A Canadian in Beijing: Walls and Their Greatness

When I get really tired I hit a wall.

By that, I mean that I suddenly get a wash of my fatigue throughout my whole body and mind and spirit and I lose the capacity to speak clearly, think clearly, function. At those moments, I could lie down pretty much anywhere with my bag as a pillow and sleep immediately. All I need is about twenty minutes and then I wake up refreshed.

This doesn’t bode well for a traveller who does a lot of driving. Thankfully, I’m not the only driver in the band (thanks Lyndell!) and when those moments come over me behind the wheel, I always pull over and switch.

I experienced one of these moments today on the way back from the excursion to the Mutianyu Great Wall.

The school (our tuition?) paid for this trip today. All of the part-time students in the twenty-hours-per-week program were given a formal invitation and I took the opportunity. Am I ever glad I did! The Great Wall was indeed great — vast, in fact — and I hope that I can seek out other locations to see more of its beauty.

I spent the bus ride there sitting beside a man from Turkey who is here to learn Chinese. He is a textile engineer by trade and his company needs Mandarin speaking employees. We got that far in English, but his Chinese was better than his English and I don’t speak Turkish, so we exchanged simple conversation in Mandarin and examined the countryside through the windows while we drove the 73 kilometres northeast of Beijing towards Mutianyu.

When we arrived at Mutianyu and were milling about the bus waiting for instructions, I heard the beautiful sounds of Quebecois French being spoken and I swirled around to locate the speakers. Turns out that two guys from Montreal (Alex and Stephane) are here to take the same course as I am and I fell into a French conversation with joy.

It’s amazing to struggle with a third language for a week and then to watch yourself fly with your second language. I’ve had to keep my French language brain on a leash because it’s been trying to save me all week when I’ve been struggling to find Mandarin words. Seems it was truly itching to be released! They, too, seemed relieved to speak French with someone other than each other.

The instructions we received were simply to be back at the bus for 1:00pm. Everyone dispersed.

Tourist locations in China aren’t as organized and prescribed as tourist locations in North America, I find. They have their share of vendors and souvenirs, but there are only guides if you pay for them and signage is limited. When there were signs, they were in both English and Chinese, but there was little to no history provided on these signs and we were a guide-less group. We had the option of purchasing information books from the vendors, but they were grossly overpriced.

So the gang of us walked the eight-square kilometres of this section of the Great Wall without a guide or a guidebook. Many areas were so steep that resting as we ascended was essential. Since this lies along the a very angled mountainous section of terrain, you can imagine the grade of the walkways and the endless stairs that we climbed – all different heights and dimensions. I thought a few times of the sheer number of feet that have climbed those stairs over the years.

I was reminded by Alex that much of the mortar includes the bones of those who died while building the wall. I looked more closely at the stones then and marvelled at the 1800+ years it took to build such a vast structure, the lives spent and lost in the pursuit of its protection, and the culture of enclosure and/or resistance to outsiders it required to support such an undertaking.

Almost at the bottom, we heard the sound of screaming. A quick glance around and we found the source. There was a metal slide snaking down from the wall’s appex so that people can slide themselves down the mountain on small seats with wheels and brakes. Right next to the cable cars, it suddenly looked like an amusement park.

I had a hard time with this. It’s hard to be amused alongside an historic structure that has witnessed and/or been the source of so much death and destruction over the years. Still, I had to admit that it looked like fun! Oh the contradictions I hold…

At the bottom, we emerged into a sea of vendors whose sales pitches echoed identical across stalls: “Souvenirs! I remember you! Hello! Nice Souvenirs! I give you good price! Come look, look! Hello!” I have resorted to saying in slow and deliberately laboured Chinese that I speak French (wo shuo fawen). That’s true, although it implies that I don’t understand them in English and the ploy usually works. I have silenced many a vendor with this technique. (Thanks to Jacinthe Murphy in Montreal who passed this tip along!)

Finally back at the bus after haggling the price of a banana down to half of what they wanted in an overpriced stall –here’s when speaking some Chinese is very helpful — we all got on the bus and pulled away.

I was excited to be on the same side of the bus this time because I knew I’d see the views on the opposite side of the road as we headed back to Beijing. I was ready to take it all in, but after only ten minutes, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I tried to fight it but I knew I had to sleep. Eight kilometres of walking will do that to a person, not to mention the lingering jet lag. I lay my head against the window and let myself hit the wall.

I woke up to the driver honking his intention to pass another car on the empty stretch of highway. I smiled and checked my watch. I was refreshed and I had visited a section of the Great Wall of China. This is something I’ve been wanting to see for years. Two walls and no complaints.

Today is a great day.