Melody’s Olympics: What might have been

MPR’s Melody Ng is in China on vacation. But nobody is allowed to go on vacation at MPR without sending material back to News Cut. Here is today’s dispatch from Beijing.

8-19-08 Great Wall at Simatai. Liu Shuying is two years younger than I am. Her son is 12. Her husband grows corn on a small plot of land. And she climbs the Great Wall several times a day, following tourists, offering helpful (or not so helpful) tips on directions and vantage points, sharing bits of Wall history, and often, lending an arm to support ascent or descent of a particularly steep spot. She and her 73 colleagues may spend several hours of their time with a group, whether tourists want them around or not (it was the latter with us today), just so they can attempt to sell an “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt, fan, or pair of chopsticks at the end of the trip.

Liu Shuying is surprisingly upbeat about her situation. She’s the third of four sisters. Her father farmed – back then it was more wheat (I’m petty sure that’s the grain she was describing) than corn. He died when she was 23. She got married that same year, and had to move to her husband’s village on the opposite side of the Great Wall – what, when the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty, had been the Chinese side (her family had lived on what was the outside side of the wall – the side that belonged to the barbarians of the north.)

Ms. Liu follows tourists around because she says she has no other way to make a living. There are no factories in the area, and farming their tiny bit of land yields little. She tries to be helpful (I’m convinced she’s sincere in her efforts), but mostly ends up being a pest because the whole reason we choose to come out to Simatai, the most isolated section of the Great Wall near Beijing that’s open to tourists, is because we don’t want to be around a bunch of people when we’re taking in what has to be one of the most amazing and beautiful feats of humankind.

When I visited Simatai 14 years ago, it had just opened to tourists, and was basically a partially restored wall with numerous intact guard towers, known for its steep climbs and lack of infrastructure that surrounds most Chinese tourist attractions. My friend Ben and I had to take a crowded long distance bus that locals use to travel between cities out to the Wall. It was January, gray and cold. We were the only people there other than members of an Air France flight crew that I thought were the most elegant people I had ever met. No one was selling entrance tickets. No one was selling anything. No one was even around. We climbed until we could go no further, and then realized that we had no way to travel the two hours back to Beijing, and Benny had a flight to Israel he had to catch that night. I still smile whenever I see an Air France plane because those kind people rescued us by standing up to the wrath of their Chinese driver and giving us a ride back to town.

Now Simatai (admission 40 RMB, or about $5.75 per person) has a cable sky cab line to speed your trip up, and a zip wire line to speed your trip down. It has vendor stalls, a post office, two guest houses, and a dam upon which you can take a “cruise.” It has a delegation of persistent guide women like Liu Shuying. And now, during the Olympics, it also has an official information booth where blue jerseyed volunteers continually update Olympic medal counts.

As I speak with Liu Shuying this afternoon, I wonder (as I often do while people watching in China), how similar would my life be to hers if my great grandfather had not come to the U.S. to try to better his life? That thought usually helps me empathize with people that I find rude or annoying or worse. Today it mostly just makes me wish that Ms. Liu was carrying around better souvenirs in her bag of wares.

  • Anna

    I have enjoyed every one of Melody’s posts from China – and this one especially. It’s the sort of story behind the story that I wouldn’t get watching the Olympics on TV or reading in a mainstream paper. Thank you Ms. Ng for bringing us your unique perspective on the events in China. I’d much rather read about Ms. Liu (and the woman collecting plastic bottles for recycling and the dynamics of fans in the stands and…) than what’s happening with the athletes. It’s nice to know who won medals, but it’s more fun to know what’s happening beyond that.