“I must be imagining this.”
A rather unusual sight greeted me as took my first steps on the Great Wall. Of all the unexpected things that happened that day – from a wild goose chase for an imaginary bus, to an unlikely driver who magically appeared to volunteer his services – this might have been the most surprising of all. Walking along the stone path of this ancient wonder, I felt an unusual sense of freedom. I could take leisurely strides. I could stretch my gaze without distraction. And then the realization of my new environment dawned on me. There were no people here.
You don’t understand. This is China. There are never no people in China, ESPECIALLY when it’s a tourist attraction. When playing the game of tourism here, one has to be mentally prepared. This is not your typical crowd. This is a battle for personal space, a challenge of snapping a photo without 12 other people in it making the peace sign, and a test of your ability to dull all five senses. Let me tell you something, when it comes to tourism, Chinese people hold nothing back.
That day, tourists were not the problem. The problem was actually getting to the damn place. We started with a set of outdated online directions that led us searching in vain for a bus that (I was later told) had ceased running years ago. A handful of further inquiries brought us on board another bus that was going to a place where unregistered cars for hire waited to take people to the Wall. Sounds legit to me! After being seated I still couldn’t be sure that this was actually the right bus, or what stop we were supposed to get off at. But like with almost all things in China, you don’t question and just go with the flow.
It turned out that it was the right bus, and better yet, a gentleman in front with the shaved head and wearing a “driver’s uniform” was willing to take us from the bus stop to the Great Wall. How could I say no?
That 20 minute drive up turned into an unexpected education, kinda like the ones that petty crooks receive in prison. I was lectured on everything from tourism history and economics to the gimmicks that drivers for hire use to exploit their passengers. Apparently our guy was a real saint, and had rescued dozens of naïve tourists from getting ripped off by his evil swindler counterparts. He even had a photo album of all the foreigner passengers he’d driven to prove it. Nothing like pictures to go with the story.
In high spirits, we arrived at the Great Wall shortly before 1pm. Our day trip had gone from nearly botched to accidentally salvaged, and the added rare sight of this virtually deserted World Wonder carried the momentum perfectly. A brief ride up the world’s sketchiest cable car and we were at the starting point. Now it was either left or right. We took the suggested right turn and began our trek.
In all my years of old man adulthood, the one important lesson I’ve learned is this: pace yourself. Embrace your inner tortoise and don’t worry about how you look. That lesson was applied here today. Slow and steady I climbed this stone behemoth. I flowed upward like molasses while sweaty teenagers gleefully sprinted past me. I wished I had some wise Chinese adage handy to quote them. But I was too busy focused on the next step of the 60 degree incline and the squeaky hypnotic rhythm my Vans were making. One *squeak*. Step *squeak*. At *squeak*. A *squeak*. Time *squeak*.
It ended with a final stretch of steep stairs and a small tower. Beyond was a sign that said “Do Not Enter” (we entered later anyway). Sitting down on a flat stone at the top of the stairs, we enjoyed our lunch in quiet solitude and felt like gods. Apples, oranges, Lara bars, coconut water and a 2000 year old view. No big deal. It was such an unexpected peace that it felt almost misplaced. Standing on my dais, I looked down the long empty span of crude rock stretching through the wilderness.
“Damn. We just won the tourism lottery. In China”
Need Directions to The Great Wall? Click HERE