Alone in the most populous country in the world

When I’ve spoken with people who have traveled around China, most often say that Beijing is not one of their favorite places. Whether that is related to the food, the constant feeling of the government watching you everywhere given that it is China’s capital, to the sense of arrogance one can encounter from Beijingers, it seems to generally be agreed upon.

So, I wasn’t that surprised when we arrived, and I immediately felt irritated not only by the level of heat and humidity, but also by the constant stream of cabbies who either tried to lie and tell me that their meter wasn’t working and that they’d have to offer me a fixed fare, or they’d tell me that they’d only take me if I’d pay them 100 yuan (for a ride that probably shouldn’t cost more than 15-20). It was never like this in Shanghai, in 2006 or a few days ago. It was absolutely nothing like this in Chengdu or Leshan. So this was just infuriating. I would yell at them and tell them I wouldn’t accept it, that they were trying to cheat me and that they were con men. I’d then walk away in a huff. Chris, more aggressively, would yell at them, leave their cab doors open, and even kick their cars (to which they seemed genuinely frightened. I mean, he’s a brown man in a yellow country, after all… and they can never quite predict what the brown man would do, right?).

So, it was a welcome break to spend half a day with Zhang Feng, our driver, who took us to Huanghuacheng, or the “yellow flower” section of the Great Wall, about 90 minutes outside of Beijing. I’d read previously that this section of the Great Wall had previously been closed to the public, but two years ago, they’d opened it back up. It is not maintained and restored at all, and the section where you actually enter is technically on private land that is owned by some local people, who Feng paid via WeChat (seems sketchy, but I’m okay with that… but if you think about it, this is private land for a public landmark… what…?!). I asked him how much the admission was that these people were charging, and I think he said it was only 30 yuan, which is crazy to me.

Zhang was a bit relieved when he found out that I could speak some Chinese. I knew when I booked this that the company I was interfacing with had run out of English guides, but given I was desperate to a) go to a section of the wall that would be less crowded and more unpreserved and b) not do a big group tour, I told the person I was corresponding with that a driver who speaks limited English would be fine… since that was all that was available. If he was just our driver, he could just be that. And if he would be willing to chat, I could always translate to Chris. And through chatting with Feng, I realized “limited” English really just meant that he could say hello, goodbye, and thank you. But he was smart in that he used his mobile device’s translation app when he wanted to convey things he couldn’t do with language. In the end it was fine because it meant I could practice my Chinese and work on my listening skills. He was extremely chatty, asking about everything from our trip to what the U.S. was like to my family, even asking me when I was planning to have kids (I expected this when I told him how old I was. Chinese people don’t seem to think any topic is off limits, especially when they are talking to people of their “own kind”).

So he took us to this section of the wall, which is also known as being the only section of the 13,000+ mile-long wall that has a body of water. The wall stretches from Gansu province in the west all the way to Liaoning in the east — if you take a look at a map of the wall laid out over China — that’s pretty darn long. It was a bit ominous given that we could see that an entire section had broken off. He kept yelling from afar not to get too close to the break-off point at the end, otherwise we’d literally fall into the lake. And it was even more ominous given that it was grey and raining, so it was extremely wet and slippery everywhere. In many sections of the wall, there are no steps; it’s just a steep incline that you’re supposed to navigate on your own. Going up is fine… coming down might be a concern. With the slippery surfaces, many times, we were forced to use our hands to actually climb up. I understand why now, the description on their website suggested that anyone who is elderly or pregnant not visit this section.

The greatest part of coming here, though, was that there was almost no one there. At most, we probably saw 16-20 other people total, but most of the time, we were together for a few minutes in passing, and they’d leave. The rain eventually stopped, and given the heat and humidity, the bricks from the wall started slowly but surely drying up, so when it was time for us to climb back down, it wasn’t so bad. We kept looking out into this endlessly long wall and fortress that would keep going and going, and see absolutely no one. It was the eeriest feeling standing along the wall and looking out to see no one. There were many moments when I didn’t take any photos and just kept looking out into the mountains and the zigzagging wall, wondering… how strange it is to literally be standing in the most populous country on earth… in what feels like its most deserted area, all by ourselves. We’re alone here, and no one else is here. It almost felt like an echo in my head. It was a very strange feeling, but so peaceful and calm. I smiled to myself. This is really amazing.

Feng was extremely enthusiastic and took endless photos of us in all different angles. He got worried about my photo quality, especially when I was wearing the poncho he gave me to stay dry. “That won’t look good in your photos at home when you frame them and show them to family and friends!” he kept saying. And as we passed through for him to pay the locals our entrance fare, the women fussed over Chris, insisting he either use an umbrella or buy a poncho, otherwise he’d catch a cold and get really sick. Chris was unamused by the mothering.

This was Chris’s second time visiting the Great Wall, and he said that the last section he visited definitely had far more people, and this was an altogether very different experience from his first time.

It felt so strange to be at a tiny section of the Great Wall today, something that was put into production beginning in the seventh century; it’s hard to even fathom anything still standing from them. I was standing on the longest man-made construction in the world, of all time. How crazy, I kept thinking. And it’s far more beautiful in person than I’d imagined from the photos I’d seen before. It’s so famous, something that everyone knows and recognizes, yet not everyone actually goes to see. But then if you think about it, given how long it is, no one ever really goes to see the very beginning or the very end of the wall; the majority of the people who come to see it are like us, visiting from Beijing and doing a half-day or day trip there. I would really love to see what this wall is like at the ends, whether it is in Gansu or in Liaoning.

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