Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sleeping on the Great Wall

I had climbed the Great Wall many times in the last ten months, and each of those moments was remarkable in its own way. Last weekend, though, was something new: camping on the Great Wall. My former Roll Call colleague, Dan Newhauser, was visiting, and this was the only available group hike I could find.

I’m glad I did it. The hike started out in the village of Chenjiapu, past a military installation. We immediately started heading uphill. Those folks unfamiliar with climbing the Great Wall should note that the Wall is on the top of the mountains, and there’s only one way to get up there. We scrambled up and up in the hot late-afternoon sun, carrying our overnight items and many bottles of water on our backs. I had a newfound appreciation of Bob’s previous job – I usually didn’t have to carry a backpack. I think mine weighed about 20 pounds and it kept throwing me off balance. I did try to chug water every time we stopped, figuring it weighed less in my stomach than on my back. Our tents, sleeping bags, and other camping gear were being carried up by a very unhappy looking donkey.

But we made it and were immediately treated to warm beer and a nice barbecue – grilled corn, corncakes, fish balls, tofu, lamb, chicken. 

As the evening darkened we set up our tents and watched the stars come out. Our guides, Andy, Kathy, and Namchen, turned out to be quite the entertainers. I hadn’t even believed that Kathy was joining us on the hike. While the rest of us looked like advertisements for LL Bean, with our hiking boots, khaki pants, and ratty hats, Kathy was a typical blinged-up Chinese girl: hot pink leggings, pearl drop earrings, full makeup, a giant glittery ring, and what looked like boat shoes. Yet she climbed the mountain like the rest of us. And later, Kathy pulled off another big surprise: she performed a traditional Chinese dance in flowing robes and a fan – who knew she had schlepped a complete change of costume up the mountain? Namchen sang a couple of haunting acapella Tibetan songs, his voice echoing off the mountain in the dark. Then we played card games, told stories, and eventually turned in.

It was cold. I had no idea that a midsummer evening could be so cold. Several of us decided that if we were going to camp on the Wall, we would camp ON the Wall, even as the wind picked up and it was a challenge to peg down our tents in the brisk air. Even when the tents were firmly tacked to the concrete-hard ground on the Wall, the wind blew so hard that the tent made flapping and rustling noises that sounded like someone or something – a wild panda? A dragon? A Mongolian invader? – trying to get into the tent.

But that wasn’t the reason I couldn’t sleep. I’m not much of a camper, but I think even the veteran campers agreed with me. It was cold, and the ground was hard. I turned on one side. Hip aching, I turned on the other side. Then I tried lying on my back, all the while trying to limit my exposure to the air.

Morning came eventually, and at about 5, I opened my tent flap to a glorious pink sunrise. No one else was up, and I selfishly kept quiet for a while so I could enjoy its beauty in silence and peace. The rest of the campers in the dip alongside the Wall were probably warmer in the night, but I had the advantage of greeting the day first. What’s a little lost sleep compared to a moment like this?
 Later, when I came home, I tried explaining to my ayi that I had been hiking the Great Wall. "Too hot!" she said to me in Chinese, and proceeded to scold me that there were four months one should not hike the Great Wall. I tried to explain that my friend wanted to see the Wall but she wasn't having it. She brought us warm water and left the apartment tisk-tisking. Meanwhile, I was just happy that I mainly understood her scolding. There's more than one way to measure progress in this country.

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