Forgotten post: (Just another brick in) The Wall

29 Dec

It all got a bit manic on my world tour… and in my annual clearup I found a few posts that didn’t make it. Here’s one – there might be more!!

China has a wall, you know. And it’s great. And it looks like this…

Great Wall - Badaling (1)

So, flushed with success from my Forbidden City trip, I suddenly (like, at 9am) decided I would make my own way to the Wall rather than join a tour. I was a bit worried about crowds, but I felt that it would be better to go now rather than go later, especially since the hotel couldn’t tell me when they would run the next tour.

So, round the metro and onto a 919 bus, helpfully located at the Dongshemen City Gate which you would really have to be blind to miss. An hour and 45 minutes later, and I am at Badaling, which isn’t the closest segment of the wall to Beijing, but it IS the one everyone visits.

Dongshamen Gate (3)

And, today, they really are all visiting. There’s a few Western faces, but mostly it’s Chinese visiting their national symbol. But even with thousands of people on it, it is absolutely incredible. Sure, it’s been rebuilt. It’s probably a bit wider… and maybe they have built up the walls to stop people falling off…. but it is absolutely, stupendously, amazingly huge. Here, it winds across the mountain back and forth hugging the mountain as it unfolds like a ribbon of stone across the landscape. I can imagine the scene with the Emperor:

Emperor: I’ve decided that to protect the empire, we’re going to build a wall

Chief councillor: excellent, your highness. Where shall we start building?

Emperor: there are some mountains near Badaling that would be a great location

Chief councillor: [neck-saving silence]

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There is something about the location, the incredible beauty of the mountains, the gorgeous blue of the sky and the insistent presence of a serpent-like wall of stone tracing its way across the rock face that makes this irresistible. Knowing that what you are seeing is part of 6000km of wall (and nearly 9000km of defences if you include rivers and mountains that didn’t need a wall building) – earthworks that go back to 200BC (although most of the wall was built during the Ming Dynasty). In human terms the cost was incredible – around a million workers died during its construction.

Is it visible from space? Opinions vary – including a Chinese astronaut who bravely said it wasn’t – not even in low earth orbit. Apparently, it’s too narrow. Some reported sightings turned out to be rivers.. but even so, it is incredible, breathtaking in its scope and its execution. I know this isn’t original – I know it isn’t even in its original location… but it’s still unbelievable

So.. what was it like? Well, for some reason all the Chinese turn right when presented with the choice. That takes them to the more scenic section… but it is jam packed with tourists. Ignoring the steep steps (some of them 18” or more high) and uneven worn stones, or the fact that they haven’t built steps on some bits – well, the main hazards are: tourists that aren’t aware of where they are in relation to anyone else; tourists that are holding umbrellas; tourists with cameras. If you are really unlucky, you will encounter an umbrella holding camera wielding tourist with no awareness of the world around him. And a word to the wise… don’t wear a short skirt. I didn’t and I was fine.

Great Wall - Badaling (51)Great Wall - Badaling (12)

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So, having negotiated the crush of people, and made my way to the furthest navigable reach of the wall (at present – they seem to be continually extending it) I made my way back up the Heroes Path. The fact that there are street vendors engraving certificates may be some indication of what it’s like… and having made my way down it, I should perhaps have realised what it was going to be like. Well over 500 steep, steep steps, and sections of slope without steps that would have a cable car if it was America. I feel great overtaking the youngsters, until a snowy haired Chinese man who must have been at least 65 breezes past me.

I wonder if you can snowboard down it…..

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I find myself overcome with a hilarity and sense of fun that causes me to suddenly appear in other people’s pictures.. which is actually welcomed by the Chinese, who love having a slant eyed foreigner in their pictures (yes, they really do think that – it’s a question of perspective, isn’t it?). There’s something about where I am, and what I have experienced (and, possibly, a little exhaustion – I have been pushing myself today) that has induced a crazy levity.

The Chinese haven’t been totally kind to the wall – there are cable cars, which seem OK, but the theme park ride and the bear enclosure detract from the surreal beauty of the location.

Having done what feels like the tourist section, I proceed to the other half. This is almost deserted, and the people that I do see are mostly Westerners. And at 4pm, it gets even quieter… so still, in fact, that I can hear the voice of my soul speaking. I just want to sit there and experience the stillness, the peace, the beauty, the tranquillity. Travel guides suggest that maybe 3 hours is enough. I spent over 7 hours and still didn’t want to leave, just letting things roll through my heart, pondering the last 10 months or so, and deciding what will be different for me when I get back. And Tigger and Snuff get a few photos too – which succeed in making it even more unreal, somehow.

Eventually, I walk back to the entrance – but the deserted slopes of the section of the wall that I had climbed before seems to call to me – so I climb it again. I end up having my photo taken by a Chinese girl (and managing what starts to feel like a photo shoot for her) and a couple of photos with another complete stranger (his name is Wenxhiu Zhang, and he’s a farmer). The street cleaner leaps into action and takes a few more snaps (and then sells me postcards. Ho hum)

Great Wall - Badaling (112)An UK Teacher Tim and a Chinese Farmer Wenxiu Zhang 20110601@ The Great Wall, Beijing, China

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But the tranquillity of the wall, the huge open space, the beauty of the countryside… the simple fact that I am in China, and standing on the Great Wall just fills me with a completely profound sense of total gratitude.

I went through some crap to get here – dreams and hopes that didn’t work out, tough moments that took me to the edge of bankruptcy, to the dark shores of despair, that nearly destroyed my faith.. and yet, as I have said before, without that, I would not be here. I would never have taken the decision to take a year out, and I would never have had the experiences that I have had. And so, yet again, I give thanks for the people that inspired me to take this step of faith – and to the One who made it all possible.

I have to say . . . this is an incredible life.

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