China: Great Wall no barrier in pursuit of sales

By Duncan Gillies

Keen hawkers scale China's enormous landmark daily, writes Duncan Gillies.

The historic Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Photo / Duncan Gillies
The historic Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Photo / Duncan Gillies

The Great Wall of China was designed to repel invading armies. But it can be scaled easily using a simple home-made ladder.

At least it has been at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, where Song Chuan Ying and her two relatives have set up shop to sell everything from snacks to souvenirs to day-trippers.

After being clipped on the head by the gondola scooping me up for the short ride from the carpark to the wall, I have stopped for a cup of their green tea. They laugh and joke, exhausting all their English in an effort to get me to buy as much as possible. I'm an easy target and accept their asking price for a carved walnut and a Snickers bar which, on a day approaching winter, almost dislodges a couple of fillings.

Below us, bush-covered hills taper off into deep, vast valleys while the wall stretches off in the distance in both directions like the skeletal remains of some mythical millipede.

This section of the wall, in Huairou County, is just 70km northeast of Beijing and the 90 minute drive itself is an experience, from the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the big city streets to the winding roads through bustling villages.

I finish my tea and set off to make my way through the 22 watchtowers that punctuate this section of the wall, which was built and restored in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), on the remnants of a wall built in the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577).

But after watching Song, Yu Yoo Yan and Jia Yu Lan from the top of the first tower I approach, I decide they may in fact be in charge of today's entertainment and return to their stall.

They greet me again, try to sell me more souvenirs and, in the end, are happy for me to watch their form of Eastern entrepreneurmanship in action.

All three are related through marriage and live at Water Lily Village, about 5km away, on the other side of the wall from the carpark, cafes and stalls set up to cash in on the constant flow of domestic and international tourists arriving from Beijing.

In historical terms, they live on the wrong side of the wall. This section, built mainly with granite, is one of the best preserved parts of the Great Wall, stands 8m high and between 4m and 5m wide, and was created to defend the capital and the imperial tombs.

There's no keeping the hawkers out, though.

Song, Yu and Jia set out every morning, walk for two hours carrying all their goods on their back, and then climb on to the wall using a wooden ladder made out of two long logs and offcuts of timber tied on as rungs. And to make the journey worthwhile, they work hard selling their goods.

There are people running small stalls at regular intervals all along this 2.25km stretch of the wall but few seem to enjoy their work as much as Song and her comrades, who are all dressed in Chinese Army uniforms and encourage visitors to stop and have their photograph taken with them. When an American couple agree, Yu quickly places Army caps on their heads. The order "Salute" rings out from Song and the three women click their heels and raise their right hand to their forehead and wait for the flash. They then try to convince the Americans to buy the caps but watch them walk away having not made a sale.

They don't try the same routines with Chinese visitors, many of whom stop and talk over a cup of green tea. Now the women seem more relaxed. I watch and wonder if it's a sign of respect or if they know it's not worth the effort.

But as soon as another group of Western tourists approaches, they are busy again, working as a team, all laughs and broken English, ready to smile or salute for the camera. Anything to make a sale.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Beijing and Shanghai. Call 0800 737 000.

Mutianyu: To find out more about the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall see mutianyugreatwall.net.

Further information: The China National Tourist Office website has lots of information.

Duncan Gillies was taken to China by Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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