Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Once More to the Wall

This past weekend we visited the Wall again. This time it was the Wild Wall, so named by William Lindesay, the man who has done much to
chronicle, preserve, and chart the Wall for the past 30 years or so. An affable Brit with a Liverpool accent that makes it feel just a bitlike you're hiking with the Beatles, Lindesay leads tours of the Wall
that specialize in sunrise vistas that few people get to see.

We took a van out to the countryside past Mutianyu on a hot Friday afternoon, eventually getting past the rush hour traffic and into green mountains dotted by  fishing resorts set up for Chinese tourists who seem to be more interested in eating fresh fish and riding
motorbikes than in hiking one of the earth's great treasures.

We got to Lindesay’s place, a former school barracks that still retained the rustic feel that is typical of much of China: rooms around a central courtyard with some scraggly bushes and a well. After an enormous dinner, we went to bed around 8:30.

Lindesay woke us up at 3, and we set off in the dark with flashlights and jackets, chilled in the mountain air. We climbed a wooded route on a dirt-packed path, and as we climbed and the day gradually lightened,
we saw shapes on the mountain: the guard towers that dot the Wall like so many square knots.

Finally there was the Wall, stretched out and
golden in a sunrise that mixed clear blue sky with a few scattered clouds and a sun so orange it seemed unreal. It was the kind of vista that makes you gasp. Last year I wrote an essay for the Christian
Science Monitor about how this same sunrise trip helped me to decide to move to China.

Lindesay had been giving us slices of history of the Wall and its people as we rested on our ascent. As we continued to scramble over rocks, up what is called the ox bow, the sun rose and got hotter, but the air was still dry and clean. One of the silver (or gray) linings to living in a polluted country is the newfound appreciation of every single day when the air is clear, the breeze is refreshing, and the land is green.

An added delight on this trip was taking our friends Susan and Rachael. Joanna and Rach have been pals since elementary school and have an easy companionship that matches my own long friendship with
Susan. Double bonus: their delight and astonishment at all things Chinese. (In fact, the delights of showing China to friends -- Anne, Caleb, Cynthia, Susan, Rachael -- will be the subject of another blog post soon.)

It's a hard hike for knees, a scramble up something so steep you have to keep your head about a foot from the Wall angling up in front of you, and then down through rubble, stepping on rocks that once formed
the great structure that helped to protect the Chinese from Mongolian and other nomadic invaders and that now were strewn by weather and time and neglect into tripping hazards.

And on the second day, we did it again, this time going in a different direction on the Wall, and also getting to see vistas that made us gasp. It was worth getting up at 3 to see all this, even if I did pay the price in fatigue on Sunday by losing my cell phone not once but twice.

The second time was a permanent loss. Said the adorable Yoli, the WSJ assistant who helped us get the phone back the first time: “there is a Chinese word called "缘分(yuan fen)", which is a very subtle word that almost doesn't translate--it means a certain chemistry, fate or innate I guess the Nokia phone kind of lack such 缘分 with its master.” She also advised me: “Get a new phone that's more emotionally attached to you.”

So that’s what I’ll do. Maybe the old phone was just jealous over my relationship with the Wall. Or maybe it didn't want to belong to a human who clearly specializes in dorky looks on the Wall.

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