Beijing: "I Climbed the Wall with Elsa"
January 7, 2008
Dear Family and Friends,
Here’s what I thought: “Book a tour. Ride a bus. Buy a ticket. Climb up on to the Wall. Then, take a leisurely stroll along the Wall.” I was correct, except for that last part. Listen . . . .
Jasmine went back to work but she enlisted her former colleague and good friend Elsa to be my guide for the day.
Elsa picked me up and handed me a bowl of hot porridge. The tour bus was waiting impatiently on the chilly street. We passed the raising of the flag ceremony in Tian’an Men Square before heading north through the early morning traffic. Did I mention that the flag ceremony is at sunrise?
“A symbol of China’s historic detachment and sense of vulnerability, the Great Wall snakes though the county-side over deserts, hills and plains for several thousand miles. Originally a series of disparate earthen ramparts built by individual states, the Great Wall was created only after the unification of China under Qin Shi Huangdi (221 – 210 BC). Despite impressive battlements, the wall ultimately proved ineffective; it was breached in the 13th Century by the Mongols and then, in the 17th Century, by the Manchu. Today only select sections of its crumbling remains have been fully restored.” *
“What is the only man-made object that is visible from the moon?” is a question I remember from “Go to the Head of the Class,” one of my favorite childhood board games. Sorry, but this “myth was buried in 2003 when China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei failed to spot the barrier from space.
“The wall can be seen from a low earth orbit, but so can many other objects of human construction, such as motorways and railways. Looked at from above, the relative width and uniform color of large roads renders them more distinct than the Great Wall, a structure even less visible from the moon, where even individual continents are barely perceptible. The myth has been edited from Chinese textbooks, where it has cast its spell over generations of Chinese.” ** And also many Americans who grew up on Monopoly and later, Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit.
My fantasy of a quiet stroll to admire the scenery went up like a puff of incense smoke. Has every stout tour bus besieged the Wall to deposit its marauding hoard of passengers to invade this very spot?
Along with a host of other visitors, Elsa and I climb up the stone stairs on to the Wall. Then my fantasy of a leisurely walk is exploded. The Wall keeps going up! The Wall conforms to the contours of the mountain. The hillsides are not horizontal; they follow a 45 degree angle up, and up.
Elsa and I make our way slowly up the stairs and along the brick walkways and through the watchtowers. With other cheerful adults and children, we pant and gasp in the cold mountain air, we stop for a photo, or we just stop. Some visitors are out of breath or out of energy or out of the sheer willpower necessary for the climb. Smiling, energetic Elsa provides the motivation to continue.
Beyond the ramparts of the Wall, the winter scenery is rough and rugged. Rolling, rocky hillsides and grey-green brown mountains look like they were invaded, carved and blasted by natural conquerors. Mist covers the mountains along the horizon.
How did the Chinese build this Wall? And what armies, after they crossed the harsh mountain terrain, would have had the audacity or the skill to attempt to conquer the Wall? How could it have been breached?
The questions and answers are for another day. As for today, I am thrilled to be here. The Great Wall of China!
I am proud of my climb, but I am not satisfied. I promised myself that before I leave China, I will return to the Great Wall at another less trafficked location. I will turn fantasy into reality. I will climb and stroll at my leisure to once again admire this remarkable structure set in this peaceful countryside.
* “China.” Dorling Kindersley. London, 2005.
** “China.” Lonely Planet. 2007