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Seeing in 2011 on China’s Great Wall

“Too cold,” said the receptionist.

I agreed. The old man snoring away under a blanket on the nearby couch probably would have, too. But Alex was undeterred. She was going to spend the following day, the last day of 2010, in Mu Tian Yu, walking along the Great Wall.

She said I could stay back in the city if I wanted. I almost did. My lips were chapped, my hands were cracked, and I was not sure if I wanted to spend a day in the wilderness, out of the city, up in an area that was surely even colder.

But I would probably never forgive myself if I came this close to the Wall and did not stand on it. And after the countless times Alex had said how much she dislikes the commercialism and the forced revelry that had surrounded us on previous new years, I saw this as a chance for change. I saw this, as Edison would say, as an opportunity dressed in overalls as work.

This was a mission.

“Let’s do it.”

And so, we paid for the following day’s expedition through the receptionist at the Red Lantern House, the host of our holiday. Early pick-up, a meal and drop-off. We then wrapped up tight and walked over to Nan Luo Gu Xiang, a beautiful street that is home to restaurants, cafés and shops, and no loud music, touts or hawkers pushing cheap tourist tat. There, we found those little mementos that help you record your travel experiences.

On a connecting busier street that leads to the historic Bell Tower and Drum Tower, Alex found a gorgeous parasol, and I found the World Of Poker. The kind gentleman inside, probably wanting us to feel comfortable, put on some music that perhaps he thought we could relate to. It was The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More, better suited to our parents, but it made us smile, so it did the job in a roundabout way. I walked out with a comically oversized pack of cards, and I have no idea why.

Rest, beer and Internet at the Red Lantern was followed by dinner with friends at The Bookworm, which is at once a library, bookshop, bar and restaurant. Literature, food and drink are a rare and wonderful combination. Its sixteen thousand books and casual classiness compensated for the overpriced, underachieving food. There, we said some goodbyes and wished luck for the future.

The alarm, as with anything before 6:00, came quicker than expected. Even the winter sun got to sleep in later than us.

Not knowing whether I would be forced into the back of a crowded minivan, I ate the Red Lantern’s set breakfast with apprehension. And disappointment. The eggs and bacon had obviously been cooked long before they reached our table.

A surly man emerged, wearing the Communist red-starred, faux-fur hat with optional ear pieces seen around Beijing. He was our driver. A girl seated at a nearby table spoke with him briefly, and we guessed she would be joining us.

In fact, we soon discovered, Lily was the only other person joining us. No minivan, no tour group. Just a dark grey Volkswagen Jetta driven by a man with a fur hat and, as we soon noticed, some 80s heavy metal-style leather pads on his shins and knees. We could not figure out what they were for, but the overall getup was awesome.
Soon, Beijing disappeared behind us as the sun emerged to the bluest sky of our two weeks in China. The mission was looking up.

Roughly seventy minutes later, the driver pointed beyond his steering wheel toward an imposing ridge. The Wall stood along that ridge. We were arriving.

The parking area was stunningly empty and led to a rest area, where our driver gave us two options in broken English. “Walk very steep. Go lift.” Patting my belly and hinting at the struggle that I might encounter by walking up the many steps, he motioned to the chairlift. The girls were amused.

Two minutes later, Lily was in the air. We on the ground allowed another two chairs to pass before Alex gathered the courage to jump on. She kept her eyes closed and asked “Are we there yet” after ten seconds. This was repeated every ten seconds.

Three to four minutes later and a few hundred feet higher, I spotted our drop-off point approaching, where two young men in those same Communist hats plus those magnificent Communist long, dark green coats barked “Feet down, feet down!” It was all gloriously militant.

And that was it. We were on the Wall, free to do as we pleased for hours. We began our exploration, seeing no one else during the first hour except for the occasional guard and two men, one of whom was selling “cold beer!” in the early morning. After some thought about the availability of bathrooms, I declined.

No wind. I cannot remember the sky so blue. And for the first time in days, I was outside without my hat. All this perfection, we had to ourselves.

Can you imagine looking out upon mankind’s largest creation and seeing nothing but watchtowers, history, and the condensation of your own breath? In such instances, your voice goes silent to make way for your mind as it drinks powerful memories that you can take away with you.

For a claustrophobe who loves big open spaces and has always enjoyed a childlike fascination with the bigness of things, the sites of China have been one ongoing revelation. The stairway leading to the Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum in Nanjing. The Bund and the Huangpo River in Shanghai, and the way they stand between architecture of the past on one side and of the future on the other. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

These moments on the Wall, on the last day of 2010, were the perfect closing act of our two-week exploration of a place that likes to do things really, really big. And they were a reminder of the rewards that await anyone who wakes up just a little earlier, who travels just a little further, and who brashly ignores receptionists.

Something on this scale has its price. Various sources put the death toll during its construction over the centuries between one and three million. Voltaire dubbed it a monument to fear. And it is, after all, a military installation.

These ideas stand awkwardly next to the emotions of a profoundly enjoyable experience. But at one point during our march, we saw a sign that relates how the Wall was once a way to keep people out, but is now an invitation in. That is the sentiment we took away with us.

Watching the crowds grow slowly and feeling the complaints from our sore legs, we eventually jumped into a cable car that took us down for hot food before the Jetta ride to Beijing.

All in all, unforgettable, made perfect during the final minutes of that first hour, before anyone else had shown up, as Alex looked over the Wall and onto starkly beautiful wilderness.
“I think this has been our best New Year’s Eve.” And that was before dinner at an Italian restaurant and midnight at a rustic jazz bar by a frozen lake.

Mission accomplished.

More by this author on his blog.

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