What is initially most startling about China…beyond the architectural, artistic, culinary, and language differences, is the traffic. Beijing traffic is insanity. Just 10 or 15 years ago, prosperity came in the form of one or maybe two bicycles per family. Today, prosperity is measured in the number of cars a family can acquire.
Yesterday a group from our hotel left for the Great Wall of China at 8:30 am, a trip that should take approximately 2 hours.
They arrived at the Wall at 4:30 pm.
Luck (and Sunday traffic) must be on our side, because our journey to the Wall s relatively painless. For Beijing.
And what a Wall it is!
The longest wall in the world (see there’s that biggest and longest and most awesomest again), it was built (although never completed) over the course of hundreds of years using countless “dispensable” labourers, many of whom found their final resting place at the base of the Wall, as a defense against foreign invasion and to protect the very precious trade along the Silk Road.
I imagine the invading hordes of Mongols, after traversing mountains and other gigantic natural barriers, reaching the Wall and saying, dejectedly, “Awww crap, there’s a wall…we’d better turn around and go home!” (in Mongolian, of course…)
Chairman Mao, who is regarded by the Chinese to be the father of modern China…notwithstanding the terrible things he did to his population and the country’s cultural artifacts during the Cultural Revolution (although apparently the Chinese are either quite forgiving or have short memories for these sorts of things because he’s still regarded quite fondly) said, “One cannot be a hero until one has climbed the Great Wall.”
Taking that genuinely to heart, the Badaling section of the Wall, the most traveled section, sees up to 70,000 visitors per day in the high season. So you know those photos of the Wall without people? The ones that showcase long stretches of empty space? Doesn’t happen.
The Wall is packed. After making my way through the endless gift shops and entrance gate, I’m faced with my first decision. Do I go left or right? I take the Southern route, mainly because it is the road (ever so slightly) less travelled. Despite its name, I am told the Southern route apparently points towards Siberia (I’m no navigator, but isn’t that North? I suppose it bends).
I start walking. Walking soon turns to climbing.
What did I think, that the Great Wall of China would be smooth and gently sloping?
The Great Wall is steep and uneven, making the climb invigorating and a definite challenge. Heroism doesn’t come easily.
I make it to the 4th gate tower before I turned around (no need to accidentally end up in Siberia, or Tibet because with my sense of direction, it could totally happen), at which point I feel a gentle tap on my arm and turn to see a young Chinese couple with a camera. The young woman gestures that she would like to take a photo with me. Many rural Chinese have never seen a Caucasian, and to have a photo with one is apparently exciting and exotic. Me…exotic and exciting!! (It will happen again and again during my time in China.) I oblige, and will now be a treasured memory in someone’s photo album.
So, I may not have walked the entire Wall, or run the annual marathon along its winding length, but to at least one young couple from somewhere deep in China, I am a hero…or an oddity…
Wonder what Mao would think of that?