Friday, July 11, 2014

Along the Great Wall: Have a Tsingtao!

ON THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA – It’s been a long dream of mine to see the Great Wall of China, the 5,500-mile long structure that runs from east to west of the country. With the luck of good airport connections and a travel companion, my friend Ed, who speaks Mandarin and had agreed to be a tour guide, it finally happened -- late on a Sunday to a section of the wall in Mutianyu, about 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing.
A friend, Liz, had just run the Great Wall Marathon and she had described the race as incredibly hard because of the Wall’s steep slopes. I had looked at her puzzled – my image was of a mostly flat Wall.

But when we arrived at the Wall earlier this week, taking a two-person chairlift from Mutianyu village to the Wall, I saw she was not only correct, but had underplayed the steep pitch. I had put on my running clothes and shoes in an airport bathroom stall (a first) and was ready to run the Wall (thinking it would be great to put in a few miles), but after the first 200 yards I was huffing and puffing.
In this section, the mostly granite structure, which was built in the 6th century and rebuilt in the 16th, consisted of a series of up and down sections so steep that it would be dangerous to run the downhills and exhausting to run the uphills.

Still, I gave it a go – a run-walk (mostly a walk) for 15 minutes or so.
We had arrived around 5 p.m. and most of the tourists were gone, and there was even a hint of a cool breeze. At first, it seemed just as I had seen in photographs in a National Geographic magazine. The Wall snaked over hilltops, zigged and zagged, going on and on, as far as you could see. It seemed an incomprehensible feat from the Middle Ages.

Up close, the experience, though, the 21st century had crept in.

I ran past a group of French tourists in their early 20s, their faces red from exertion, all lighting up cigarettes.
I ran past young Chinese couples dressed in latest fashions giggling as they took selfies.

And on the top of one long uphill, I ran past a Chinese vendor who saw the sweat dipping off my brow and shouted out, “Have a Tsingtao! Ice cold! It gives you energy!”
I smiled. Enticing, I thought. I kept going, second-guessing my decision – drinking a cold beer might have given me a lift – but I kept moving until my lungs could power me no more. I turned around and through the haze (likely smog from greater Beijing) looked out at the Wall’s crown on the hills to the north. An opaque sun was barely visible. It was a privilege to stand there and see, as millions of people had before me, a wonder of the world. Not even the haze diminished it.