Monday, June 19, 2006

The Great Wall of China

Can there be a better metaphor for China than its Great Wall? Almost unfathomable in its size and scope, awe-inspiring in its ambition and grandeur, forged on the backs of the thoroughly expendable labor of millions, emblematic of a fear of the outside world and a simultaneous desire to show that world that it is impenetrable, in a sense the Wall and China seem as one. The one embodies the hopes and fear and paranoia of the other. A country and its most well known landmark have perhaps never been so perfectly matched, so inextricably intertwined.

Oddly, from China's most powerful city, its capital, there are only two real options to see the Wall, and one is far closer than the other, though still taking more than an hour to reach. This might be why this closest point is known as the more touristy choice. Nonetheless it was the only viable option today for me, my Aussie friend Jonathan, and his lovely wife Lotus. And so this morning we forged out from China Foreign Affairs University, where the three of us still were staying (Jonathan and Lotus, who arrived a couple of days ago, left tonight for a long train ride through the countryside), in the care of a cab driver who spoke not a word of English (and who subsequently would try to screw us out of about 50 remnibi despite a rather clear deal that had been brokered through the folks here at CFAU).

The drive through hazy, polluted Beijing has become familiar, but about forty-five minutes into the trip we began to see mountains. The landscape grew more rugged and more beautiful, with the highway increasingly enveloped by the tree-shrouded mountains, the grade becoming ever more steep and testing the capacity of our little taxi, which chugged upward slowly. Traffic in Beijing is a disaster -- Chinese drivers are the worst, cutting into lanes with no warning even if they know you are there, and it was odd to see the same phenomenon manifest itself in slow-motion as we forged through the hills and valleys and toward the Great Wall. Drivers did the same things they do in the city, but they did so at a creeping pace, turtles racing one another and swapping paint, laying on the horns, but barely meaning it, honking as if to say "I do it too, but you're doing it TO ME," as opposed to "stop that, people could get killed," or, as would seem more appropriate, "what the fuck are you doing? Are you insane?" On more than one occasion today, whether hurtling through the city or struggling up the mountain, I could easily have reached out and touched a car as it swerved into our lane and took it, or as our driver bravely stayed the course even as two vehicles seemingly simultaneously shared the exact same plot of tar, breaking the time-space continuum until one miraculously eked ahead of the other.

After arrival and a quick breakfast of dumplings and noodles -- no English spoken even at a restaurant in the tourist mecca at the base of the Wall; I am getting rather good at a commbination of pidgin Chinese, slowly spoken English, and charades -- we started the ascent. If the lingo seems alpine, it is for good cause. At least at the Badaling entrance to the Wall, there is nowhere to go but up, at least until you hit the end of where foot traffic is allowed -- the Wall goes on endlessly even as the parameters of our capacity to walk it are clear -- and then you turn around. It is a lung-testing, thigh-searing, hamstring-stretching haul, especially if you try to take it briskly, but it is also breathtaking. In between the ubiquitous hucksters trying to sell t-shirts, postcards and various forms of kitschy Wall-related folk art, the photo opportunities are amazing. I am not a big fan of check-the-boxes tourism, though I am experiencing a bit of that in my waning days in China, but despite all of the masses of people -- mostly Chinese but with a smattering of Americans and Europeans -- the rampant salesmanship of the pesky and inexhaustible proto-capitalists, and the limited access to a Wall that seems to go on forever in all directions (and for all intents and purposes does), the Great Wall of China is an awesome manifestation, all the more so when one couples what it is -- breathtaking, spectacular, epic -- with what it embodies.

I have less than two days left and am determined to get a good, long night's sleep tonight before my flight itinerary takes a turn for the crazy as I head for South Africa via Hong Kong. Last night I was up late watching soccer in the Ho Hi hutong, I have not gotten more than four or five hours sleep in so long I cannot even remember, and I want at least one restful night to absorb some of the wonderment before heading off to another day of exploration. I am the last remaining member of the group with which I began, so I am more and more on my own in this vast, sprawling, squawking city.

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