There is a saying in China, “He who has not walked the Great Wall is not a man.” This right of passage inspires not only Chinese, it’s the walk of a lifetime for thrill seekers.
While construction began in the seventh century BC, The Wall, as we see it today, was completed during the Ming Dynasty 1368– 1644. For more than 2000 years, The Great Wall of China has formed an immense defense system along a course of 6700 km.
The Beijing International Club has orchestrated a magnificent outing for us. It’s part of the program they arrange for Incentive Groups, Executive Seminars, international board meetings or any like-minded group of 10 or more. We could have a cocktail reception at the Tiananmen Rostum, a buffet at the Supreme Harmony Boat at the Summer Palace, or a Western set up dinner at the Ancestral Temple in the Forbidden City. But this morning, dressed in our Army Issue khaki green Chairman Mao jackets and hats, we’re on our way to The Great Wall, one of the seven wonders of the world.
In a bus that has been decorated as a party mobile with balloons and flowers and vines, we honk and weave our way through a sea of cyclists and vehicles on Beijing’s wide thoroughfares. We’re soon out of the city and on our way to adventure. How odd we must appear to the jeeps, motors scooters and Mercedes on a rural two lane highway as they honk, stare and pass. The hawkers waiting for us at The Wall are more persistent than telemarketers at supper hour. They clamber to sell postcards, carved gourds and Great Wall souvenirs. How could I resist a four dollar T-shirt inscribed in Chinese characters and English letters. “I climbed the Great Wall of China.”
Toilet facilities? Oh yes. They wave me to a small concrete wall that semi-hides an open air “four holer” from the road. No options. A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do. Anyway, no one knows me here, nor do they care. Interesting that with all the melee that’s going on, my privacy is respected.
The Wall that lies north of Beijing is but a small section of this extraordinary construction. As we climb hundreds of narrow steps from one plateau to the next, the air thins and I’m beginning to find it hard to breathe. I need to sit down. Right now. “No! You must not sit,” cautions our Army uniformed guide, Lydia Lu, “Or all the blood will go to your hips.” She advises, “You just look at the sky at the top of the steps,” she says, while firmly holding my arm and navigating. This does in fact give me the sense of walking on level ground. Perception of time is lost. Has it been 20 minutes? An hour? At last we arrive at the Way Station on The Wall. The sight that greets us is straight out of a spectacular movie.
A Feast fit for an Empress
Guards of the Palace arrayed in Qing Dynasty silk costumes pour champagne and drinks from a full bar, and offer trays of exquisite dim sum: glistening pockets of shrimp, baked pastries plump with chicken, tiny brioche bulging with Peking duck, juicy deep fried dumplings of snails and morel mushrooms. I am inclined to paraphrase the Michelin Guide: “Worth the climb.”
Onward and upward. The China of 1000 paintings and photographs spreads below us in a tapestry of mountain range and clouds. A brisk wind whistles along the parapets, blowing dry yellow dust from the Gobi Desert. During the great famines, all the trees were cut down for firewood, now, there is nothing to anchor the dry soil and sand. Looking out at the vast expense of mountain range and the zigzaging wall, we’re gripped by the sense of history. Within these stones and bricks are a million myths and legends. What was in the minds of the centuries of Army Commanders and their troops, as they paused at the observation pavilion during their fights to keep marauding hoards at bay?
The walk down seems much faster. We run for our bus pursued relentlessly by the hawkers. In the distance, we can see our destination, the curving saffron colored roof tiles of an ancient pavilion.
Astronauts say that the Great Wall is visible from the moon. Today we have added our footsteps to this historic spot.