My good friend David, AKA Replicant savior from ThatMomentIn is here to share his story about experiencing the Great Wall of China!
A big Thank you to David for sharing your adventure!
The Journey Begins
“I wanted she call”
The taxi driver spoke English. Well, English as best as I’d heard since arriving. He was cheerful, beaming, and highly recommended. “He’ll talk good history and take many place,” my hotel concierge had endorsed. “You want I call?”
I wanted she call.
And so it was the next morning, nine a.m. sharp, my second day in China, I met the man who would take me to see the Great Wall. This was a thing I’d never considered. I mean I had several” options to make the relatively short ride. Myriad companies offered package tours. Buses ran regularly. Private drivers were available. Thing was, I’d had experience with tour packages, so that option was immediately off the table. I wasn’t about to be shuttled from place to place for the benefit of the markets. And I didn’t want to restrict myself to the timetables of the buses. I was fortunate to have money so I told the concierge I wanted a private driver for the day. And now, here he was. It wasn’t until I looked him in the eye, shook his hand, and climbed into the back of his taxi, that I realized his importance in this adventure.
I can’t remember when I’d first heard about the Wall, elementary school to be certain, some long ago forgotten history class, a perfunctory lecture of the Orient, fusing, as is common in the West, several remarkable and significantly different cultures. But be that as it may, the Great Wall is for me, and no doubt for countless others, a place of lure, an icon of the unreachable, a thing of unreality, detached from the common experience. It is as distant and inaccessible as The Sea of Tranquility, cloistered behind the impenetrable mystery of the land and people it has come to symbolize.
“My some day was here.”
Ennobled and idealized by television and print, the Great Wall of China has been the “some day” for many, a dream appeased only by the possibility of our unwritten future.
And now I was eighty-three minutes away. My “some day” was here.
Mr. Kong had done this before. When asked, he simply laughed, “Oh, many times. I drive taxi
twenty-four years. Very good driver!”
Twenty-four years. Hard to grasp. Lives are lived. Paths are crossed. One man’s routine completes another man’s dream. How many “some days” had he delivered?
We headed northeast. I was out of my body.
Out into the Country
Sky was clear. No. I mean pure. Luminescent. Blue like I’d never seen before. It would remain so for the duration.
The city sped by, opened up and fell away to countryside. My eyes darted from window to window as if chasing a hummingbird. “What’s that?” I asked again and again. “What’s that?”
Mr. Kong talked. He pointed and smiled and spoke about his country, his city, his people, the history and legends. I thought of recording him, I should have recorded him, but as I said, this was a thing I never considered. I had film and batteries for The Wall. The Wall only. And as much I savored every word from Mr. Kong, as deeply as I listened and inquired, all the while the clock was ticking on the dashboard.
The first sight
And there on the horizon appeared the first mountains. Kong said nothing, but went on about the farmers, and the growing seasons, and the divide between old ways and new, about the caste system between poor and rich, about the rise of Western life and capitalism. He explained why all the country houses were painted grey to match the old traditional stone work of ancient times, how yellow was the color of the emperor. How fields used to grow corn and rice but now were filled with apples and strawberries and persimmons.
And I listened, but my eyes drifted, drifted away from the narrow roads lined by trees with white- painted trunks (for night driving so drivers can see the sides of the road), drifted away from the streams of rusted, ragged bicycles loaded with dry reeds, straw, and twigs; riders clothed in baggy coal-gray jackets and caps. Drifted away from the clusters of dark, brick homes, dirt strewn roads, craggy-faced farmers gawking through the window. My eyes lay upon the rising peaks, bathed in brilliant yellow sunlight.
My mind played tricks. So engrained is the image of The Great Wall, so prevalent the color, shape, and form, every hint of sandy-brown stone on the hillsides fooled me. A line of rocks, an old dirt path, a clearing in the trees; is that it? Was I seeing The Wall?
We continued on, deep into the countryside. Roads thinned, trees grew thick, the horizon disappeared. Up we began to climb, slowly, steadily into the foothills. Jagged, rocky peaks rose high into the azure sky, higher than I expected, dark and foreboding, something out of Tolkien.
The road twisted, the car hobbling over uneven ruts and broken pavement. Towns dwindled to patches of fossilized homes, bare-bricked huts huddled by the roadsides, the neoteric bustle of Beijing was as good as a million miles away.
Looking at the mountains rising ever higher, I pictured armies over the centuries, Mongols from the north, hordes violently pushing south, scaling these massive mountains, themselves a natural barrier so imposing, so seemingly impossible to breach, reaching the crest only to face a stronghold as tall as the trees, stretching as far the eye can see, manned by an army mounted and fortified for an eternal defense.
It is impossible not to feel this. The mountains are a canvas of history. Swaths of bare, broken rock-face lay exposed; twisting, worn and rutted trails weave long, gutted paths through the timber. Perhaps goaded by my anticipation, my imagination seizes these vistas and colors them rich with ghosts of soldiers and steads clamoring up the slopes. I am immediately regretful of my ignorance. My want for seeing a thing has clouded my need to learn fully why it is there, a neglect, then and there, promised to be corrected.
But this does not diminish my expectation. I am continuously mindful of the clock.
And we are less than twenty minutes away when Mr. Kong pulls the car around a tight right turn along a stone-strewn embankment and takes his hand from the wheel, extending it straight across the cab with a finger pointing up and out the passenger side window.
“There it is,” he says.
On The Great Wall
His words were superfluous. No sandy-brown stone on the hillsides was this; no line of rocks or old dirt path. The Great Wall perched upon this distant ridge, majestic, serene, waiting . . .
I was in China. There it was.
The remainder of our journey was nearly in silence. I suspect Mr. Kong understood this necessity. No doubt this moment was not new for him. I was grateful for his enthusiasm, his patience, and enduring pride.
When at last we arrived at the base of the peak I would summit, he directed me to the cable cars, warmed me of the peddlers and merchants, and handed me a cell phone to use to call him after my descent; he would park and nap while I was away. Nap. In the shadow of The Great Wall.
I did run the gauntlet of the vendors, rode that cable car up, and spent three full hours on China’s Great Wall. I sit here now, back to my usual life, searching for ways to detail that time, looking for words to chronicle the experience, to find some method or manner in which all this could be shared with you. There are marvels in this world, sites of natural profound beauty, astonishing works of art, visions perennial and fleeting. And for each of us, these marvels may be different, our own, and touch us in ways too personal to describe. Maybe that is what The Great Wall will be for me. It is no less mysterious, no less magnificent, no less than what decades of imagination can render a thing. But I have been there, walked at length along its ancient ramparts, felt the same cold stone bricks with my own hands as those of armies from centuries ago, and stood atop a tower and looked out over the vast open Chinese countryside.
What next will my “some day” be?