***Click hereto view the latest pictures from China.

6:41 AM Yesterday I woke up at 2 AM, today at 3:30 so I think I'm getting used to the time change. Six of us are staying in a two-bedroom apartment at the Mac Center on the west side of Beijing. Mark and Nick are sleeping on futons in the living room, Marlene and I have a bedroom, and Josh and Alan are sharing a bedroom. The apartment has a small kitchen and a nice Western-style bathroom. Cozy but comfortable. There are other families staying at the Mac Center but we haven't met them yet. I got up at 6:15 so I could follow the Indianapolis-New England game on the Internet. We're pulling for Peyton and the Colts but at the moment the Patriots are winning.

6:46 AM About twenty minutes ago, everyone woke up at the same time. Mark and Nick went running into Alan and Josh's room. "This is just like Christmas. We're all up at the same time," Nick said. On tap for today: We visit the Great Wall. We're going to a section where you can either walk 1000 steps (approximately) or take a chair lift to the top.

8:23 PM A few notes at the end of a exciting, exhausting day. I'm as tired right now as I've been in a long time. Early this morning we took a taxi two hours outside of Beijing to visit the world-famous Great Wall of China. There are various places you can go to visit the wall, and we picked a spot that is relatively less-visited. The wall itself once stretched over 4000 miles across deserts, grasslands, plateaus and mountains. Some parts of the wall were built over 2500 years ago, many sections have eroded over time, and some have disappeared entirely. Built originally as a series of defensive walls, it did not become the unified "Great Wall" until the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). The wall we see today was mostly built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Click here for a detailed history with pictures.

When we got to the site, we were one of only a handful of visitors today. We walked up the steep mountain road, past rows of little shops selling all sorts of souvenirs—postcards, "Mao watches," "I Climbed the Great Wall" t-shirts, fancy Chinese robes, ornamental place settings with decorated chopsticks, and so on. The big decision was whether or not to attempt climbing the 1000 steps to the wall. Or we could take the chairlift. Marlene and Mark rode the chairlift, Alan, Nick, Josh and I tackled the stairs. It was straight up the mountainside, hundreds and hundreds of steps. When we finally got to the top, the Great Wall turned out to be a true "Wonder of the World." The location is so remote, the wall so large and so long, you could not help but marvel at the ingenuity, dedication and incredible drive that produced such a structure. You could stand in one spot and see the wall disappearing on the tops of distant mountains in either direction. How did they do it? How many people must have died in the process? The logistics stagger the mind. After a while, Nick and Alan and I decided to try to follow the wall down a valley and to the top of the mountain that towered above us in the distance. We did it—but it took all we had. At one point we saw a sign saying, "Dangerous Section. Pay Your Attention," which we certainly did. It got so steep that at one point, I had one hand on the rail and the other on the step in front of me to keep from falling backwards. Nick raced on ahead, but Alan and I took our time making our way to the top. We were rewarded with a spectacular view of the wall stretching for miles. It turned out we had climbed to the end of the restored portion of the wall. The wall continues for miles but it is in a state of disrepair. After a round of picture taking, Marlene and I and Alan road the chairlift down while Mark and Nick and Josh rode the "Alpine sled," a sort of snowless toboggan run.

 

Then we encountered the souvenir salespeople. Perhaps I should say they surrounded us. All of them know just a little English. They grab your arm, pull you into their stall, and promise you "best prices," and "local goods." Then they quote a price, say, 120 Yuan for a t-shirt. The rule of thumb is, Offer then 1/3 minus 20. But you never offer a price too soon. You turn to walk away. "Okay, my friend. 65." "Not interested." "What's your price?" If you are interested, you name a price, say, 10 Yuan (about $1.25). "No, no, my friend. Too low."  So you walk away. The salesperson (most of them were women today) grabs your arm, pulls you around, and stands in your way. Very aggressive. If you are interested, you repeat 10 Yuan. They act offended, and then say, "For you, 50." And you keep walking away. "Mister, mister. 40." No thanks. "30." You repeat your 10 Yuan offer. If you want it, you raise the price a bit. (A Yuan equals about 12 cents in US money.) You might get it for 10 Yuan or you might pay 30. And if you pay 30, you'll buy the same thing at the next stall for 20 Yuan. And so it goes. Marlene really got into the bargaining. She ended up buying a lot of souvenirs. At first she overpaid, but by the end, she got some great bargains. She walked away with an armload of stuff and a big smile on her face. Nick bought a ceremonial Chinese knife and a t-shirt. Mark bought a cap and some "North Face" gloves (knock-offs, not the real thing). It helped to have Josh there because he knows enough Chinese to talk to the sales people and drive the price down. Bargaining like that is a lot of fun if you know what you want to pay and if you have a good sense of humor. The shopkeepers fully expect you to bargain with them so they are not offended when you offer 1/3 or ¼ (or even lower) of their asking price.

Most things are inexpensive by American standards. Tonight the six of us had six courses at a restaurant for $16 and Josh thought that was expensive. We hired a taxi driver who drove us two hours to the Great Wall, waited three hours for us, then drove us 2 hours back to Beijing. Total cost: $37. A 15-minute taxi ride costs about $1.25. A couple of other observations. Beijing is huge in every sense of the word. It dwarfs Chicago in terms of people and area. Today we saw massive, multistory housing developments all the way from the city to within a few miles of the Great Wall. That would be like Chicago stretching from South Bend to Dekalb to Milwaukee to somewhere south of Kankakee.

All the Chinese people we've met seem to be friendly and curious about Americans. That hasn't been the case everywhere I've traveled. I can think of several countries where we didn't feel very welcome. People here seem genuinely glad to see us. A warm smile and a halting attempt to say "Hello" in Chinese seem to go a long way.

Josh is obviously doing well here. He and his teammates seem to enjoy each other's company. We've been amazed at how much Chinese he's been able to pick up in six months.

We are all aware that there are several aspects of Chinese society that are not discussed very much, at least not with visitors. But things are changing, and some things are changing rapidly as the country prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. That event means far more to China than it meant to the US to host the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. You see more and more American influence, such as McDonalds, Dairy Queen, Domino's Pizza, TGI Friday's, and a host of other American companies and corporations. Wal-Mart has even come to China, though not yet to Beijing, I think. So the times, they are a-changin', and the change is only just begun.

Tomorrow we visit to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Time to go to bed. All that climbing has me worn out.


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