"You are not a hero at all if you have not climbed the Great Wall."
- Mao Zedong
If you haven't already heard the story directly from me, then you must be wondering about the title of this post. But I will get to that later. First, let me give you a brief intro about The Great Wall of China. It is almost 4,000 miles long and like a giant dragon, it zigzags across North China from the eastern coast to the Gobi desert in Gansu. The width of the wall is only about 18 feet (much narrower than I imagined it to be) and it's height is about 25 feet. I remember being told that the entire structure could be seen with the naked eye from the moon. I believed this, just like I believed a lot of the other urban legends when I was just a naive little kid. The truth is, because the wall is very slender it could only possibly be seen from way out there using super telescopes.
True or not, I not only got to see it with my naked eyes, but I walked it!! It was one of those precious moments where you feel the need to pinch yourself and make sure you aren't dreaming. It felt incredible being there, walking on this remarkable masterpiece that stood as witness to the rise and fall of Chinese history for over 2,000 years.
We went to the Mutianyu section of the wall which is about 90 kms. from Beijing and boy was I glad we revised our itinerary. Many tour operators take their groups to the more touristy Badaling section because of it's proximity to Beijing (70 kms.) and for the Ming Tombs which can be visited en route. Taking into account the advice of friends and online travelogues, we opted to forego the Tombs and the wall at Badaling for the more scenic and less crowded Mutianyu.
Now let me tell you what made this experience even more unforgettable for me. A freakin bee! Yes folks, I got stung by a bee. Having just arrived, we were making our way up the steep road to the cable car. This road is lined with souvenir shops and markets so as you can imagine I was happily shooting away with my camera, mesmerized by the colors of the dried fruits on display; when I felt a very sharp pain in the palm of my right hand. I see the little sucker (or should I say the little stinger) hanging there in the process of injecting me with its venom. Now mind you, it was cold up there so I've got on a thick coat, jeans, socks, a cap and sunglasses but the bee still managed to find some exposed flesh.
I screamed so loud and unleashed a torrent of profanity and frantically tried to shake the bee off but it wouldn't budge. The pain was intense! I finally flicked the bee off with my other hand and before I know it, someone is squeezing the wound to remove the stinger. I naturally assumed it was one of my friends so I was surprised when I looked up to see a complete stranger. Before I could even thank her she was gone, she disappeared as fast as she had appeared.
Our guide, Kevin, does not seem worried at all. After consulting a couple of locals, he tells me "it's normal" and assures me that I'll be alright. Yeah, I shrug thinking to myself, it's JUST a bee sting don't be a wuss. There was no way I was gonna let a tiny little thing like this ruin my visit to the Great Wall. So we hop on the cable car which takes us to the middle part of this section. We spend the next hour or so climbing the wall and passing through watchtowers, and just having a grand time. All the while I'm trying hard to ignore the fact that my hand is throbbing with pain. Psychokinesis, it's just mind over matter. I'm noticing however that it's getting bigger by the minute making it increasingly difficult to press the shutter of my camera. I keep thinking "it's normal" and the swelling would eventually go down.
All of a sudden every inch of my body from the top of my head to my feet begins to itch simultaneously! I'm not talking regular mosquito-bite itch here, I'm talking severe great-wall-magnitude itching! I must have looked like a wierdo practicing my coordination scratching my head slapping at my thighs at the same time. People were starting to stare but I didn't care. I pulled up a sleeve and was horrified to find my forearm covered in clusters of round blister-like bumps. It was so gross. I felt welts on my neck when I scratched there. I peek down my sweater and find more welts, they're huge and they're irregularly-shaped, white on red. I am completely covered in hives! Kevin and my friends arrive and they're ready to go. They stopped and stared at me in shock. Apparently my face had large patches too, and my ears were bright red and swollen.
On a side note: Have you ever seen the movie, Pure Luck? Where Martin Short gets stung by a bee and like me has a violent allergic reaction to it? That's how it was. The wierd thing is, my cousin D used to tell me how that movie was about me, because I'm such a klutz. He even christened me "murphy" for Murphy's Law because he says if anything can go wrong, it'll go wrong with me. Psssshaw! Whatevah!
I looked at Kevin and said, "this isn't normal anymore". He went into panic mode and ordered us to follow him. We rode the cable car back down to the tourist center where they had a small clinic. As soon as we get there, Kevin engages in a very loud 10 minute discussion in Chinese with the nurse. When I asked him for some English, he turns to me with one word "poisonous". "Umm, okayyyy? I kinda knew that. Give me anti-histamine. You know anti-histamine?", (I'm popping an invsible pill into my mouth). Neither of them understand me. I silently curse myself for leaving my Virlix in the hotel.
"We have to go somewhere else" he tells us, "they have no prescription here".
"But it's just anti-histamine I need!", I plead to deaf ears. What the heck is anti-histamine in Mandarin?!
More discussion in Chinese before we leave to find a hospital. As the rest of us are hurrying down to our van, my friend T decides to run back up to the market to buy some dried fruit and nuts to take with us. B decides to accompany her. What the?! Shopping? They're going shopping NOW?! At this point, I am too busy dealing with my violent allergic reaction to react but inside I am laughing at the absurdity of it and I make a mental note to pick that bone with them later. So C and I sit inside the van, waiting. She's trying to keep me from scratching off my skin.
I had managed to remain very calm until this point. My ears had swelled so much that I realized I was now slightly deaf. I remember friends telling me of allergy attacks where they can't breathe because their bronchial tubes start to constrict and I wondered if that was next. As if on cue I begin to wheeze. I turn to C and very calmly say, "I think I'm panicking now. I can barely hear". With that, she jumps out and screams at Kevin "Where the $%&# are they?!". A minute later they arrive with a huge bag filled with assorted dried fruits and nuts.
I tell you, in retrospect it's hilarious! We have not stopped laughing about this incident. Even at that moment I wanted to laugh, I just didn't have the energy. T will later justify this all by saying very matter-0f-factly , "I was only thinking about all of you. I mean, it's lunch time and what if we didn't find any hospital and you got hungry?". Oh such thoughtful friends I am blessed with! What would I do without them? ;)
Five minutes later, we find ourselves at what was supposed to be another clinic. I think the driver and Kevin misunderstood the directions because this was nothing more than a tiny pharmacy with a thin cot in the back. Again, another 10 minute discussion ensues between Kevin and the proprietor, a tiny old woman who appears from behind one of the shelves laden with what look like Chinese potions. This prompts my imagination to go on overdrive. Holy moly, what vile concoctions are these people gonna make me drink?!
"Anti-histamine!" I shout at her in vain for the third time, popping that invisible pill into my mouth again. She stares blankly. Grrr.
Just as I thought, we were in the wrong place so back into the van we go. It's a wild goose chase around the mountains of north china, in search of that elusive hospital. We're nearly two hours away from Beijing, there was no way I could have lasted a trip back to the city. It was getting serious and I needed relief soon.
At long last we find the hospital. It appears to be desserted. No one at the lobby. No one in the halls. All five of us run up the stairs in search of a doctor, a nurse, anyone. Still desserted. Tee noo nee noo nee noo nee noo. The twilight zone theme invades my head. Finally, a doctor comes out from one of the rooms looking like he had just woken up. He sees my predicament, puts on his coat and leads us back downstairs to one of the treatment rooms. Can you guess what happens next? Yup! Another one of those 10 minute discussions, a word of which we do not understand. And can you guess what I do next? Wow you're good at this!
"Anti-histamine!!". Hoping that since he is a doctor he'll actually understand me. No chance. The doctor, still yapping away, whips out a syringe and a vial. Uh oh. If there's one thing you should know about me it's that I hate needles. I'm so terrified of them that while normal brothers would scare their younger sisters by telling them there's a ghost in the closet or the boogeyman is under my bed; my brother would freak me out by telling me the Red Cross was coming to take blood from me.
I wave the syringe away, acting out the invisible-pill-popping action in earnest now. "Anti-histamine!" , I try one more time, only to be ignored. Kevin translates, "He says you will feel better in 10 to 15 minutes after he gives this to you. But you will feel sleepy. And if you stop breathing, to come back here." Oh. Great.
Fine. I remove my coat and roll up my sleeve. It's his turn to wave his hand at me. Well, what do you know, like I haven't suffered enough, I have to bare my butt to this strange man and take the needle there. I grit my teeth and bend over then he jabs my behind. Ok, that wasn't too bad. I'm too itchy to feel anything else.
I ask C to take my wallet and pay. My hand is now the size of a boxing glove, a kid's glove. I'm thinking it's gonna cost quite a bit because I don't have travel insurance. When C returned from the cashier and announced it was RMB 5.60 ( $0.65), I thought, What on earth did they squirt in me?! Water?!
Well whatever it was, it worked like magic! Only ten minutes later, the hives were gone. My hand stayed swollen for 2 more days and prevented me from using chopsticks and the stigmata-like scar is still there today, 3 weeks later. The physical reminder is slowly peeling away, but this is one experience I won't soon forget! :)