When in China, you must see the Great Wall. There is 4,000 miles of wall to explore, so it’s not something you only do once, although I met quite a few Beijing locals that had never been to the Wall themselves. The history of the wall is mind boggling and even though it failed its original purpose, it continues to be an icon of unbelievable achievement. Sections of the wall were built by different emperors and dynasties, but it was when (approx. 210 B.C.) Emperor Qin Shihuang (the same emperor of terra cotta soldier fame) connected the dots between each of the previously built sections that the wall truly became great.
The wall failed by most accounts as a deterrent to the Mongols, Manchus, Huns, Khitans, or Jurchens but it survives today due to the audacity of the endeavor. We set off to visit the Great Wall at Mutianyu, located just a mere 56 miles from Beijing. The wall has been restored and is in pristine shape, but it also hosts many of the tourist trappings including a Subway franchise, a merchant market selling souvenirs, a chair lift and cable car, and even a toboggan ride down from the wall. The climb to the wall was a series of stone stairs and pathways that eventually led to the top. Fortresses punctuate the wall and it was easy to imagine their use as lookouts where purportedly a sophisticated series of smoke signals could be sent to fellow sentries. Even an hour away from Beijing the air quality made visibility from one tower to another a challenge, but as the day wore on it brought a cool summer rain and low, misty cloud cover that added to the mystery and intrigue of the experience.
The five of us hiked to the top of the wall and set out to explore seven or eight of the towers. The countryside was punctuated with trees loaded with small Chinese peaches and if you looked closely you could spy small farms meandering amidst the craggy terrain. The path atop the wall is not smooth but rather a series of irregular rises and steps that require careful attention to avoid tripping or losing one’s footing. My daughter and I tried to make sense of the changing pattern and by both quickening and shortening our stride into almost a marching cadence, we arrived at the conclusion that the path had almost a rhythmic quality to it and perhaps it kept armies in step and alert. I have a tradition that started in my twenties when I encountered the immensity of the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I stopped the car, made my way to the shoreline and turned a cartwheel to commemorate the occasion. That ritual has been repeated on many a beach and in homage to many a body of water. Last summer, when my daughter and I took our first road trip together making our way home from the Redwoods along the West Coast, I passed the tradition on. So it seemed only natural that my daughter would turn to me and suggest that the Great Wall deserved such a coronation. Before my stunned colleagues, I lined up in the middle of the wall, stretched my hands into the air and soon I accomplished the hand, hand, foot, foot endeavor. Minutes later, my fifteen year-old daughter did the same. It was a bonding moment. Hiking a bit further, three of our group opted to ride the gondola down and we two cartwheel-turners turned around to pursue the possibility of riding the rather treacherous looking toboggan back down.
Our search was greeted with even more rain and we took refuge in tower #10 to dry out and share an orange. We eventually found the start of the steel toboggan track, only to find out that it is closed during rain due to the inability of the rubber brakes to work effectively. I tried not to show the relief on my face and instead we opted to ride the open air chair lift down conveniently dropping us into the merchant market. We were greeted by a miniature breed pup and a toothless artisan. I think he was just as surprised to see us reveling in the rain (we’re Seattleites through and through) as we were to see an adorable puppy. We reunited with our colleagues and on the ride home we shared stories, histories and personal insights as the rain continued to wreak havoc with the evening traffic. It was hard not to wonder about the multitude of dignitaries, emperors, and common people whose footsteps went before us along the Great Wall. And I couldn’t help wonder how many cartwheels had been turned.