I shuffled uncomfortably. After an eight-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, my travel companion and I lumbered into another narrow-aisled AirAsia jet. We sat down to continue our round of euchre – we’d both won two games, but I was getting tired.
“Want a Mentos?” Eamonn offered me another of the sweet, fruit-flavoured drops that would become something of a recurring feature of our trip. He’d bought eight packets in Sydney before we left.
He dealt the next hand and beat me with a joker, the right and left bowers, the ace and an off-suit queen. I mumbled something about stacking the deck.
Two hours into the flight, I reached into my bag for a jumper. Eamonn said he hoped I wasn’t seriously getting cold already.
Moments later, a stewardess in a loud, bright red uniform placed foil containers in front of us. Thirsty chicken and a slippery block of rice. Tucking my elbows in as the strawberry stewardess pushed the food cart haphazardly down the aisle, I unwrapped my plastic fork. The chicken shuffled uncomfortably. Eamonn eyed it suspiciously.
The pace trebled once we landed in Beijing. The first and most important thing we noticed when we landed was the air’s distinct putridity. The only other time I’ve been somewhere that produces a black effluence when you blow your nose is Bangkok, and this is significantly worse (note: as it turns out, Ulaanbaatar is categorically worse, by orders of magnitude). Although it was cold, just below freezing, a few jumpers were all we needed at that stage, filling us with false confidence. After semi-successfully haggling down a taxi fare, setting the tone for the remainder of our time in China, we retired to our dorm at 4am. At 7:30, we were showering and getting ready to collect our train tickets to Mongolia. Tiananmen Square was next.
The next morning, we went to a local place for breakfast, then caught the extremely efficient subway and slightly less efficient bus to a town close to the Great Wall. Two taxi drivers escorted us off the bus and began to argue about who would get our business. Eamonn and I shuffled uncomfortably as car doors were opened and slammed, fingers pointed and feathers ruffled. I could see in his eyes that Eamonn wanted to offer them a Mentos. One of the taxi drivers shouted at us, “thirty yuan each!”
Eamonn and I: “No, too much!” 30 yuan is about six dollars for a thirty-minute ride, which is good by most standards, but we were having too much fun with these characters. Besides, the receptionist at the hostel had said that the fee should be about 50 yuan between us and we were keen to practice our haggling.
“Ok, 30 yuan together!” Shouts one.
“No, no, I drive you, 30 yuan for both!”
“Fifteen each, yes?” We say to the one with the closest car.
We got into the car only for the door to be flung open and slammed a few more times. Our driver joined us after a few minutes, drove twenty metres down the road and stopped.
“He crazy! So far, long way. I think thirty each is better.”
“No no, wait a minute, you said thirty together!”
“No, I only say that because he say that, but really it’s too cheap.”
“But that’s why we got in your car!” I said, undoing my seatbelt and reaching for the door handle.
30 yuan later, we arrived at the entrance to visit the Great Wall of China. “Mentos?” Eamonn offered me the last one in the packet. I accepted gratefully and he held the empty paper and foil tube to his left eye, squinted into it, then looked back at me lugubriously. “Now I’ve only got six packets left”, he said sadly.
We climbed up to guard tower 10, then walked along the wall for a few hours.
From up high, the wall looks like the spine of a dragon sunning itself, draped over the mountains, slinking its way through the high cliffs and low valleys. After spending even a short time in Beijing, the first thing I noticed about being up on the wall is that it was palpably, serenely quiet. It was a little warmer than Beijing, around 10 degrees in the early afternoon, and the smell was less perceptible. You could still see the smog clinging tirelessly to the belly of the sky, and coke was still being flogged from the footpath up to the watchtowers, but otherwise the experience was regal and ancient, an aura preserved better than at other commodified antiquities like Angkor Wat. The wall is one of the most impressive built features I can remember ever seeing. We wondered who would bother attacking anybody capable of building the bloody thing (note: as we were progressing further north into the snowy hills of Mongolia and started to see yurts and nomads popping out of the blanket of white, we realised it was exactly these people who would bother to attack China).
Eamonn and I walked past a German couple whose son asked them why the wall was built. Eamonn and I looked at each other and whispered, “too many rabbits, in Choina.”
After the wall, we made our way back to the hostel and got caught up in Beijing peak hour. Unfortunately, we missed happy hour, though the beer is generally cheap and bad here. Surprise! I recommend accompanying Chinese beer with Mentos.
I’m sitting on the train across from Eamonn now, as I write this, about 300 kilometres from the Mongolian border. Of course, I won’t be able to post it until we reach Ulaanbaatar. The train is heated, and we’ve had to strip down to our baselayers. The carriage has four beds, comprised of two stacked pairs. It’s just the two of us in our cabin, though. We even have a power outlet to fight over! And we’re finally seeing snow outside for the first time.
After we got settled, we began our ninth game of euchre for the trip. After six tricks, I’m now up two points.
We’ve got some nice photos which I’ll post on Facebook as we go. That is, once we’re clear of the Great Firewall of China. After Google failed to yield any results, I discovered that other search engines exist. Did you know about this?
We’ll be in Mongolia for a few days from the 18th. I’ll write again from Russia.
Eamonn just won this game.
I’m shuffling uncomfortably.