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Jewish World Review / July 1, 1998 / 7 Tamuz, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Wall-nuts

ATOP THE GREAT WALL, China -- A lifetime of exercise and clean living came in handy for President Clinton the other day, as he was forced to drag himself up a steep incline to get to the top of the Great Wall of China.

Tourists are required to go to the Great Wall. It is not only one of the genuine wonders of the world, but it is a great chance for vendors to sell you T-shirts.

The wall is truly magnificent, snaking off atop the undulating green hilltops, but to get to it, you have to pass through a gantlet of souvenir vendors all selling exactly the same T-shirts.

Each T-shirt says: "I Climbed the Great Wall."
Picture with a view

Which is true if you climb the 1,000 steps that are cut into the hillside at Mutianyu, outside Beijing, but most people take the little gondolas, which is what I did and the president did and Chelsea and Hillary did.

This does not mean you cannot buy a T-shirt, the vendors assured us. In fact, they said, you had to buy a T-shirt or people would not believe you were there.

I have a camera, I said. I'll take a picture.

"You can't wear a picture!" they shouted at me.

I couldn't argue with that, so I just ran away.

Anyway, it is a very steep walk just to get up to the gondolas, and this slows you down enough so that if the T-shirt salesmen don't get you, the chopstick salesmen will.

The chopsticks looked very nice and had Chinese characters carved into them.

I always ask for a translation before I buy such things, however.

Because what if you buy them and somebody comes to dinner who can read Chinese and finds out they say, "Your host is a pig and the food stinks"?

So I asked for a translation from one of our guides, a Chinese American student, and he said: "It is four characters. Food. Good. Moon. Round."

I understand the food good part, I said. But why is moon round on a chopstick?

"Well, the moon IS round," he said.

I couldn't argue with that.

On top of the wall, the press rushed ahead of Clinton so they could "pre-position."

This means we lined up along the top of the wall like a firing squad, so Clinton could walk toward us.

Such moments are mainly designed to get good TV shots and still photographs, but reporters can also shout questions.

And, I have to say, our questions were deeply profound.

"What are your impressions of the wall, Mr. President," a reporter asked.

"Quite unbelievable," Clinton said.

What he was too polite to say, however, is how the view of the wall is spoiled by the appalling smog that blankets so much of China.

Even though we were high up in the countryside 40 miles outside Beijing, the same hazy smog blanketed everything.

While Clinton was looking at the wall, I read about it: It starts at the banks of the Yalu River on the border with North Korea, stretches for 3,000 miles and ends at the foot of the Quilian and Tianshin mountains in the westernmost region of China.

The Mutianyu portion of the wall, where we were, was built in the mid-6th century and rebuilt in the 14th century. It is, as Clinton would find out, one of the steepest parts of the whole shebang.

It is built of granite blocks covered with bricks and has three watch towers and crenulated parapets from which crossbows could be fired at the bad guys.

Clinton, holding Hillary's hand and with Chelsea at side, said of his slog: "It was a good workout. It was great."

I sidled over to where Mike McCurry, the presidential spokesman, was standing.

I asked him for his impressions of the wall.

He thought for a moment.

"Wouldn't wanna rollerblade it," he said.

Couldn't argue with that.

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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.