Wednesday, August 13, 2008

the Fellowship of the Wall

When we set out there were four. But one by one, my companions dropped behind, daunted by the seeming endlessness of our path, the steepness of the hurdles, the unflagging manner in which they just kept coming in our way.
One was lost in the very beginning. Daunted by the harsh sun beating down on the unprotected mountaintop. Another dropped out just past the halfway mark; spirit unflagging, but the body demanding rest. My third companion gave me company for long. But at last, she too fell by the way, gasping out her parting words, “So. Many. Big. Steps.”

So many big steps
That statement from Rainy, my friend in Beijing, who came with me to the Great Wall, had to be the understatement of the trip. “So many big steps” could not even begin to describe our attempt to walk the Great Wall (though why the act of going up and down the stairs that make up the Wall is called walking, I don’t know).
Surely, there would have been bits where the Wall dipped before climbing again, where the steps must have led down, instead of up. But I don’t remember these bits. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t climbing, my eyes set at the last tower that I’d promised myself I would reach. A time when I wasn’t surprised when the baby steps that I was climbing three at a time, suddenly changed into an enormous boulder (a big step in Rainy’s lexicon) that I had to clamber over.

In the beginning, it’s always easy
As is usual with these things, at first I had no idea just what exactly I’d let myself in for. And there were absolutely no hints.
There are four access points to the Great Wall around Beijing that are open to the public. The most popular is Badaling, two hours from the city, well conserved and in some ways the newest, since it’s constantly being made safer and more comfortable for tourists. But I wanted old stone, really old stone. So I went to Mutianyu, a less popular and hence less developed, and so for me more fascinating, section of the Wall. The drive itself, through beautiful countryside and mountain views, convinced me that I’d made the right choice.
We stopped on the way to buy the biggest, juiciest peaches I’ve ever seen, the colour of winter sunsets. And fresh nuts of all kinds — macadamia and hazelnut; chestnuts and walnuts of three kinds — roasted to crisp perfection. There were several little roadside restaurants, the Chinese equivalents of highway dhabas I imagine, with little fishponds where you could catch your own meal, and I pre-picked the one where we would stop for lunch on the way back.
At Mutianyu, a ropeway took us to the entry point into the Great Wall. Without breaking into the slightest sweat, or straining my little-used muscles at all, I was atop one of the greatest wonders of the world, the Great Wall. So excuse me for thinking that the rest would be just as easy.
Knowing when to stop
Just being on top of the Wall isn’t enough, one has to ‘walk’ it. Since the five people who came before us had started walking to the left, I obviously chose to go right. As we made our way to the first tower, it seemed as though the sun had decided to concentrate all its power into a single beam focused right on us. Taking cover in the tower, my companions pressed for a break, but I egged them on. It didn’t help that a cheery little lady selling chilled beer, juice and water, sat under an umbrella by the tower, looking calm and not-sweaty. I blame her completely for the first dropout from our fellowship; she swayed my mother with the promise of shade and cold juice.
Depleted, but not beat, the three who were left pressed on. Another tower came and went; and another. A boarded-up guard’s hut. And pretty Luna from France, leaning against the wooden wall, reading. The Moroccan man and his pregnant Belgian wife, slowly climbing the stairs, resting in the tower.
The towers were tiny oases of shade, community spots where you didn’t need to speak a common language to get along; just that feeling of “so many big steps” writ large in the wan smiles you exchanged was enough to build a sense of camaraderie, the sense of a shared experience.
Reaching the top
I kept climbing mechanically, my hand trailing along the wall, as though touching the surface could give me a sense of the years it had stood. The more I concentrated on the details, the lesser I noticed the fact that I was still climbing, or that I was now alone. I marvelled at how green the moss was, growing in the gaps between the large stones of the wall. The way the stone steps seemed to change colour depending on the angle at which the sunlight hit them.
When I finally did reach the top, with the sign stopping visitors from going any further, I’d somehow forgotten that I’d been climbing. But only until I turned around and saw the wall undulate on the mountainside behind me. Then there was nothing for it but to find a shaded spot and marvel at the distance I’d come, and how little it was compared to the length I could see stretch out before me in the distance.
Not everything that goes up, comes down
The return should have been all downhill. After all, what goes up, must come down, right? Not with the Great Wall. I can’t quite explain the physics of it, but I swear on the beautiful linen skirt I bought on discount in Shanghai (for about one fourth what it costs here), at the Great Wall, you climb up to go down.
Even so, going back didn’t take as much time, gathering my fallen comrades along the way, telling other sweaty climbers that yes, that climb was definitely worth it. But if you thought the adventure was over, think again. To go back down from the mountain, you have several options. The cable car or the ropeway. Or the one that we took, tobogganing down a long slide that snakes through the mountainside right to the bottom. Just plant your bottom on the tiny rubber cart, grab on to the lever that is both your brake and accelerator, and remember to lean into the turns!
A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on August 14.


Samrat said...

Nicely written.

nidhi dhingra said...

really nice :)

Nia said...

Thanks for writing this.

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