Monday, May 06, 2013

On the Great Wall

Snaking like a dragon along the mountain tops at Mutianyu
The Great Wall of China is the longest man-made structure in the world. Its total length, including spurs, outposts, and connecting trenches runs over 13,000 miles. It's a work of many centuries. Archaeologists estimate that the first construction began in the 7th century BC and continued off and on through the 1500s. Various Chinese Emperors, most recently those of the Ming Dynasty, used the Wall to defend China from Manchurian and Mongol invaders.

Ultimately, though, the Great Wall of China joins Sweden's Vasa warship and Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative as a military flop. According to lore, over a million lives were spent in its construction; the cost in resources and effort is incalculable.

A clear day above Beijing's smog
The Wall runs along the highlands of China's ancient northern border. It includes some 25,000 watch towers, which during the Ming Dynasty were manned by 25 to 30 soldiers who kept a watchful eye on the passes to the north. When enemy raiders were spotted, a cannon shot signaled troop reserves behind the wall who rushed to the defenses to meet the threat.

The concept seems sound enough. And, in fact, the Wall did function as designed to help repel Manchu invasions in the early 1600s. But both before and after this period of relative success were a long string of failures. The Wall proved ineffective at preventing a highly-mobile invading force from going around it as the Mongols demonstrated in the 13th century. And, of course, no defenses can stand against internal betrayal as the Li Zicheng rebels proved when, in 1642, they seized Beijing  and left the Ming Dynasty defenders isolated on the Wall with no base of supply.

On the Wall
On a day when the American Consulate had the air pollution index at 240 ("unhealthy"), we took a drive to the north of Beijing to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu. This was the same site that President Clinton visited back in the 90s. A photo of him hung on the wall at the foot of the tram-line that took us up to the top of the ridge.

Some shallow, some deep. Some high, some low.
When we got to the top, the Wall stretched out like a stone highway to our left and right. Sunflower, our guide, led us to the west. The walkway, set between brick and mortar parapets, was uneven with plenty of opportunity for stumbles. Rough, uneven stone stairs of varying heights and depths led up and down the steeper inclines and I won't lie to you: I was sucking air as I labored up the particularly-steep ascent that punctuated our western progress. (Nimble-footed Calee beat me to the top with scarce effort.)

Drag my ass up that?
As I climbed, I searched my mind for a mantra to distract me. For some strange reason, I settled on the hopscotch chant that Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams did in the opening of the Laverne & Shirley teevee show.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated

Don't ask me why. I don't know why. But it worked. I got to the top.

A bit tuckered
We'd arrived at the Wall early, to avoid the worst of the crowds, and it paid off. As we made our way back down, the walkway was considerably more crowded. The variety of languages and nationalities we encountered was itself a marvel. Italians, Mexicans, Poles, Cameroons, Canadians, French, Germans and, of course, Chinese. More besides.

From the western terminus of the tourist-accessible Wall we went back east and found the place where you can ride summer toboggans back down to the village. That was a lot of fun. The rush of wind as I made my descent was perfect antidote for the hot, sweaty climb up.

Summer toboggan
We got back to the car and headed back toward Beijing. We stopped along the way to visit the Ming Tombs, were Ming Dynasty emperors constructed their extravagant final resting places. Marble figures marked the pathway that led to the tombs. Their rounded shapes conveyed serenity and acceptance. A Buddhist thing, I suppose.

And so I close with a few photos of those stone figures that guard the road to deceased Chinese Emperors. Tomorrow, God willing, I fly back to the United States. I can't wait to see my wife. And a special thanks to my dear brother and sister-in-law for the hospitality and generosity.

Bye-bye, China.

Stone Guardians at the Ming Tombs

Sunflower called this a Chinese unicorn.

Kneeling elephant




1 comment:

jeanne said...

I love to see you with your brother.The pictures are beautiful. Love you, Jeanne