There are some things in life that seem impossible.
For me, walking up the stairs of the Great Wall, was one of those things.
As a child, I didn’t know I had asthma. After exercise, my lungs caught on fire, my breaths labored, and my chest ached. It wasn’t until a near death experience that I realized how restrictive asthma could be. I honestly thought I would never be strong enough, lung capacity wise, to visit the Great Wall.
But impossible dreams became reality. Over a year ago, we planned a family trip to Asia, and stopped by Beijing en route to Hong Kong. After exploring Gui Jie (簋街) and Tianamen Square, we were ready to embrace the Great Wall.
Long, yellow willow branches swayed in the breeze, like the glory of a woman’s hair. Driving to the Mutianyu section, Chinese pop songs played on the radio. But in my heart, I was glimpsing the serenity of China’s countryside and listening to the serenade of violins. Clusters of Chinese villages lined the road, protected by a bordering village wall. What were the Northeastern Chinese lives like, before the rise of big cities? Had their ancestors used their own blistered hands to lay down the stones of the wall? Did they gain a new hope of protection and security? And for the current residents, were their lives now completely centered around tourism?
Finally, we arrived.
We climbed a few steps and found ourselves facing a ski lift (they call it a cable car, but it looks like a ski lift). We had specifically chosen this section of the wall because it was less strenuous of a climb compared to other sections, riding up via ski lift in lieu of hiking.
My sister-in-law’s eyes widened, in panic.
But it was too late to turn back; the chair swooped her and Dad up and they soared into the mountains.
“Don’t look down! Close your eyes!” my husband shouted into the wind, as we sat in the lift chair following from behind. The lift ascended into the mountains, the tops of trees and lower mountain peaks far beneath our dangling feet. It carried us to a platform and we jumped off.
Then a few more steps, and we emerged atop the Great Wall.
“WOOOWWWWWW!” I gasped, my head spinning with excitement.
At this higher elevation, we could see the expanse of the wall stretching across the mountains all around us, reaching farther than our eyes could see. I hadn’t realized the wall would be that steep; it climbed up and down along the mountain, hugging it along its peaks and valleys. The wall was a strong, fierce dragon, with stones steps as scales. It brushed against pines, conquered the mountaintops, and soared into the horizon.
Some of the stone steps varied in depth, they were not even. I climbed with caution, trying to avoid exertion. (The worst thing would be to have an asthma attack in the middle of the mountains). My inhaler safely tucked into my bag, just in case.
Dad walked carefully, grasping the rail. We knew that sometimes he had difficulty with his footing, especially after seeing him stumble at the Forbidden City the day before.
But he didn’t let that stop him.
He climbed up until we reached one of the watchtowers. He perched upon the stone steps and looked yonder.
Although we didn’t hike up the wall, the fact that we made it there, to witness and stand upon something that our ancestors had built and probably died building… it was both awe inspiring and humbling at the same time.
Each of us had been bound by our own fears and limitations: my sister-in-law and her fear of heights, Dad and his difficulty walking, me and my asthma. Yet we still made it. I wish we were stronger, I wish we were backpackers, hikers, or explorers. But we weren’t. We were a family learning where we came from, reflecting how that shapes and strengthens us, and journeying through it all, side by side.
To descend the wall, we didn’t use the lift this time. Instead, we sled down the wall on individual toboggans! Who knew you could toboggan down the Great Wall?! I laughed with glee as I steered the toboggan around its winding curves. (Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of the descent because how can you juggle a dSLR and steer at the same time?) It was great fun, and my sister-in-law, to my surprise, wasn’t scared at all, she thoroughly enjoyed it.
Upon returning to Beijing, we wandered the hutong neighborhood beside Lake Houhai.
Hutongs are the alleyways formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. As much of Beijing has become modernized, commercialized, and renovated, the hutongs “are residential neighborhoods which still form the heart of Old Beijing.” It felt like I was walking back in time, admiring the gray tiled roofs, wooden screen doors, and homes tucked behind storefronts.
After a long day of climbing the Great Wall, we replenished our energy over hot pot and noodles at a family owned restaurant. Then we browsed the gift shops, boutiques, and stationary stores in the neighborhood.
We also stumbled upon a lively band of drummers, composed of both men and women, young and old. They cupped their hands against their drums, nodding and grooving to the rhythm from within. Their smiles stretching from ear to ear.
Our time in Beijing was brief, but a pleasant introduction that beckons me to return someday.
The cold, brisk wind blew and the willow leaves rustled over the lake.
But with my family, together, we were warm.
The flowering reeds outside the pavilion are a vast sea of white A fine drizzle lightly tapping, autumn winds blowing I lay down my brush, unable to paint – who is it sprinkling the rain? Sentiments, briefly and unexpectedly, appear as Fireworks underneath a poet’s brush... The strings have snapped, fate has already been exhausted, you are gone too As a passing traveler, your tenderness grows silent Who remembers the slope of the arched bridge, the pier at the water’s edge? Eyes following my ferry as it flows east from the riverbank – suddenly I turn back and remember you at the ferry’s port. - Jay Chou, 天涯過客