Dave Barry

Is this wall great or what?


I came here to see the Great Wall of China. To make the trip, you get a taxi in Beijing, then take the Great Wall Freeway to the Great Wall exit. Really.

My traveling party included my wife, my daughter and my mother-in-law. (Marco Polo also took his mother-in-law to China. You should always travel with your mother-in-law, because you never know when you're going to need unsolicited advice.)

The Great Wall is China's major tourist attraction, as well it should be: There is only one man-made object on Earth that is visible from the moon, and that object is Bill Gates' house. But the Great Wall is also impressive.

We parked at the base of a mountain, next to the Great Row of Great Wall Souvenir Vendors. As we emerged from the taxi, we were greeted by a chorus of voices shouting the traditional Chinese welcome to foreigners: ``Hello! T-shirt!''

At one point, while waiting for my family, I stood about 10 feet from a vendor, who shouted to me, ''Hello! T-shirt!'' I smiled and shook my head no. Seeing that I was clearly not interested, she shouted to me, quote, ''Hello! T-shirt!'' I again declined. Realizing that she was facing sales resistance, she came back with: ''Hello! T-shirt!'' I stood there for at least 10 minutes, and for the entire time, every few seconds she shouted to me, ''Hello! T-shirt!'' She had her marketing strategy, and she was sticking with it.

We rode up to the wall in a cable car that appeared to have had its last scheduled maintenance during the Ming Dynasty. We were a little nervous, but the ride was worth it, because when we reached the top, there it was: a tunnel. So we walked through the tunnel, and there it was: the Great Wall of China.

It's not easy, using mere words, to describe the Great Wall, but I will try, using professional-writer skills: It is really, really big. There is no way you could lift it without help. Not only is the wall high and wide, but it is 6,400 kilometers long, which would be even more impressive if you actually knew what a kilometer was.

The original purpose of the Great Wall was to defend China from marauding nomads. Building the wall took centuries, during which time the nomads continued to simply maraud right on past, ignoring the signs that said (in Chinese), ''KEEP OUT -- WALL UNDER CONSTRUCTION.'' Fortunately, the nomads were unable to penetrate China's secondary defense, a line of fierce and extremely determined T-shirt vendors.

But even if the wall wasn't an effective defense against invaders, it remains, to this day, a powerful deterrent to my mother-in-law. She took one look at the steep steps leading to the top of the wall and announced that she would wait for us at the bottom.

The rest of us walked around on the top for a while, admiring the seriously spectacular view and every few seconds remarking, ''Whoa! We are on the Great Wall of China!'' We also wound up meeting a lot of Chinese people, because literally dozens of them wanted to have their pictures taken with our 8-year-old daughter, Sophie. Groups of people would come up to us, point at Sophie, then point at their cameras; then one by one they'd have their pictures taken standing next to Sophie, as if she were Santa Claus or the Washington Monument. I'm still not sure what this is all about, but the same thing has happened to Sophie a number of other times since we got to China. I'm just hoping we'll be allowed to take her home.

Anyway, after we came down from the wall, my wife bought -- prepare to be surprised -- a T-shirt. Then we headed back to Beijing. Which leads us to today's:

AIR POLLUTION UPDATE -- It turns out that I was mistaken: There is no air-pollution problem here. I know this because I read it in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper of the Chinese government. And if we can't trust the Chinese government to be objective about this, who can we trust? For two days in a row, China Daily has run front-page stories stating that the dense yellowish-gray atmospheric glop blotting out the sun is merely ''haze.'' OK? So let us have no more talk about ''air pollution.'' Let us instead move forward to our:

OLYMPICS UPDATE -- The Olympic Games formally began here Friday night with a spectacular opening ceremony featuring pretty much the entire population of Asia. The highlight was, as always, the lighting of the Olympic flame. There had been much speculation about who would be chosen to light the flame this year, and everyone was surprised when the honor went to: my daughter. At least I think that was her. It was hard to see through the haze.

©2008 Dave Barry

This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.