Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great (Long) Wall of China

As a foreign invader, I only needed about 80 yuan to breach the Great Wall. China needs a little work on its fortifications.

Estranged from our college-student counterparts, Katy and I found ourselves stuck in the kiddie van for the hour-long trek to the Great Wall of China. The 13-year-old girls in the seat behind us could play with my ears all they wanted. I was going to stay grateful that we weren't having to take a cramped taxi around the winding curves that took us out of the urban sprawl of Beijing and up into the countryside, where the whisper of traditional, rural China can still be heard.

We parked at the bottom of a hill, at the curve in the street where lines of cars gave way to rows of shops. Salespeople mauled us as we walked toward the ticket gate, hawking everything from cold drinks and furry Russian hats to Mao merchandise and aluminum trekking poles. We made it through the gauntlet by dishing out a steady stream of "bu yao," which means, "I don't want," the essential phrase for traveling in any tourist area in China.

We took the easy way, buying what I call the "fat American special." This ticket, which included a cable car up the mountain and a toboggan sled back down, was a hit for those of us who wanted to save our energy to explore at the top, which included everybody. Besides, I didn't see a trail, and if there was one, it would've taken a few hours to conquer. Evan and I flashed our student IDs and scored a 20-percent discount. Who knew that a UGA card could save you money overseas?

As our lift ascended, our eyes filtered through the dusty fog that seemed to hang perpetually over Beijing. The wall seemed to go on forever, and we knew were only looking at a small piece of the gargantuan serpent that crawls over the lush mountains for about 1500 miles. The Chinese call the wall "Chang Cheng," which literally means "long wall." I guess English translators used the word "great" for the grandiose connotations that come along with it. But now, looking at it, I realized that the Chinese know their structure a lot better than we do. Vertically, the wall is formidable enough, but the true accomplishment is that the builders were able to sustain this height for such a long horizontal distance over terrain described by warning signs as "treacherous" and "perilous."

"How'd you like to attack this place?" I asked Katy as we plodded down the steep stairs and then back up again, gasping for air while my legs assumed the consistency of jello. In all, we probably covered about 2 kilometers and reached the highest peak in our sight range. The vantage point was so high that an approaching army would have nowhere to go before getting pummeled by a shower of arrows. And unless the Mongols had mountain goats as steeds, they'd have a hard time even getting to the wall on these steep slopes.

So why wasn't such a sturdy, well-positioned edifice more efficient at performing its intended function of protecting the empire? Apparently, the wall was so long that there weren't enough people to staff it, and even those at the posts weren't immune to a little bribery. It seems interesting that a structure with all the promise in the world, that cost so many lives to complete, could be penetrated by a little cash. From this perspective, the wall doesn't seem quite so "great."

Our historical appetites satisfied and our legs shot, we took the toboggan sled down the mountain and weaved our way through the shop owners back to the vans. All this walking, and our day wasn't even halfway over.

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