had lived in Beijing for almost a year. For the life of me, I can't remember her name--she was an insanely pale redhead--but that night we all went out with her and her guy friend to a fancy Chinese restaurant with koi ponds and dancing waiters and everything.

We were not dressed at all for fancy food, and we were a party of 12 without a reservation, so they didn't seem too super-thrilled to have us there. But it was a FANTASTIC meal. The redhead's guy friend was also a vegetarian, so we bonded over that and paid for a shared meal separately from the rest of the table. This included tofu, eggplant, rice (a staple of every meal), veggies, and some potatoey hash brown type things that were the bomb. Just mentioning all this food takes me back to that table, chopsticks in hand, ready to dig in. We also ordered glasses of hot water with our China, one culture shock is the lack of ice water at restaurants and fast food services. If you ask for a cup of water, be ready for it to be steaming. It's like drinking tea, minus the tea bag.

Following dinner, we parted ways with the IU grad and her friend, and decided to find one really great bar for our last night in Beijing. By this point, I was on the verge of crashing and just wanted to crawl into bed, but instead, I followed the crowd and decided to live it up on my last night in the city. That turned out to be the best--and then the worst--mistake.

After dinner we'd been wandering around, searching for a good bar but not having any luck. And just when we were about to give up and call it a night, we found this great bar. I mean it was great. Fun, not too crowded but still lots of people, not too loud but great music playing at a volume where it wasn't awkward to sing along. For someone who can't legally go into bars yet, I could tell, this was a fantastic, welcoming place. I hadn't really planned to drink, but this was the last night and in this great environment, I figured, let's do it! I had a Mai Tai, two Around the World cocktails (which were not mixed well and had way too much alcohol in them), and took two shots of tequila with the rest of the girls. It was a fun, relaxing way to spend our last evening.

Originally, I'd planned to head back early, but the irony is that when half of the group was ready to turn in, I was with the group gunning to head to another place...a nightclub called Latte. Jansen and some of the girls had gone there the night I'd watched Wanderlust in bed, and they were absolutely raving about it. It was close, so we decided to walk there, and although there was an entry fee (even for girls), there wasn't one for us...probably because we were female and American, and they were surely as curious about partying with foreigners as we were.

Once we entered the club, I understood why the girls had talked it up so much. It was insane in the best way. There was a white-haired woman who must have been 65 years old wearing sunglasses and DJ-ing on stage. If you've seen the recent remake of The Great Gatsby with Leo DiCaprio, you have a pretty good idea of what this nightclub was like.

Except, like, no Americans anywhere. A bunch of beautiful Asian women, though. In fact, I'm pretty sure there's a handful of pictures of me and a Chinese model floating around out there somewhere. I don't know if she was actually a model, but she was gorgeous and stood out more than anyone else, and although she spoke no English, we danced together, tried to hand signal meanings half the night, and took a million pictures on her iPhone. Misha swore she saw her on a billboard ad the next day, and I'd believe it. Like I said, gorgeous.

Unfortunately, I have no photographic proof of that girl...or the rest of the night, for that matter. After two glorious hours at the club, meeting some great people and all of us dancing onstage at one point, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we were leaving, and we had an early morning. We tried to catch a cab at the door, and he stopped so we got in. It only took about forty seconds for us to realize the cabbie thought we were drunk enough to pay him roughly $15 more than was standard, so we told him to pull over and jumped out of that cab with a huff. Stupid jerk.

We caught another cab who charged us the correct amount and took us straight home. As I always do after spending a night or day taking lots of pictures, upon reaching the room I instantly reached into my coat pocket to review my memories of the night and day--earlier that day we'd seen Charlie Gibson on the Great Wall, remember, and in addition to the several Great Wall selfies I had on that memory card, I also was one of only two people in the group who had gotten the class pic with Charlie on my camera. Unfortunately, that camera wasn't in that pocket. Nor was it in my pants. Nor was it in my purse. Nor was it anywhere in my bed, on my floor, in my suitcase, or anywhere within reach.

My camera was halfway across Beijing in the back of a cab. I flipped out. What you must understand about me is the only things more important and valuable to me than my camera are basically my family and friends. That's it. Pictures are so important to me, which is why I was having a heart attack/meltdown/panic attack/crying, drunken fit all at once. After I finally came to the conclusion that my camera was in that cab (I know for fact that I had it when leaving the club), I went to the concierge and explained the situation. Although I hadn't seen it fall out, I thought it was left in the cab that brought us girls home, which was a relief because Misha still had the receipt with the driver's name and cab number on it. The concierge called the company, but unfortunately the guy was on the clock for another hour or so, and then would drive the cab home for the night. It was all he could do for the time being, but he said he'd try calling again in a bit and let me know if/when they got hold of the gentleman who'd driven us back.

I thanked him, went back to bed and wept, hoping with all my heart that my camera and I would be reunited again by morning. Of course, this is my story, and Jeanine is not known for her good luck and happy endings...sad, but true. She is, however, good at learning life lessons the hard way, through terrible mistakes. This was one of them.

We left the following day as planned. They had finally spoken to the driver, but he checked the cab and had found nothing. My camera never turned up and I never got to give it one last goodbye. All I truly wanted was that memory memory card, the one with all of my Beijing memories, none of which (stupidly) had been backed up on my laptop prior to being lost to the city.

That last night in Beijing wasn't all bad; in fact, before that horrible moment, everything about it seemed perfect and surreal. I've decided that either a.) my camera was stolen by another passenger who rode that cab home after we did, memory card tossed while camera was sold on the black market, or b.) my camera fell out of my pocket in our 40-second ride in jerko's cab, for him to find later and do with it whatever he did. I like to believe the latter option, because it restores my faith in humanity (and Beijing folk) slightly. Jerks are everywhere, but I hate believing another cab rider could've found my camera with all my pictures and just taken it. I refuse to think that.

So, anyway, I have another camera old one, in fact, which is a little junkier than my faithful red, but still takes pictures alright. Times have moved on, and Beijing is just a place in my memory once again. There were tons of pictures of me on other people's cameras, so I collected all of those after the trip and now I won't have to lose that visual evidence that I was there. I did all those things I've just told you about, and I came back alright. Better the camera be sold on the black market than me, right?

Overall, I had a fantastic time in Beijing, a week-long experience I wouldn't trade for the world. China was just the first stepping stone, and what a way to begin what I hope will be a lifetime of worldly travels. Four months later, I sit here packing and prepping for my 2.5 week stay in Ireland, Scotland and England....little by little, I'm seeing this world, and it's a more beautiful place than any camera can capture.

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