Travels: The Great Wall of China

The following excerpt is from my travel journal for the trip I took with my grandfather, mother, and then 9-month old daughter Liliana in June/July of 2007. This took place after three days of delays and sleeping in airports. It represents our first real encounter with China. Enjoy!

After breakfast, we met up with our group for the first time. There were sixteen of us total, although our group contained the youngest and the oldest members. David, our tour guide, was nice and filled us in on all the information we missed on the first day of the tour. I was sad because we missed the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. After seeing The Last Emperor, I really wanted to see it for myself, to get the feeling of the size of the place. It just means Staley and I will have to come back someday.

With everyone assembled, we climbed on the bus and were on our way to the Great Wall. The bus was lush. Such a far cry from the buses I traveled all over Texas in during high school. Liliana loved being free to look out the window and play on my lap. Getting her back into a car seat when we get home is going to be a nightmare. I felt a little ashamed because we are fitting the stereotype of the spoiled Americans–we want to see the culture from behind glass, not actually be a part of it. But with Lili and Grandpa, I just think this is the safest way.

Bejing reminds me of Western big cities I’ve visited. Crowded, bustling, but yet a world away. As we went along, David pointed out various things about Beijing, such as the immense amount of construction going on not just there, but all over China. They call the crane the national bird of China because of it. Mom noticed that the scaffolding that covers so many of the buildings is made of bamboo. I love that idea. We drove by the site for the Olympics next summer—it was cool to see where everything is taking place. There’s the Bird’s Nest which is a great tangle of metal for the track and field events. They call the building with for the swimming events the Water Cube, which I can kind of see, although it looks more like a blue sponge to me.

On the 45-minute drive to Badaling (the most popular part of the Great Wall) David filled us in on some things about China like their lack of respect for personal space and how to avoid counterfeiters, a huge problem in China. The thing about personal space worries me a bit because I have issues with Americans and their lack of personal space and we are notoriously distant.

Once we arrived at the Wall, everyone stretched their legs and then we all got our picture taken as a group in front of the Wall. Then the group went to plant trees alongside the Wall. I remember reading about this experience in the brochure. Theoretically, it does sound really cool to contribute something that will remain for years to come at this ancient place. But in reality, it’s digging a big hole. It was also a ton of stairs down and back, so Mom and Grandpa stayed behind to go to the bathroom. While everyone else in the group was planting trees, I took a moment to really take in the Wall.

The base area we were at (like I would discover most of China) was covered in stands selling T-shirts, fans, jewelry—pretty much any Chinese knick-knack you can think of. And the people were very aggressive when trying to sell their wares.

My thoughts on the Great Wall are pretty much based on the Circle Vision in China at Epcot where they show it winding through the mountains. That doesn’t even begin to prepare you for how incredible it is. It twists and turns and doubles back on itself so much that you can hardly follow where the line of it goes by looking at it. There is this feeling of standing on the edge of eternity as this ancient structure snakes through the mist.

After everyone planted the trees, we were given and hour and a half free time. From where we were, there were two options for going on the Wall, a somewhat flat way and a really steep way that was mainly stairs. I found my family already starting up the hard way, so up we went. I have to say, it was a crazy climb. The steps are incredibly steep and uneven. Some of the steps are so high that they came up past our knees. It was also really crowded with people of all nationalities. Some areas of have some hand rails, some don’t. Some are wide enough for three people; some are so narrow you can barely fit two.

Up we went, slow and steady, with Grandpa stopping rest every once and a while. I was behind he and Mom at first and then ahead. Liliana was in her Bjorn, looking around at everything. The view was magnificent, although it was very overcast and much of the mountains were swathed in mist.

On our way up we met so many people who were so fascinated by Liliana. Several people from Asia and the Middle East wanted to take her picture or have their picture taken with her. It was so strange to have such a fuss made over a baby.

By the time we made it to the top of the Wall it was raining pretty hard and Lili was screaming. Some very nice Japanese girls insisted that we take their umbrella for the baby after posing for a picture with her. Grandpa rested for a moment and then we started back down. Interestingly enough, the climb back down was much harder on Grandpa. The steps were getting very slippery and his legs started to give out. He rested more and more. John from our tour offered to carry him down, but Gramps wanted to do it himself. So down we went, slower and slower as the rain started to pour down. At some points Grandpa even went down on his butt. John was so impressed when we told him Grandpa was 90, he started announcing it like a herald as we descended. It really was incredible–the climb is really hard and we passed some people, even teenagers who were about to pass out or were even throwing up from the climb.

At one point, Grandpa’s legs gave out and he ended up sitting on Mom’s knee. Some very nice Japanese people stopped to wait with us, trying to find a way to help. One girl ran and bought Grandpa a rain poncho to keep him dry. By this time we were ten minutes late for the bus. John went ahead to tell them what was happening and came back with two teenage twin boys that were also on our tour to carry Grandpa the rest of the way. He refused to be carried, but they each flanked him just in case as he came the rest of the way down, John beaming and yelling, “Ninety years old and he climbed the Wall!” the whole way. When we reached the bottom, people broke into applause.

They gave us a picture to remember the day with a quote from Chairman Mao on it. Although I’m not a fan of communist propaganda, the saying really applied to Grandpa:

“He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a True Man.”

Gramps is most definitely a True Man and his climb up the Great Wall proved just how true that is.

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