China's Great Wall in Winter
Snow obscured my view as my driver slowed the car on an icy curve. The road normally used to reach the Great Wall was closed due to winter storms, but my guide had suggested we try an alternate route to a newer section of the wall. We were close, he told me, but the wall was not yet visible through the white haze of snowflakes tumbling from an endless expanse of clouds that hung like sodden laundry over the winter landscape. And the driver was in no hurry. Not on that slick road.
My mind whirled through mental snapshots of large crowds crawling in ant-like fashion along the Wall, and nearby vendors hawking postcards and souvenirs. Those were typical summer scenes when thousands of people visited the Wall each day. It didn’t seem likely that I would have to worry about such crowds now. I had arrived in Beijing in January. Not the best time of year to go sightseeing, but there I was. Snow covered everything. Soft, fluffy snow that reminded me of fields of rabbits’ pelts. Trees stretched their skeletal branches across a bleak sky. Local people bundled themselves in old, blue-grey Mao jackets to protect them from the cold. And it was cold! Still, my hosts wanted me to see their important landmarks, including the Great Wall.
Not that I was complaining. The Great Wall had always been on my “must visit” list, and the prospect of finally seeing it sent fireworks of anticipation bursting through me. This was a structure that had first been built in the 7th century B.C. It was originally designed to protect independent warring states from one another. Later, it protected a unified China from Mongols and other invaders. Astronauts could even see it from space as it snaked in serpentine fashion four thousand miles across China’s verdant, rolling hillsides. To them, it must have looked like a giant reptile in search of its next meal.
At last, we approached a small parking area near the base of a rocky hill, and I got my first look at the wall. It loomed above me in the snowy light like a timeless frigate riding atop a rocky wave. The popular section of the wall visited in the summer required visitors to ascend only a few steps to its ramparts. Not so here. I was going to have to climb a steep stairway the equivalent of three football stadiums to the cheap seats.
Or not. Two guides with donkeys were waiting for me, and each offered to carry me to the top for a small fee. I had to admit the idea was appealing, but riding a donkey up to the Great Wall clashed with my sense of adventure. The Wall was something to be conquered, not served up on the back of a furry animal. I waved them off with a polite shake of my head, and began the steep ascent on foot.
As I neared the halfway point, my legs were beginning to tire and my breathing was coming in more frequent puffs. My thoughts drifted to the two donkeys I had so cavalierly dismissed at the bottom of the hill. Maybe, riding to the top hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. Can you guess who was waiting for me around the next turn? Of course you can -- those same, eager guides with their donkeys. How tempting those beasts of burden looked to me now! I flirted with the idea of asking how much they charged for the remainder of the journey, if for no other reason than to confirm my suspicion that their rates had probably risen, now that I was tiring and out of breath. After a brief inner struggle, I resolved not to give up. I smiled at the men’s enterprise but resisted their urgent entreaties. I’d be darned if I was going to quit now. I kept climbing.
When the top finally hove into view, I knew I had made the right decision. Rarely have I been so rewarded for my perseverance as I was that day. I stepped onto the Wall’s ramparts and was greeted by a deep, unfathomable silence. It was a top-of-the-world kind of silence. A silence that stretched back for centuries. Nothing moved in the falling snow. I was peering through a lace curtain of fluffy snowflakes at a world without a trace of mankind. Not one footprint could be found. Not one figure was visible.
The air was as crisp as freshly harvested lettuce, and I inhaled several deep breaths to clear my mind. This must be what it’s like to summit a famous mountain, I thought. The Great Wall had become my Everest, and while my conquest was small, the exhilaration was just as real. In both directions the abandoned Wall undulated away from my vantage point across a landscape of ghostly foothills. Close up, its roughhewn, stone features stood in sharp contrast to the snow, but in the distance the ramparts blended with the gauzy hills and valleys until details grew vague, then disappeared altogether.
Below me, a guard station had been built into the wall. Centuries ago it would have housed soldiers armed with swords and bows and arrows. Theirs must have been a lonely vigil, their days filled with boredom and tedium . . . until the enemy appeared. Imagine what it must have felt like to suddenly see marauding bands of Mongolian invaders swarming through the valleys towards the wall. Warnings would have sounded, alerting soldiers who hastily raced to the parapets and fit arrows to bows in anticipation of battle. Messengers from the guard house would have been dispatched requesting reinforcements.
The longer I stood there, the more time bent away from me. I could hear the thundering hooves of the intruders’ horses, the heavy breathing of both rider and animal, and the bloodthirsty cries of would-be conquerors seeking pillage and glory; I could feel their consternation when they reined in their horses before those massive walls. What would have been their reaction, I wondered, when presented with such an impenetrable barrier? Bewilderment, surely . . . followed by frustration . . . then anger. Stomping horses churning the snow beneath their feet, defiant voices echoing off the massive wall, and raised weapons shaking in broad-knuckled fists would have had no effect.
The leaders most likely gathered beyond the range of the defenders’ arrows to discuss options and plot strategies. War parties would have ventured forth to inspect the wall for weaknesses that could be breached. When nothing presented itself, scouts were likely sent off to search for less protected ramparts or a way around the wall. How many days would they have ridden before they returned with the discouraging news that the wall stretched into eternity? How long would it take for the marauders’ leaders to realize their only option was to turn around and ride away, defeated?
I'm Travelling as Fast as I can - Excerpt
China's Great Wall in Winter