Thursday, June 21, 2007

Atop the walls of Gondor

We leave the jade factory to drive to our ultimate destination today: the Great Wall of China. I am distracted by my recent decision. Should I have bought more, smaller items? Was this a silly indulgence on my part? Is my credit card frozen again? As I ponder, Andrea discusses income distribution and Social Security with Zhou, the rest of us listen, after a fashion.

Zhou changes the subject and begins to tell us the history of the Great Wall, much of which I know.* The Wall is old; its original foundations date back to 7000 BC, though the bulk of the building takes place in the Ming Dynasty. In case you didn’t know, most of the things that you think of when you think of China—the Wall, vases, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven—were either built, completed, or renovated by the Ming. They were pretty prolific.

She pauses in her story, looking for a new fact with which to regale us. She finds one. “You know,” she intones, “Mao once said, ‘You cannot be a real hero until you have walked the Great Wall.’”

Suddenly I have something to distract me from my mishandled purchases. I will walk to the highest point in sight when we arrive. And then I will come down again. Today, I shall be a real hero, if not a real thrift. Upon arrival, I look up. The goal that I have set is formidable. We can see the topmost watchtower, but not the path to it. I see a pagoda a little lower. The pagoda becomes my goal.

Andrea and Dave immediately indicate that they are not hiking to the top. Nowhere near it. “I am,” I say. “I am going to the top. Who’s with me?” All three children decide to come along.

One might think that this was a bad idea, marching three children under the age of 13 one mile up a mountain and one mile down again. One might think that this would eventually result in the failure of the mission, due to accident or boredom or the capriciousness of youth. I know that, on those first few flights of stairs, I thought it.

But I was wrong.

The children acquitted themselves excellently. Each took a turn as our Fearless Leader as I extolled them to continue marching this day for glory and honor. Often during one of my diatribes on heroism, designed to motivate the kids (and distract myself), they’d interrupt me. “Less talkin’, more walkin’!” shouted Victor at one point, without even turning around. He was our unofficial taskmaster, indicating on more than one occasion that now was the time for climbing, not for stopping, talking, drinking, picture-taking, or anything that didn’t move one’s feet.

The earliest stairs were, obviously, the most crowded. As we moved on, the air thinned imperceptibly, the people quite so. We stop at every watchtower to rest and drink water in the sanctuary of cool stone. I engage an Atlantan in repartee over what form of transit should come for us at the top of the mountain. A helicopter? An ATV? A great blue dragon with bright green eyes? “If you have a cell phone to summon one, I’ll take any of them,” she replies. If I had a cell phone, I would do that for her. She was climbing in heels.

Time passes. The southerner in heels falls behind. “Um, Jared, nobody’s on the stairs,” Kina points out. And she’s right. Except for a couple of young Asian guys quickly approaching us, we are alone. The guys begin to pass us. “Ni hao,” I say as they approach.”

“American?” the younger man responds in a decidedly southern accent. “We speak English.”

The gentlemen are Chris and Phillip, a couple of North Carolinians by way of Guanzhou. They join us on the way up. Like me, they regularly fall behind the children. Fine men both, and we get a picture with them at the end of things.

At each rest point, there are fewer and fewer people. Soon, we are they. We are the resting. No one else comes, save a trickle from above. And nobody under the age of 18, except Caitlin, Kina, and Victor.

I ask the kids if we have reached the pagoda that I wish to visit in lieu of going to the top. “We passed it,” says Kina. “There was a sign back at the last stop.”

There was? Why didn’t you tell me?

“I figured you knew.” Ugh.

Now we have a choice. Do we go to the very top of the mountain, or do we go back to the pagoda? The kids want to see the top. They want to be heroes.

And they are. After another 15 minutes of climbing, we reach the final watchtower. We enter; a family (no children) have a picnic spread out in the corner. “Can we do that?” asks Phillip. “Hang on, let me call for delivery,” I suggest. We laugh.

Victor finds one more upward staircase, with six steps about five inches wide, each about two feet high. It leads to the top of the watchtower. We ascend.

The view is breathtaking. Like Jodi Foster in “Contact”, there are no words. We have conquered the mountain; we pull out our water bottles. I toast the children. They laugh. I take pictures of each of them atop the watchtower of the old Empire.

On the way down we head towards the pagoda. It is Guandi Temple, the significance of which I do not know. When we reach it after a not insignificant or risky climb downward, I bow nine times to the north, three with the head, three at the waist, and three on my knees. We are much higher than the Temple of Heaven, closer than the emperor could ever come to the gods. The sun is out, though it does not penetrate the haze. I am grateful.

There is a path that leads downward from the temple. We know not where it goes. Caitlin and Victor want to climb back up to the Wall, then march down the way we came. Kina and I want to explore the unknown path. Chris and Phillip like both choices, but their aunt shouts up to them indiscriminately through the public address system. We have no time for adventure; we must do what we know. We slowly return to the wall then descend down it.

I would have liked to see what the other path held. I would like to climb the Wall again.** But I am not worried about missing out on the opportunity.

Today we are heroes. And heroes always return.

* Zhou does tell us something that I didn’t know: the individual walls of the city-states that made up China originally were connected to protect the commerce of the Silk Road. Though I hate empire, I do like dedication to trade.

** Phillip and I actually discussed the romance of climbing the wall with our significant others. How we concluded this, sweating, short of breath, and dehydrated I cannot say. Perhaps it was the delirium that sets in with heat stroke.

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