Buzzed at the Great Wall

A portapotty sized box shuddered side to side and bounced over cable towers bringing us to the jumping off point on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall in northern China. We were a 10 minute cable car ride and a five minute walk away from my forgotten epi-pen which was on the tour bus in the village below. A full eleven minutes more than it would take for me to die from anaphylactic shock if one of the Great Wall wasps the size of a cigarette lighter got bugged and stung me.

Jinshanling, Hebei Province, China
Jinshanling Great Wall, Hebei Province, China

At this remote location of the Wall in Hebei Province, we were the only tourists that day in August. T-shirt hawkers wearing flip-flops, some of them older women with faces lined like tea eggs, took a skinny foot path up the mountain, lugging satchels of stuff to sell. As we clunked up the steep mountain in the cable car, we watched them far below, steadily climbing. They arrived about three minutes after we did, breathing evenly and keeping up with us as we explored the Wall.

Summer heat and humidity clobbered us at the top. My three daughters and I walked slowly, shielding our eyes which traced the Wall zig-zagging the spines of mountains. All around us peaks like massive dragons teeth grimaced under the relentless pressure of the heat-smacked sky.

We sat on crumbling masonry to enjoy the view. The two older girls took off with some of the other kids in our group. Sitting on a piece of antiquity, my running shoes covered in historic dust, I saw the first wasp, reconnoitering. It buzzed my head and left.

My youngest daughter, then seven, looked at me and said “Mom? Mom?! Did you see that? Mom, did you see….” She stopped when the wasp returned and brought a friend. She grabbed my hand and started pulling me away.

We were on a narrow section that dissolved into a path just barely wide enough for two people. As we turned, we met three eager, smiling souvenir vendors who began their expert sales pitch while balancing post-cards, t-shirts, and baseball caps emblazoned with the Beijing 2008 Olympic logo. They pulled from their pockets endless varieties of pens and key-chains, Chairman Mao watches and knock-off Rolexes, beer steins and tea pots.

While we stood there, blocked by the determined new capitalists, the wasps found us again. The hawkers, focused on closing the sale, swatted the air and casually shooed away the predators but the badminton-birdie-sized wasps kept coming.

My daughter began to cry. “Mom, you’re going to die!”

No. I was not going to die. I simply refused to die that day because my last meal was not worth it.

Down at the bottom of the mountain was the nearly empty restaurant where we had had lunch. The last thing I ate was served steaming in a flan pan. Every dish at lunch on this flame of a day was hot. Every dish was unfamiliar.

Not everything is as it seems.
Not everything is as it seems.

This was our fifth day in China and each day we’d tasted and enjoyed a boggling selection of indescribable food, most of it delicious, most of it unfamiliar. We encountered one of these food mysteries just that morning at the breakfast buffet. A clear vat filled with a bilious green liquid sat between similar containers of orange and apple juice.

At lunch, a dozen steaming platters were splendidly arranged on a round table seating 10 Canadian tourists. Our cold beer sweat perfect O’s on the table cloth. And in the middle of it all sat the flan, looking familiar, comforting, like home and my mother’s cool custard chilling in the fridge in individual Corning Ware cups. Soothing, bland, vanilla treats.

I scooped some into my bowl and took a bite. It was salty. Lumps of something like clams with the resilience of table-dried chewing gum hit my tongue. It tasted like whale spleen. I chased it with beer – the whole bottle and then some of my husband’s.

No. This could not be my last meal.

I pushed past the hawkers, dragging my seven year old, escaping the wasps, the hawkers voices drowning out the dreadful hum of the killer insects.

Pebbles skittered off the wall and down the mountain as we bolted back to the cable car and crammed in, oblivious to the unstated capacity limits. At the bottom, the plucky sales team met us again and offered us one last chance to buy a memento. I bought a hat.

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23 thoughts on “Buzzed at the Great Wall

  1. Bruce Goodman September 29, 2015 / 9:08 pm

    Fascinating sight-seeing. I can’t believe you’d know what whale spleen tastes like!!

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    • Cynthia Jobin September 29, 2015 / 9:51 pm

      You are a tourist after my own heart….sitting on a piece of antiquity, feet covered in historic dust….buzzed by badminton-birdie-sized wasps….. harassed by hawkers….. and eating clams with the resilience of table- dried chewing gum (dried UNDER the table, I presume.)

      Some years ago I resolved never to be a tourist again; that I would only travel to where I had some reason to go other than “seeing the sights” and looking forward to the next meal….someplace where I knew someone or had work to do, and could take the time to just be there, with the people.

      I think this is honest, funny, and brilliant Sue.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Susanne September 30, 2015 / 7:09 am

        That was the last of 6 trips to China (another story someday) and the last trip outside of Canada. I haven’t consciously made a decision NOT to be a tourist but I understand your point of view. It is more satisfying to visit a place that you have a connection to than being on a tour bus and frantically rushing from point to point checking off boxes on a bucket list. I like to “park” and get to know one place, find the local coffee shop, pick up the local newspaper and get to know a place in a small way, too.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne September 30, 2015 / 6:58 am

      I’m pretty sure it tasted like that goop I ate. Or maybe it was whale gall bladder. Either way, it reaffirms that I’m not a fan of “sweetbreads” (except liver and onions and occasionally well seasoned tripe).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. cheergerm September 30, 2015 / 4:08 am

    Great piece of writing Redo. And I for one totally get that you had to run for your life, no point dying if the last meal was unworthy. 😁

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    • Susanne September 30, 2015 / 7:12 am

      I knew you’d understand! We had so many delicious meals in China and very few duds. After this near disaster we went on to the best dumpling banquet in Xi’an which I would have been happy to have made as my last meal.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. derrickjknight September 30, 2015 / 4:16 am

    Beautifully and entertainingly written. I’d have been more scared of the cable car than the wasps

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    • Susanne September 30, 2015 / 7:14 am

      I was terrified of the cable car, Derrick! But I’m so glad we went because this location of the Great Wall was jaw-droppingly beautiful and uncrowded but oh! The perils!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. dawnkinster September 30, 2015 / 9:10 am

    Would love to stand on the great wall…especially far away from tourists…but would also like to be far away from vendors. Glad you ended up unscathed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne September 30, 2015 / 1:53 pm

      It was quite an adventure, Dawn. The whole trip was filled with memorable moments, even 8 years after the fact.

      Like

  5. exiledprospero September 30, 2015 / 12:54 pm

    Very entertaining, Sue. There’s no better education for your children than travel. But it got me thinking about my last supper. Naturally, table scraps would do fine for my disciples, but I really have my heart sent on badger fillets, braised in Pinot Noir, with sautéed crimini mushrooms–all served on a bed of a gossamery polenta. I think the recipe in on page 17 of the Little Red Book, directly under the Workers Bees (or badminton-birdie-sized wasps) of the World, Unite! slogan. Mao used to crave the dish. At any rate, the Chinese like to see tourists with a dogeared copy of the book, as it brings back so many memories.

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    • Susanne September 30, 2015 / 1:53 pm

      I don’t know, Prospero. Those hawkers had so thoroughly embraced capitalism I think they would have pummeled me with the little red book if I’d brought it out. I like the sound of your last supper, a kind of haute hillbilly reduction.

      Like

  6. snapsandbits October 1, 2015 / 3:50 pm

    Wow I’m glad you didn’t get stung! That must have been so scary.

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    • Susanne October 1, 2015 / 6:00 pm

      It was frightening but then so was the salty flan!

      Like

  7. Luanne October 7, 2015 / 12:28 am

    Oh man, I just couldn’t.

    Like

    • Susanne October 7, 2015 / 4:50 pm

      I was in the moment, embracing it all, Luanne! Nowadays I’m not so sure I would. The GI consequences simply don’t bear thinking about.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. jbbluesman October 8, 2015 / 3:34 pm

    You sure know how to tickle my imagination Sue I can just see you and those badminton birdie size wasps!! So glad you never got stung. I recall in Japan seeing bees half the size of my fist. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself, wonder why they get so big?? at least you can see them coming!!

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  9. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner November 22, 2015 / 5:46 pm

    I’ll never look at a wasp the same again AND I don’t know how I missed your REDOSUE posts…but not anymore. I just love your ‘voice’.

    Like

    • Susanne November 22, 2015 / 5:48 pm

      I missed writing non-fiction after I took down poor ol’ Menomama so this came about around April, I think. The usual mish-mash of stuff. I’m delighted you found me!

      Liked by 1 person

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