Another Brick in the (Great) Wall (of China)

The Great Wall of China; we all know it, we’ve seen pictures of it, and have probably read about it. But to visit is, frankly, surreal. If you’re in Beijing it’s best to avoid the closer “touristy” section of the wall and spring for Badling which can be accessed by a 2-hour drive from Beijing. This means you’ll need to rent a car. But if like me and you’re staying at a major Beijing hotel (I was at the Grand Hyatt Beijing), you can get a driver for about $50 per hour.

A mid-week visit is best, late spring even better. Why? Because the Wall is walled-in with people. Thousands of them. Perhaps more. Arriving at this section it’s a weirdly disturbing sight to spy dozens of tour buses, hundreds of cars, and a stunning display of humanity. Oh yeah, and there’s a Starbucks here. Trash is littered by the entrance and the throngs of people milling about aimlessly make it feel like a refugee camp.
These images might pull you out of the moment, but don’t let it. The entrance fee is about $8 and once you enter, veer left, not right, and you’ll find fewer people up the steep slopes. You will however still see people pimping T-shirts, and hats, kitschy crap, folks talking on their cell phones, tour groups wearing identical hats – a formidable display of non-stop people. It’s unavoidable, so let it go.

It is amazingly easy however to tune out the weirdness and get lost in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. The Wall makes you want to walk it, to transverse its undulating path and to ponder – what exactly that may be is known only to you. And that’s as it should be. It seems to have been built haphazard in approach, just a weirdly misplaced length of stone to keep out undesirables, perhaps something a group of drunken politicians devised after too much imbibing, maybe a construction project based on a dare. Whatever. Walk. It’s uphill, downhill, steep with uneven steps, slippery in the rain, hot as hell in the unrelenting sun, but it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and if you walk long enough, the crowds will dissipate and you will find a place of respite to pause, and be amazed that the early Chinese built a wall nearly 4,000 miles long. In our day and age it seems like a simplistic and stupid method of deterrence. The thought of building a wall to keep out the Mongolian people appears to us of noble minds as unsophisticated and uneducated - until you consider that America has built a much less great wall with Mexico thousands of years later, which is still a simplistic and stupid idea. At any rate, you’re here, now. The Wall traverses the ridgelines and hilltops of the mountains, plunges deep into valleys and is a constant sight on the horizon, like a massive snake in repose. But it is also a mute witness to history, a literal timeline you can stand on. Yes, you can walk for long periods of time, and no, it’s not an uninterrupted journey as some parts of the Wall are shut down due to disrepair and other portions abruptly stop to prohibit people from wandering for hours. There have been cases of people walking for 5, 6 hours, then realizing they need to return to their starting point. But in some odd way that is exactly the point of visiting – to get lost amid a sea of humanity, and to wander a stone wall in a strange country, to get almost Zen with the whole thing: tuning out the people, the politics, the fact that you’re in China, the fact that this isn’t ADA compliant, and that you are here in this moment atop a wall built out of the stone from under your feet. And then perhaps we can return to our own country and walk among another and different sea of humanity, aware, but not affected by mundane and petty problems, and actually notice the inherent beauty and wonder that surrounds us always. Watch my 2 Minute Travel video of the Great Wall here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnMcUAboDFw&feature=plcp

1 comment:

  1. You took me there...awesome stream of conscience writing!