I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Saturday, August 7, 2010

China 1999 (Travel Flashback)

This was my second trip to China, training and upgrading software in our Beijing office. It was my manager's 40th birthday and we celebrated by taking the afternoon off and driving to the Great Wall.

During my previous visit the year before, the air had been thick and filthy, and sometimes we worked so late the streetlights had been turned off and we walked the mile or so back to the hotel in a soupy smog that made the wide boulevards of modern Beijing feel more like Victorian London. We all got sick and honked disgusting black-flecked snot into hundreds of flimsy Chinese tissues. The office staff took us to a local clinic, where the doctor took my pulse for several minutes, asked through a translator about the shape and consistency of my bowel movements, and then told me I had bronchitis. I was prescribed packets of herbal medicine and I honestly don't remember if it worked; I only remember the taste, like the clippings from a recently mown, very muddy lawn.

The difference in 1999 was startling. The 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic had been celebrated a few weeks before, and the government had prepared by cleaning up the streets of Beijing, banishing the beggars and banning the burning of coal during daylight hours.  There were still some smoggy days, but there were also clear sunny days like this one, when you could see the Wall snaking along the mountains for miles in each direction.

Unfortunately, I had bronchitis again (I don't look pale only because my hair was that startling fire-engine red) and when the rest of the team took off to climb to the top of the wall, I found myself having to sit down and rest every fifteen or twenty steps. One European couple that passed me by chided me for sitting. "You won't get far if you sit. Your muscles will freeze up." But I kept climbing ten steps and resting, climbing fifteen steps and resting, and eventually I passed the European couple, who'd given up at the first level, and met my team at the balcony on the second level, where we posed for more pictures and proclaimed ourselves heroes for climbing the Great Wall, as Mao had said all heroes must.

That couple had a point about muscles freezing up though. Climbing down was much harder than climbing up, and the next morning I had to slide down the stairs from my bedroom on my ass.

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