The Great Wall and beyond

The Great Wall of China is not, at least at first glance, an awe-inspiring sight that promises to leave its image burned into your brain for the rest of your days.

The wall meanders, like a lazy stone snake, through the hazy mountains near Beijing, which is where I saw it. Even from the highest vantage points, that snake is too long -- far too long -- for the human eye to observe it from head to tail, or to truly comprehend even a fraction of its length.

The eyes alone cannot appreciate the Great Wall. At least not in the way they can appreciate an erupting volcano or church carved into a mountainside or a sphinx starting past the spot where its nose went missing. To appreciate the Great Wall, context is needed along with an appreciation of the abstract.

The wall is, of course, possibly the greatest public-works feat in human history. It tops mountains and traverses valleys and fords little rivers as its 4,000 miles encircle the border of an impossibly big country. It came to symbolize the might and xenophobia and mystery of that country, and to westerners, the Far East more generally.

It is a splendid place, I think, for a young man to drop to one knee and pull a ring from his pocket.

I saw the wall and other parts of China with three of my friends.

The trip came about because, last fall, my buddy Mike received an e-mail from the Texas State Alumni Association advertising a guided tour. A few days later his girlfriend, Cat, pitched me on the idea of getting a group together.

We decided that a $2,200 trip (the totaled cost of everything) was too good to pass up -- even if it was a tour intended mainly to enable well-off Americans in their middle-to-sunset years to pump their dollars into the Chinese economy.

Preparations soon began. Mike's buddy Corky signed onto the trip. We watched a lot of bad kung fu movies (I recommend "Circle of Iron"). We started learning Chinese phrases. Three words stuck: yuan (Chinese money; 6.85 equals $1); nihou (hello), and pijo (beer). Cat, ever prepared, compiled a spreadsheet of worthwhile things to see.

We figured on treating the "guided" part of the tour as a starting point.

We visited three cities: three days in Beijing, two in Xi'an, then two in Shanghai.

Beijing is like a sprawling, communist version of Washington, D.C. It has about 18 million residents crammed into endless rows of bland condos, as well as the lion's share of the tourist attractions we saw.

The first was Tiananmen Square, the political heart of China. We arrived on a Saturday, hepped on caffeine after stepping off the overnight flight two hours earlier. The square, with its memorial and ring of surrounding buildings, feels vast.

Mao Zedong, the leader of China's cultural revolution and the father of its current government, is interred in a building on the square. The lines to see Mao's remains were long enough that we calculated, at the government-mandated two seconds per viewing, we would have waited in line about three hours.

I couldn't tell where in the square that lone student protester in 1989 stood in front of a column of tanks, causing them to halt. Some Chinese think he emerged mostly unscathed. We were advised against inquiring.

We also saw the Forbidden City, the home established for the emperor in the 1400s. It opens with a series of massive courtyards topped by huge and intricately carved towers and expands into 9,999 rooms.

The place, from the detailing of its countless statues to the psychological punch packed by the placement of the towers, is breathtaking. I almost got lost; after a while, all those red doors look much the same. Apparently the emperor had eunuchs to cart him around. I could see why.

I rank the Forbidden City second on the list of attractions to see in China. The top one, in my opinion, is the terra-cotta soldiers. They rest in pits on the outskirts of the ancient one-time Chinese capital of Xi'an. And they are a testament to the accomplishment that can spring from human ego.

The soldiers came about because Qin Shi Huang -- the emperor who united China, established Xi'an as his capital and started construction on the Great Wall -- wanted an army of more than 8,000 soldiers to commit suicide so they could follow him into the afterlife and serve him there.

His advisers apparently convinced him this wasn't such a wise idea.

Instead, in about 210 B.C., Qin Shi Huang ordered artists from across the country to begin making clay replicas of an army. Each soldier was life-size, baked to a hard shell, held real weapons and was carved down to the smallest detail, with paint and even individualized faces. Some were even accompanied by horses and chariots. Artists were killed if their work wasn't up to snuff.

The 8,000 or so soldiers were arrayed in battle formation. Shortly after the emperor died, historians believe, the pits were pilfered by invaders. Eventually the roof collapsed and buried them in dirt.

They were discovered in 1974 by a farmer who now spends his days grumpily signing autographs at the elaborate museum that has sprung up at the site.

The museum is a wonderful and disorienting experience that I think illustrates the cultural forces at work in present-day China.

The grounds are impressively large and well-maintained. There are three pits of terra-cotta soldiers, each only partway through a painstaking excavation process, each inside a large new museum building. Those are surrounded by other buildings. There is a separate exhibit about the construction of the museum that now houses the priceless artifacts.

Once inside the buildings, you can get as close as a dozen yards to some of the terra-cotta soldiers. Close enough to see a droopy frown or kind-eyed smile or look of solemn contemplation. Close enough to see the places where the 2,200-year-old clay has chipped.

Turn the other direction and you'll likely find a sign with some variation on "Gift Shop." Here, you can have your face imposed on a picture of a terra-cotta soldier. Or buy a terra-cotta soldier mug. Or order a life-size replica with your face carved onto it.

Our tour leader, J.R. Gonzales, had organized five previous trips to China. He loves the place, and not just because he looks like a Mexican version of the Happy Buddha. (Several Chinese people noted the similarity and asked for pictures with him.)

Gonzales is the former head of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is an unabashed capitalist. And China, he told me early in the trip, is all about business.

Another thing to do in Xi'an is to ascend the ancient wall surrounding the old city and travel atop it -- preferably on a bicycle, with pijo in hand, as Mike and Corky did.

The wall is a well-maintained artifact from the days when Xi'an needed walls as protection from invasion. According to our tour guide, 2 million people now live inside the walls, while another 6 million live in the area that has grown up around the wall.

I felt like meandering, so Cat and I strolled at a leisurely pace, taking photos and observing how, on the outside, a forest of bland high-rise condos had sprouted, while on the inside lay neighboring clusters of tent-and-hut ghettos and high-end shopping areas with multi-story modern buildings whose facades advertised everything from KFC to Gucci.

An hour of wandering left me pondering the contrast, as if doing so on a whirlwind vacation would do any good. Mike and Corky returned with broad smiles, empty pijo cans and pictures of themselves with slightly bewildered-looking Chinese people. They didn't seem to know what to make of these Americans.

Forgive me for making broad generalizations, but I found that a feeling of serenity permeated China. The people were remarkably friendly, even away from the prearranged tour stops.

The general sense I got was that Chinese people were quite welcoming if visitors avoided two things: One is giving any indication you're interested in undermining the regime in power. The other thing to avoid is strutting around like you own the place. Just be nice, be polite, be interested in what people have to say and think and they seem to be willing to tolerate a significant amount of foolishness.

I don't know what most Chinese food is like.

We stayed in five-star hotels and ate at fancy restaurants. I doubt the regular Chinese diet is half as decadent. Most meals were family-style dishes served on lazy susans, so it's hard for me to even say what a particular meal consisted of.

I was not the least bit tired of the food. My digestion improved enormously. Chopsticks, believe it or not, actually handle Chinese food more efficiently than Western utensils.

When members of our group began complaining about a week's worth of Chinese cooking, I had difficulty suppressing the urge to remind them what country they had chosen to fly halfway around the world to visit.

A fair amount of the trip was dedicated to cultural outings scheduled to facilitate shopping -- visits to a jade factory, pearl farm, lacquer store, etc. A couple such outings were enough for me. Mike, Corky and I began wandering off looking for pijo and sea horse on a stick.

We weren't exactly in the nice parts of town, but not once did we feel threatened. We spent part of an evening in Xi'an sitting on a bench next to a convenience store whose owner was eager to be photographed with us. In Shanghai, we found a small outdoor market where you could eat a duck's head or boiled bullfrog or eel killed right in front of you. The place assaults the senses with the smell of slightly rotted flesh and a cacophony of shouting and the constant jostling of elbows. Alas, no sea horse on a stick.

For those on guided tours but lacking the means to transact large purchases, I recommend a little wandering off. The big spenders will still be supporting the big sellers. And you will contribute your yuan directly to the prosperity of the local entrepreneurs.

China, as our tour guide had observed, is all about business.

The highlight of this trip, however, was not about business. It happened on the Great Wall. After ascending a nearly vertical set of stairs that takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to climb, depending on your age and fitness, you arrive at the top of the hill.

The Chinese consider those who reach the top heroes. Or at least that's what they tell the tourists. You're supposed to buy a T-shirt to celebrate your new status.

We got to the top. The tour group came and went. Lots of photos were taken. Then, with Corky already gone and me preparing to leave, Mike shoved a camera in my face and told me to take a picture.

"Of what?" I asked, but his attention had shrunk to a very narrow slice of the wall. He took Cat's hand and led her a few paces away. He told her he loved her. That she meant everything to him. Then he dropped to one knee and pulled a ring from his pocket.

"Will you marry me?"

Only a moment's hesitation, then, with a big smile, "Yes."

Excitement ensued. People hugged. I took more photos. I told the remaining stragglers that Mike and Cat had just gotten engaged.

"What?" Conrad asked. "He had to go all the way around the world for that?"

We laughed. I took more pictures.

Then we went back down the wall and bought T-shirts.