written: Feb 16, 2010
My love of travel stems from unwavering curiosity about the Wonders of The World, the ancient, modern, and man-made. When the opportunity came to return to China I honed in on Beijing because of the Great Wall.
Tea houses and silk factories. Teas tasting like blooms. As diverse as fine wines. Cocoons go from worm to moth to mite-free bedding, containing 17 + vitamins that nourish skin from the outside and is as light as air and warm. The “Dirt Market” is the place to go for real treasures. It’s open only on weekends so absolutely do not miss it. There are colossal marble statues that came out of a temple; rare and beautiful lilac jade bangles; hand made tea pots and silver from Nepal. The wartime memorabilia is historic. I saw lime green clairinets and purple trumpets. For anyone who loves or needs to shop China is great of course, cashmere, computers, cameras, knock offs and the real deal.
China is modern, fast and fast food and slick with modern buildings built for the Olympics and 8 lane highways, turned into 12. The traffic is mayhem. There are people everywhere, all the time. 17 million people in Beijing alone. Many have several businesses. So your driver will know who’s got whatever you’re looking for and name a good restaurant that his cousin owns.
In modern Beijing I dug deep and found a traditional “Hutong”, an area that would have originally been home to those attached to the Emperor and his court hidden behind Tianenemmen Square. This one surrounds a lake that connects to the moat around the Forbidden City. The homes are now restaurants, boutiques and hip bars with a sense of history and humor. You can get there by rickshaw.
Now the wonderous part of this trip. I hired a car to drive me 2 ½ hours to deliver me to the Great Wall of China’s Badaling Gate in time to see the sun rise. The Great Wall runs a thousand of kilometers, it snakes westward across mountains, deserts and snow covered plateaus. The construction lasted 2,000 years or more from the 7th century BC to the 17th century AD. Over 20 dynasties contributed to its construction. It is a cultural treasure and symbol of China. As a defense work, not only did it keep the Mongolians out, but “it shows the Chinese people’s love of peace and the determination to repel foreign invasions.” In 1987 The Great Wall was put on the World Cultural Heritage list by UNESCO and reputed as one of the 7 wonders of the world 100 years earlier. The Great Wall is surely that. Like at Stonehenge, I expected the perfect highway would deliver us right up to The Wall. I was wrong. I never saw it coming until I mounted the mountain.
I was led to a pay window in the dark. I paid the fee to a sleeping man in the booth. Another man who took my ticket in time for me to be scooped up by a speeding ski lift rather than a tramcar… alone. My feet dangled hundreds of feet above the tree-tops in the misty gloom, with a bar across my lap like in an amusement park. I HATE heights. Unprotected heights make me pray. I swung in the lift for 6 minutes with my eyes cast to the sky. I couldn’t bear to look down though I did aim my camera around and shot whatever my own eyes refused to see. The swing cranked and jerked and swung and changed gears with my heart pounding at every unexpected movement. It or I climbed thousands of feet up to the wall. When the top approached I was relieved to see another gaunt faced man waiting for me. As my ski lift approached I heard him yell, ‘JUMP’? Jump what was he asking me to do? I dismounted at a skip and a hop and a run while the thing kept going. It never stopped. I was almost panicky when he pointed up a flight of very old stone steps and he too disappeared.
I climbed the stairs and saw a large carved map of the Great Wall in stone that read, “you are here” in English. But there was no star to mark where here was. So, I just started walking. I walked to my right a few yards, the view wasn’t promising, but as I turned to walk the other way I could see dimly the path of the wall up the mountain. I wound up going left on centuries old stones. It was misty, moody and overcast . The fog was as gray as the light and I couldn’t see my feet. Fog so dense it was like snow falling.
And a little scary, I began thinking maybe this was a mistake, but I tried not to think about it. One has to be very clear about what one wishes for because being alone on the wall was a very romantic idea, but the reality was daunting. If something happened to me up here alone, no one would know…but I quelled those scary thoughts and walked on quietly repeating one of my favorite mantras.
The air was quiet and cool and beginning to go pale blue. I heard nothing in the stillness, no birds, no breeze. Stillness like I’ve never experienced it. It was delicious in its quietude. And monumental when compared to the constant motion of Beijing.
Then I saw it. On the horizon what seemed thousands of miles away, a glowing red marble. It couldn’t be the sun, it was so small and no ‘sunrise’ like at home. But a small unbelievably red ball the size of the circle your forefinger and thumb make when at arms length. It reminded me of the Japanese flag and Asian red lanterns I understood and just like that it was daylight. The day was glorious and clear and quiet, birds singing and something else chirping.
My fears lifted. I walked and forgot the idea of turning back. I walked and climbed steps that only hinted at the number of ages and footsteps that walked before me. The stone was worn where feet tread and the rock walls were ‘soft’ where hands and soldiers arms smoothed the surface over the ages.
The stairs were uneven, some risers a high reach and others so shallow you could almost feel you were walking rather than climbing. These stairs led to “watchtowers’ that gave views of incredible breadth.
Four hours later I finished the task and ended my final climb up very steep stairs, the hardest climb yet. My heart pounded and on the top step, took a deep breath and turned to look at the way I’d come. And the entire path I walked stretched out before me and I was proud of myself. I believe in miracles and look for them. I’d found another, like a gift from China itself, a 5 inch praying mantis was sitting on the stone wall on my left looking at me.
I found the tram at this last watchtower, a tour bus unloaded 100 tourists all heading down the way I came. I took the new, enclosed tram down part way and I walked the rest. I passed on my chance to be photographed on an Asian camel, the two-humped kind. It was a lovely smelly beast at the gate of the great wall for tourists. I was already on overload. I’ll have to go back I guess.