The great walls(s) (day 66)

Went out to the Great Wall the other day. It is not one wall at all, but lots, so I hear. They don’t even connect. And it can not be seen from space. Who knows where that particular urban legend began? So there you go.

We went to Huanghua. Which is a neat place to do it, because the wall is kinda falling down out there and hasn’t seen a whole lot of tourist-funded repairs since it was built a long long time ago (see my deep knowledge of Chinese history and my inherent laziness at not being able to look it up in my guide book come to the fore).

The trip out there was complex, but quite fun all the same. Our tour organisers were two Israelis who not only had the required vim and vigour (and the directions) to find the right buses, but also the skills and smarts to evade the hoardes of taxi drivers who wanted to take us to Huanghua for rather more than the competitive price. Today was the day I learned to count in Chinese on my fingers. One to five are pretty easy. Six to ten a little more complex. All on one hand, you see, so you can gesture, drink tea, or count your money with the other.

A bus, a train, two more buses. Some walking. And when you get there you don’t really know it. People vaguely point you in the right direction and the next thing you come across is a restaurant with menus in English and a welcoming proprietor. That’s how you know you have really got somewhere on the Chinese tourist trail. English menus. Poorly translated. But its a little too early for chow. And we did not really come here for the eggplant anyway.

Twenty minutes later and after a sweaty climb (why am I the only one with a backpack?) we are standing atop one of the wonders of the world. Well, at least a part of it. It is a moderately amazing view. The wall wends its way into the haze in the distance, drunkenly stumbling in a bendy kind of line. Off to the left it climbs higher and higher into the hills, following all the ridge lines on its trip to Inner Mongolia. Off to the right it drops down into a valley, crossing a river at a dam and climbing up again on the other side, wandering off towards North Korea.

I think I am surprised that it does not just run in a straight line. I always envisaged a wall that just ran straight from one side of China to the other. I guess that was in the days when I thought that China was flat. The wall actually runs along the tops of the ridges. How hard would it have been to build that? That is one of the amazing things about it. So much easier to run along the flat, you would think, and presumably the flats are where the mounted Mongols would advance. But also not very useful, since a key purpose was to enable speedy communication when the soldiers spotted something. Kinda like an elevated road.

I also always visualised the wall as red, in perfect working order, and surrounded by desert. But it isn’t red. It is a kinda of grey, rocky colour and, of course, it is overgrown with greenery and falling down (more in some parts than others). So would you be if you were many centuries old. And it is not surrounded by desert. At least not the bit we saw. The hills are covered with scrubby little trees. And rocks. Lots of rocks. Sliding away underneath your feet. This does not much look like China’s bread basket.

So we clambered along the Great Wall for a while. And we stayed the night on the flat top of one of the crumbling guard towers. An incredible sense of history. One of those spots where I think to myself that it would be good to be a smoker. Because the time it takes to sit and smoke a cigarette enforces a sense of calm reflection that is just the right mental state when one is hanging out in a place like this. Fortunately we brought along a smoker, and she induced enough calm reflection for all of us.

It has always struck me how it must be odd for people who actually live beside famous monuments like the Great Wall. Kinda like people who live in view of the Eiffel Tower, or who look out their kitchen window and see St Peters, St Pauls, the Washington Monument, Sky Tower, or the Empire State building, or to anyone who lives in Rome, Athens or Moscow. Something that to millions of other people every year is something amazing, unusual and wonderful is to them something everyday, normal and ordinary. I wonder if they think “holy, what are all these people coming to see?”.

Happy birthday Cam.