We travel two hours north of Beijing today to get our first glimpse of the Great Wall of China. The section of the wall we are going to see is not the one usually visited by presidents and Hollywood celebrities. Rather, this section is far less popular with tourists and is considerably steeper to climb. As I begin to climb the wall, the steps are as steep as advertised and it is slow going. After much effort and careful balance, I eventually make it to the top. After catching my breath, I realize that this climb was worth it due to the beautiful views before me. After my climb, I resist the temptation to purchase merchandise at the souvenir shops across the street and instead sit down at a picnic table in order to rest my legs. As I regain my strength with the help of a pretzel and orange soda, I notice three middle aged women sitting across from me originating from Eastern Europe or possibly Russia. Seated directly behind me is a family of four from India. It is at this moment that I realize just how much closer China is for these people to visit. In my mind, countries in East Asia are like faraway lands that one is very unlikely to ever visit. But for these people, a trip to East Asia can be accomplished by a plane ride of less than ten hours. Compared to the 17 hour flight I endured from the east coast of the US, their flights sound like a piece of cake.
Having got our fill of the Great Wall, our group heads back to the city in order to check out the Beijing Zoo. Having never seen a panda bear up close and in person, I am feeling quite excited about this stop. What I do not anticipate, however, is just how insanely overcrowded this zoo is going to be. Even on a weekday afternoon it is absolutely mobbed with kids, parents, and grandparents. This dizzying experience makes me realize just how overpopulated China really is. This is the type of crowd you would see on a weekend afternoon at Disneyland. Apparently the pandas are also a bit put off by such large crowds as they refuse to get close enough for us to get a good look. Despite this, my time here at the zoo is still a success as I am able to purchase two stuffed animal pandas at the gift shop for my nieces.
Our final stop of the day takes us to Nanjing Road where we will get a chance to walk around this busy shopping area. While checking out the various shops and food stands, it occurs to me just how desperate the people here seem to sell you stuff. Men and women standing in the middle of this pedestrian boulevard trying to lure people to their shops is a constant sight. I had the opposite experience when visiting Japan two years ago. The vendors there were not aggressive at all and only spoke to me when I tried to get their attention. I guess a post-industrial country like Japan which has been largely middle class since the 1960’s doesn’t have the same entrepreneurial drive that you find here in the still developing China. As I make my way back to the bus, an attractive young woman walks up beside me and starts chatting me up in English. After a few minutes of pleasantries, she asks me if I want to go to a bar with her to have a drink. Considering that for my entire adult life no women has ever been this forward with me, I am immediately suspicious of this intriguing offer. It also helps that I did some research before this trip and had read about young women scamming western men into having drinks with them. After a couple drinks, it is customary for the man to be forced to pay an alcohol bill that amounts in the hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. I politely decline her dubious invitation and head back to where our tour group was going to be meeting up. As we get back on the bus, I spot that same young woman talking to a middle aged western man. Unfortunately for him, he clearly had not done the same research as I had. Or perhaps young women asking him out for drinks is a common occurrence in his everyday life.