She pukes. Not even thirty minutes into a bus ride easily outpaced by a snail, and she pukes. It fills a clear, thin bag and I see the various chunks press up against the sides. I can almost feel them through the plastic it's so close, so visceral. Immediately the smell wafts through the cramped vehicle and I can't help but laugh. Christine, on the other hand, is fighting off the urge to chuck up her own breakfast simply because of the pungent smell. We aren't even out of Beijing yet.
It's our second trip to China, and our first time heading to the Greatest of Walls. We found ourselves in the metropolis back in 2012, in what was a dreary, snow-dusted November. We had set our sights of the wall of walls but were disappointed when we were told the busses weren't running – the snow had closed the wall. How 1cm of snow could shut down 5000km of wall I will never know. The scheming scammers still attempted to lure us into an overpriced and ill-fated ride, but we shrugged off their insistences and headed back to our hostel, completely wall deprived.
Fast forward to 2014, and we were once again in the smoggy maelstrom that was Peking. My lungs instantly regretted our visit, the dirty and humid air sticking to them like tar. Unlike the relatively desolate Beijing of winter, summer Beijing was a booming, bustling sprawl of humans packed liked sardines within the narrow and tumultuous hutongs of the old city. It was the Golden Week, and we were officially idiots.
The Golden Week in China is essentially the one week of the year where everybody and their dog take a holiday. Here we are in a sweltering city of 21 million people that has just ballooned to include the visiting masses from all around the People's Republic. There is no escape. And I mean that literally. We can't book a train or plane or bus out of Beijing because they are all full. Our nearest exit is a flight to Chengdu, in 6 days. Six. Days. Almost a week of pushing and shoving and dodging through impermeable crowds when all we wanted was a little peak at the hectic city before we leave to explore the calmer spaces of the country. Alas, no such luck is bestowed upon us. Lesson learned.
We make the best of it, of course, and explore what we can. The Great Wall is once again within our reach, and so we ponder our options. Do we want a calmer, quieter tour on a secluded piece of the wall with other backpackers, OR, do we want a cheaper bus ride to the less-secluded portion? Cheaper wins out. It is our intention to see and experience the wall as the locals would, and not with a bunch of other backpackers. So we pack our day bags and find our way to the bus stop, relying on our previous visit two-years prior to guide us to the terminal.
We arrive to unadulterated chaos. Bus after bus arrives, packs itself full of paying tourists, and goes about its way in a never-ending queue. We can manage a crowded bus ride, of course, and so we continue steadfastly upon our course. Unfortunately, “crowded” in China has its own meaning. We are the last rabble of people to be boarded and so we aren't given a seat. We just have to stand in the aisle, leaning on what we can, with 50 other people who are also standing along the length of the bus. The kicker is that we have to pay the same price as those with a seat. I try and talk to the bus-filler-person but she pays me no heed, and I just shrug it off. It's a quick ride to the wall, anyway.
Or, it usually is. In Golden Week traffic, however, we find ourselves standing on that bus for well over two hours, leaving our feet sore before we even arrive for our hike along the wall. Which brings us back to the puke.
The young couple sitting beside us are leaning down, the male comforting the female with a classic back pat as she rests her head against the seat in front of her, puke bag at the ready. This continues for the remainder of our trip, which is significantly longer than anyone has planned. The bus is stifling, and the collective body heat of a hundred people only adds to the oppression of an autumn Beijing. We arrive long overdue, our legs tired and cramped, yearning for some movement as we push our way toward the ticket line. It is more of a mass than a line, however, as a blob of people nudge their way to the forefront with no discernible organization. Pandemonium is the only way to describe it, and my brain fails to compute the lack of reasoning. Lines would speed up the entire process, improve the flow of pedestrian traffic, and generally minimize the frantic rush to get a ticket. They would also, I suppose, detract from the whirlwind of chaos that envelopes the place. But this is China.
We make our way upward, walking against the slope that leads us ever-closer to the wall. We work to dodge other visitors, and their pointy lunches. Fried meats on sticks poke out in every direction from the crowd, and the constant risk of being jabbed by whatever-on-a-stick leads me to walk with my hands constantly raised in anticipation of a wayward jab. Our feet crunch on the broken bits of of wood littered by the tourists, the entire area cluttered with garbage as we progress through the disarrayed tourist trap.
We come to the wall as it rolls over the hills before our eyes, expanding into the distance as far as we can see, forever dotted by specks of people like ants upon a mound. The garbage, alas, doesn't end as we come out into the open. We notice it speckled all along the base of this great monument to human ingenuity and human suffering, a disappointing addition to the sheer epicness of this World Wonder. The crowd meanders up and along the wall, and we have to fight to find a spot less tourist dense. We trek over the steeper inclines for a few square inches of our own space where we can pause, though we are never able to truly evade the masses. We are working up a sweat as we wander and explore, as the wall is a lot steeper than most people realize. Here, visiting the wall on China's terms leaves us in an inescapable throng of people cherishing their few days of reprieve as they snap photo after photo, ignorant to the horde ever at hand.
We are waist deep in an ocean of people, all churning and crashing. There is no escape, and by now none is wanted. We are seeing the wall on their terms, jetsam in a writhing sea of disorder; we are the calm within the storm around us, witnesses to China's indescribable chaos.
We luck out and get seats for the ride home. No one pukes. In the hurricane of the Golden Week that is a simple blessing well received.
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