Hawkers of the Great Wall

The climb along the Great Wall of China, a quintessential rite of passage for visitors to China, is by no means easy. Performed during the summer, temperatures are close to 100 degrees and the route is often surprisingly steep. However, given clement skies, one’s labors are duly rewarded by spectacular views of North Eastern China’s mountainous green terrain.

I had decided to bypass Badaling, the most Disney-fied piece of the Wall and that closest to Beijing, for the more untouched setting of Jingshanling, and the four hour, 10 kilometer hike to Simatai. The blissful tranquility the remote setting provides, though, was quickly offset by the numerous hawkers that hovered watchfully along the journey. Any early fears of neglecting to bring supplies that my small bus-load of European travelers might have harbored were immediately dissipated, as walking sticks, bananas and an assortment of kitschy hats were promptly waved before us. I purchased a large brimmed variety loosely resembling worn by one of my childhood television heroes, an outback Australia precursor to Anthony Bourdain known as ‘Bushtucker man,’ bartering the price down from 40 to 20 kuai. I set off at a leisurely Mediterranean pace with three Spaniards.

Before long, however, I found myself skipping ahead of my hiking partners, and being shadowed by a small Chinese woman, whose name I later learned to be Lu. We spoke in English, though I had the chance to exercise my limited Chinese vocabulary, constrained largely to explaining where I am from and what my Chinese name is. Along the way, the older hawkers would confirm with Lu that I am “hua ren”–of Chinese stock–with a slight smile. Single male hikers like myself were obviously singled out for approach by the younger female locals.

It took me a little while to realize what was happening, but I didn’t really mind her company. At the top of one of the wall’s myriad towers, she explained that it was number nine, and that I had 21 more to go before reaching Simatai. This, along with other pieces of useful information, were the social capital through which she established her emotional threads to my wallet, caveat by caveat. Her skin bronzed a rich brown by the sun, she represented economy in motion, bounding lightly along the path where we tourists heaved and sweated.

I asked about her life. She told me she lived near tower nine with her family, and was 30 and unmarried, a fact that she acknowledged with a tiny laugh. She also spoke a little German, Spanish and French, most likely possessing a similar vocabulary to that of her English. Given that I worked in international development and have come to China so that I might continue to do so here, I probably presented an utter pushover. I’m yet to acquire the ability to just say ‘No’ in some situations. But it was only after a kilometer or so of walking that she made her pitch.

We were at the foot of a dauntingly steep ascent, when Lu urged me to follow a shortcut, snaking through the brush parallel to the wall. It would bypass several towers, saving both energy and time. After some deliberation I declined, upon which she presented the ask, her voice tinged with urgency.

“Please, you buy souvenir from me later. No factory here…only work is on Great Wall, buying souvenirs.”

“Not ‘maybe.’ Later…ok?” she said firmly, after an initial effort to escape entering her verbal contract. She was adept at knowing when and how far to push, and when to accept my concessions.

Lu, and the other enterprising hawkers that work Jingshanling each day, represent traits I admire and hope to sharpen in my time here. In development parlance, they are ‘micro-entrepreneurs,’ providing both a valuable service–hauling cold water, (along with books, t-shirts and other tourist goods), to various points along the journey–and displaying shrewd business savvy, by milking wealthy Westerners for every yuan that spills from our bum bags (no doubt manufactured in China). Lu uses the same sort of emotional blackmail that brands like Gap or Walmart utilize in television spots; a key difference being that where Walmart fattens the wallets of its already-wealthy shareholders, these hawkers fulfill much more basic needs.

Despite the annoyances it raised for some, I think the hawkers earn an honest, deserved income, and though we foreigners may not have a direct moral obligation to support their livelihoods, I see persuasive reasons for rewarding their labors, unrequested or not. Part of the reality of touring a developing country like China is acknowledging and understanding your place in a world still largely divided into have and have-not. Those who consciously refuse to only perpetuate the “fortressed islands of wealth” condition which has landed our planet at this dangerously critical juncture regarding its long-term health.

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