The Chinese customs officer is reviewing my exit information carefully. I fidget hoping he won't notice my answer to question #12, the last question, but when he gets to it he goes rigid and slowly looks up at me, staring me directly in the eyes.
"It says here you have not hiked any section of the Great Wall of China. Is this true?" he asks.
"Well I intended to" I assure him, "friends and family had said they were going to visit, so we kept postponing the moment to share with others...but ...but... nobody came over and we ran out of time!"
He squares his shoulders and states without hesitation, "Your exit is not approved. Come back with evidence you have not spent an entire year in China ignoring our national treasure!" And with that he takes out a big stamp, the size a boot, and stamps my exit form "REJECTED!". The thundering sound of the stamp wakes me from my dream.
And so I've been haunted this past month, wondering how it could be that with less than a month to go, I had yet to hike the Great Wall of China.
One of the best experiences this year has been teaching English at the Cardiovascular Hospital on Wednesday nights. Here we have made the best of friends with local nurses and doctors, and it feels like only a sideline that we were supposed to be teaching them English. We have had fun with dinners out, a Christmas and Kareoke party and impromptu pancake cooking lessons. We felt we needed to end the year with a "bang" so they organized a trip to the Great Wall in Jixian, a municipality of Tianjin.
So on a hot Sunday morning, we pulled out of the hospital parking lot at 7am in the hospital bus, for a day of adventure. Not everybody could make it, some had shifts to work, some had family, but we made a happy group of ten.
Huang ya guan
This section of the Great Wall was originally built 1400 years ago, but it had a major face lift during the Ming Dynasty. It was again restored in 1985; but the fun part about this section is that this restoration was not complete. Some parts of the wall are not nearly so
"perfect looking". Only the north facing side is built up, and it doesn't have stairs. They have added a banister to help you climb up and down when an easy foothold isn't obvious.
From the parking lot we took a golf cart or such to an entry point, and then hiked back to the parking lot. It was mostly downhill, with a couple of good uphill treks over a few peaks. When there were steps they ranged from being annoyingly short to challengingly high. You certainly had to pay attention to what was coming.
Standing on the Great Wall was really quite extraordinary. I can't remember a point in my life when I couldn't name the Great Wall, the Pyramids, the tower of Piza as the great sites of the world. And yet, to be honest, I never actually thought I'd get here. The Pyramids yes, Piza yes, but the Great Wall? That was far too exotic. Yet here I was, standing on it, peering over the parapet, working up a pretty decent sweat and hoping my sunscreen will fend off the burn. I'd look north from time to time trying to imagine the Mongols charging in from
the north and meeting this great defense. Obviously it didn't entirely work as the Mongols did take over in the Yuan Dynasty and of course the Manchus as well to form the last Qing Dynasty, but even they respected it.
Walking on the older part I couldn't help but wonder whether any bones were left within. The Great Wall is of course known as the world's longest cemetary, its gruesome title stemming from the fact that when the labourers died working on the wall (as they too often did) they were simply interred into the wall itself. Only days before this trip, my grade 8 students were debating the benefits and costs of rebuilding the Great Wall during the Sui Dynasty, and I had to keep reminding them that surely Emperor Wen was not envisioning its future tourist potential.
Amusing ourselves at the bottom
Coming off of the wall, we were presented with a very strange array of activities. We raced through the labyrinth (Craig won), and Craig and I treated the entire group to bumper cars but with hovercrafts. It was only 3 minutes, but it was quite fun too. We enjoyed a local
meal of rural "treats", it was our students' treat this time, so we tried everything they ordered.... meaning we have officially tried donkey. With lots of toasts (we taught them to yell "sociable!") and great conversation (in Chinglish) it just seemed too early to end our day. So we headed into Jixian.
Playing on the headpond
Jixian has a big headpond where locals like to relax on a weekend afternoon. This one is right off the foreigner radar. You won't find it in any travel guide. Here you can toss basketballs to knock over stuffed animals (to win them of course)
or rent a paddle boat and row yourself in circles (what we did)
or stranger yet (and a little tough on the foreigner constitution)
shoot your own chicken floating on a little dock out on the lake. When we left we were happy to note that both chickens were still there and clucking. After 30 minutes of pleasurely boating, we all enjoyed popsicles and hopped back on the Cardio Bus to Teda.
In conclusion.... WE DID IT!!!!! We finally made it to the Great Wall! Admittedly some of
our friends have explored several other sections, but this was really cool and well, we've done things they haven't, like explored Zhangjiajie. We have one more weekend in Beijing and that is pretty much it. We'll be home soon, though not for long. Only two more China blogs to go!
Big hugs...looking forward to real ones soon. Keep sending your comments, they make our day.
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