A Lesson on the Great Wall, Jinshanling
Headlights on and engine roaring, the bus devours the morning silence. “Is this going to Jinshanling?” Nodding, the driver waves me aboard and I take my place, sleepy-eyed, in the second row. Our tour guide looks like he could use a strong cup of coffee.
Not many things merit a 5:00 a.m. start and an uncomfortable four-hour bus ride with terrible leg room. But it is my last day in Beijing and I have booked myself a trip to see the final item on my checklist: the Great Wall of China.
Backpack tucked between my feet, I am trying to decipher the language that is being spoken by my seatmate. Is it Portuguese? I wonder. There are words that seem almost Spanish, but it lacks the familiar lilt of my Brazilian friends. I keep my eyes glued to the window, watching the scenery as it turns from drab apartment blocks to tan-coloured fields and mountains. There are 33 of us on this bus; a group of Frenchmen, a myriad of other nationalities and a visiting professor from New Jersey. He seems to be the only other person who is going solo.
When the bus finally pulls into the car park, we are given an enthusiastic welcome by a meet and greet team, or more accurately a handful of local vendors. Across the aisle, the American professor shakes his head. “It wasn’t like this the last time I came here.”
We walk the wide pathway leading to the start of the trail, where we are herded between the rest of the villagers. I hear the numbers being recited in Mandarin and sigh, wondering if I had made the right decision. “What are they saying?” A blonde twenty-something ahead of me turns around, creases of bewilderment forming above her sunglasses.
“They’re counting us.” I shrug and stifle an uneasy laugh. “Welcome to China.”
I had hoped that the vendors would leave us the moment we began our ascent, but this being China it was wishful thinking. Backpacks stuffed with merchandise, it wasn’t long before they followed, spreading out strategically among the group.
In a bid to be friendly, I call out to the ruddy-faced villager who is just passing me by. “Aren’t you cold? You don’t seem to be wearing very much!” Her shoes are flat-soled and seem impractical for the hike.
She turns around and laughs, clearly surprised. “Oh no, I’m wearing a lot of layers.”
Her name – I later find out – is Zhou Qin, and when I get to the top of the trail she is standing off to the side, waiting for me. At first I don’t even notice the wall’s gentle tilt, but Zhou is quick to point out the square openings and rounded thresholds spaced at regular intervals. “You see, it was built so that rain would drain away onto the Chinese side.”
Zhou is more than happy to share her knowledge of the wall; she reveals details that our guide would mention only in passing or neglect altogether. The posts where pillars once held up the mighty watchtowers; scorch marks and bomb damage left by invading Japanese troops; and hidden portals where horses would bring in supplies from the valleys below.
I ask her if it’s true that the mortar is made of rice. “Yes,” Zhou says, “it’s a mixture of glutinous rice and white lime. Very strong.” She bends down, picking up a small stone, and throws it over the edge. It lands beside a perfectly round hole carved into the rock. “That’s where they used to pound the rice. You’ll find a hole like this beside every tower.”
Zhou is walking ahead, warning me where it’s dangerous or slippery. Eventually I stumble, sending a few pieces of rubble tumbling down the slope. “Man man zou,” she chimes. Walk slowly. I had bought a pair of brand-new hiking boots for the trip, but failed to break them in before climbing the wall.
It is at this point that Zhou begins describing her life in the shadow of China’s pride.
“Before the road was built, we had no electricity. Not even bikes could get through. We used to draw water the old-fashioned way, from a hand-dug well. Now, we can just pump it from the ground.”
She continues, right palm pressed against the cool brick, taking it one step at a time.
“We’ve lived here all our lives. Been here for generations. Our ancestors and their ancestors too.” Perhaps, I muse, they were the ones who built and maintained this wall.
“Do you do this climb every day?”
“Yes, when there are visitors. In peak season there are days I do it twice.”
Zhou is candid about the nature of her work. “I sell souvenirs here because there’s no employment in the village. With this money, I can send my children to school.”
She speaks of her two daughters with the pride of any mother. They are seven and eleven years old, and spend their weekdays living at a boarding school some eight kilometres away.
Zhou points over to the faint outline of Simatai, the adjoining section and the part I had always wanted to see. But it’s been closed since 2010 for renovations. “I’ve climbed up to the highest tower. We’ve all done it here. Before the pollution you could see the distant lights of Beijing.”
She leans back against the doorway. “Go on to the end and have a look… I’ll be waiting for you here.”
At the final tower, nicknamed “the one with five eyes”, the other hikers are preparing for their descent. An Australian gazes out over the scene and puts her arm around her partner. In the distance the wall at Simatai stretches out into the midday haze. I sit in the doorway, marveling at the view and for once, the unadulterated silence.
On the way down Zhou takes me via a winding route on the mountainside, bypassing the steeper parts of the wall. “Beware the loose stones,” she says. I stumble again, and wonder how she can jump from place to place with such graceful ease. In the shade patches of January snow line the worn dirt path, melting slowly into gentle dunes of shaved ice. I dip my finger into the snow and relish the cold.
Just before we part ways, I buy a picture book and a black T-shirt, printed with the words, “I climbed the Great Wall”. Zhou Qin is undeniably grateful. She clasps my hand, eyes brimming with joy as though I have given her an expensive gift. “Thank you so much, you’ve really helped me.”
I think of my small donation, her two daughters, and the sacrificial act of a mother yearning to give them a better future.
“No,” I tell her, “Thank you.”