Friday, May 02, 2008

Day 4 – Great Wall at Simatai

Believe it or not
It can’t be seen from space (Ripley’s Believe it or not myth), it ain’t a single wall (it’s may walls), it’s largely not the original 3rd century BC wall (mostly Ming 4-500 years old) and has been recently, heavily restored (in parts). Nevertheless, its scale, grandeur and audacity take you by surprise. Our first glimpse of the wall was on approaching Simatai, and as we were staying in a Hostel, literally beneath the wall, we had stunning views as we ate lunch. It was also great to feel fresh air after so many days in
Beijing smog.

I had gleaned, from John Mann’s book ‘The Great Wall’, that this is the most impressive stretch of the entire wall. It rises steeply on a narrow ridge, making the climb an exhausting effort. You are pulled forward by the sight of yet another wall castle, but it’s still exhausting. We reached the final castle 13 by clambering over some rocks on the last stretch and it felt great. We had all imagined visiting the wall but the reality exceeded ay powers of the imagination. The sun was out and the wall shone as a white line across the mountain ridge in both directions.

Wall building is a feature of Northern houses, where walled courtyard kept out people, wind and dust. Hundreds of city states were walled and sieges were commonplace throughout Chinese history, and there’s the well known psychological walling that Emperors, including Mao (the last Emperor) used so effectively to seal up the country from foreign influence. I never really felt as if I had got through the walls, set up deliberately or not, in the minds of the Chinese people I met and spoke to. It was as if they were keeping something from me.

Wall or monument?
Like Hadrian’s Wall, it had bee painted white, and like that wall, was really a monument to an Emperor’s desire to build and leave monuments. It didn’t really work, as the Mongols and Manchus, both from north of the wall ruled China for hundreds of years, but it’s part of China’s mindset. The wall was not only used as a political symbol by Mao, famously featured in Nixon’s visit in 1979 And even now survives in phrases such as the ‘Great Firewall of China’ the state’s attempt to keep foreign, online influences out of the country.

Walls never work
Of course, walls, in the end, never work. On this note I had a strange encounter with a guy on the wall at Simatai. He had an American accent and on passing he commented that the wall was steep up ahead. I asked him where he came from, and he said ‘Jerusalem’. I replied that I had been there a few years ago. As we turned to part, he commented that ‘this wall never really worked’, I agreed and, without thinking, said, ‘Do you think yours will?’ He turned and walked away.

Zipwire home
Exhausted by the long climb on the wall, we decided to all zipwire back down across the lake. Hanging from a rather old canvas harness, we were pushed off the platform into space, with only gravity to pull us sailing over a green lake to the bank far below. Then a boat ride back to our hostel.

Firecrackers backfire
We were all quite elated, and after we had a meal and a few beers, I decided to set off some firecrackers to celebrate our ascent of the wall. I had bought them earlier in a tiny store in the village. Unfortunately, I did it without telling them and it frightened some of the kids, even producing tears. A lesson learnt!


At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Kyra said...

Well said.


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