Great Wall, Great Experience

According to China’s late Chairman Mao, “Bù dào cháng chéng fēi hǎo hàn.”

Or, in our own tongue:

“He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man.”

This sentiment is one of a few about which Mr. Mao and I disagree. But I will give the man this: The Great Wall (aka: cháng chéng) truly is one of China’s must-see sites.

Believe it or not, this was actually a point of debate a few months back. As I worked with my parents to plan their 10-day trip to visit my husband and me in China, it became quickly apparent that we wouldn’t be able to pay homage to all China’s premier tourist locales. Since both my dad and I are surfers, we seriously considered jettisoning Beijing in favor of Hainan Island, the Hawaii of China:
hainanisland1hainanisland2

Tempting, right?

But in the end, we went the traditional China route. And I’m so glad we did.

One thing many visitors to the Great Wall don’t know is that the level of restoration done to this world wonder varies greatly depending on which section you visit. The stretch nearest Beijing is called Bādálǐng and is entirely restored (and notorious for massive crowds). The next section out is Mùtiányù, which is partially reconstructed, but if you’re game for a bit of mountain climbing walking, you can also reach what is very clearly an “unmanicured” span of the Wall. Another popular section is Jīnshānlǐng, a far more authentic section, but one for serious hikers only.

Taking our whole party’s needs and preferences into account, we struck a compromise and headed for Mùtiányù. It wound up being the perfect choice: those who preferred a more relaxing Great Wall experience were able to pause at a scenic point and drink in the astounding view. For the rest of us, we continued on until our legs issued an ultimatum to stop.

Lord knows why, but prior to my actually stepping foot on the Wall, I had no concept of how much climbing was involved. Not only does the Wall follow the natural contours of the mountains it tops, rolling up and down along with the peaks, but the placement of some of the guard towers (Mùtiányù specializes in these, having 20+ towers densely packed within this section alone) necessitates some serious stair-stepping action. Granted, I’m a bit of a squirt, coming in at 5 foot zero, but in some places the steps themselves were so tall, I was literally climbing them using both my hands and my feet. I’m not ashamed to say I spent the three days following our Great Wall adventure afflicted with what I dubbed “Great Wall Leg”, an intense soreness down the front of each thigh.

No doubt about it–the Wall put my physical fitness into humbling perspective. Sure, I’m now running more miles in a week than I ever imagined I could (as a water-based athlete, the treadmill is not my natural ally), but no amount of indoor jogging prepared me for the Wall. I can now authoritatively and definitely say my cardio-vascular skills are not up to fighting off medieval-age Mongol invaders.

I’ll have to leave that up to Mulan.

Despite the post-traumatic-stress my legs underwent, I can sincerely say I’m proud of myself for making it beyond that 21st guard tower (where most tourists call it quits) and pressing on with my husband and dad to Tower 22. Tower 23…. 24.

Not too shabby for a shortie from Texas.

But what struck me most about the Great Wall was this: like so many other elements of China, it proves to be a study in contrasts. The Wall is a microcosm for the culture that produced it.

Standing at Tower 23 provided the perfect visual analogue for this. Looking back down at the territory (and the mountain-scaling) we’d just covered, I could see a perfectly restored wall; looking ahead at the path left before us, I saw the crumbling authenticity of a very ancient, un-retouched wall. Yet again I was faced with what may be the most persistent theme of Chinese culture: the collision of the old and the new. The war between them.

First at Tower 21 and then again at Tower 23, signs are posted warning you to go no further. But after a year plus of living in China, I’ve learned that rules here really are, à la Pirates of the Caribbean “more of guidelines.” (My favorite example of this is the chain-smoking groups of men that cluster beneath signs authoritatively declaring the room to be “non-smoking.”)

Bearing this cultural tendency in mind, our group pressed onward, and we weren’t the only tourists doing so. As we walked along perfectly safe path, I couldn’t help wandering: were the signs warning against our further progress and the extensive efforts to restore the Wall for our safety? Or were they more focused on ensuring only the most aesthetic of views? China has an incredible, old, rich culture–truly staggering to a girl whose American culture is only a handful of centuries old. But in China, it often feels like the old and the ancient are sacrificed on the altar of the new and shining. It’s a little saddening to consider how deliberately one must search to find un-retouched sections of the Wall, as though its nobly deteriorated state were somehow not quite good enough.

And then there is the history of the Wall itself. Chinese people are–absolutely understandably–quite proud of their wall. And why shouldn’t they be? Its grandeur and beauty, its wonder as a feat of both engineering and ambition–stunning. To have even conceived such a project and then to have executed it–mind-blowing. What now requires modern tourists a 1.5 hour car ride, a shuttle, and then a cable-car ride to reach, ancient Chinese laborers built by hand, and Chinese soldiers staffed in every season, blazing summer and freezing winter alike. It truly is a wonder of the world. Even our Chinese tour guide Henry, who undoubtedly has visited the Great Wall innumerable times, is palpably proud of this marvel his culture created.

But the history behind this staggering edifice is a bit dark. Millions of laborers died in its construction (and that was only during one period of building, when China’s first emperor undertook to join all sections of the wall, between 220-206 BC). Human bones and blood were actually used to make the bricks utilized in the Wall’s construction. How incredibly eerie to think that while my family and I walked along the Wall, enjoying our vacation, snapping photos, and marveling at the beauty of the sun breaking through the smog of pollution, that beneath our feet were countless bodies, stashed away in entirely unmarked graves.

If I’ve learned one thing living in China (other than that signs are loose suggestions), it’s that some things here just aren’t spoken of. Sometimes this is due to actual government regulations prohibiting it. Other times, I think this silence is simply a practical solution–a way to cope with what is too traumatic to acknowledge. And so the praises of the Great Wall are sung, but the costs tallied in its construction are whispered.

But of course, pictures are worth a thousand words anyway. (Though as someone who’s both writer and painter, I’m torn about this aphorism.) So enjoy my camera’s take on our Great Wall expedition:

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