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A Visit to the Great Wall

written byLawrence McGinnison 27/03/2012

A few years ago Marilyn and I visited the Great Wall of China with Jack Huang. What an experience!  

December 30

We are in Beijing now, it’s close to 7 am, we got here last night, and we are in the Plaza Royale Hotel Beijing, room 709, with a great view. We are going to the Forbidden City today and the great wall tomorrow. Our host Jack Huang took us out to dinner - it was 2:00am Canadian time, but we went along anyway, very nice restaurant. Booshi means "no" (sounds like "BS" so I can remember that OK), and shih means "yes" - sounds similar to "sure", so I can say that now. I don’t think I will hire out as a tour guide yet.

December 31

Visited the Forbidden City with Jack Huang – it fronts on Tiananmen Square. The place is enormous, and unheated. The weather was brutal, sunny but a very cold wind. We finally relented and bought some fake fur hats in a large square in the Forbidden City (FC), from a booth in the first main square. The wind penetrated right into my scalp. The hawkers talk fast and try to push the merchandise on you, so you have to say NO NO NO lots of times. Lots of cold looking people about, as it was a very blustery day. Jack Huang is very kind and helpful; his English is very good, which helps matters greatly.  

We stand on the balcony where Mao and company have stood, waving to the crowd in Tiananmen square with a royal wave. No one noticed.  The most interesting things for me were the giant jade carvings that were 5’ by 5’ by 10’, and took 10 years to carve. Beautiful carvings all over these huge jade boulders. As the typical jade carving tool of the time, a muscle powered circular abrasive bit, could not be moved to carve, the entire multi-ton piece of rock had to be brought close to the tool and moved in minute ways to accomplish the fine carving!  

We went through the Forbidden City (more about that some other time) and exited by the “Back Door" about 1 KM from the front door. Jack had hired a driver, so we were picked up there and then went to lunch at a restaurant that specialised in roast duck. This was delicious. After lunch, Jack had arranged for us to go to the castle of a very rich and corrupt uncle of an Emperor of the 19th century. The wind was so cold that even after a warm lunch I found myself on the verge of getting a chill, so Marilyn & Jack carried on and I was driven back to the hotel by the driver. I ran a hot bath as soon as I got back and warmed up to normal – it took an hour. We plan to go to the Great Wall tomorrow, so I want to be in good health.  

January 1

Breakfast at the hotel with Jack Huang. They have a western style and eastern style breakfast available. Yogurt/bran/pumpkin seed starter, and eggs over easy before we leave. The staff courteously leaves knives and forks for us, which is helpful. Jack has hired another driver for a run at the Great Wall. This time I dress warmer, with Five layers of clothing on top and underwear on the legs! I have an undershirt, 2 sweaters, and my leather jacket, topped by my raincoat.

We drive to the Great Wall, which is in a mountain pass 60km north of Beijing, and the wind was blowing even colder and faster than yesterday. Jack buys a toque, and all 3 of us rent thick woollen green army issue overcoats for the journey up onto the Great Wall. Six layers of clothing now!  

The sun is shining brightly – Beijing is on the same latitude as Oregon. The wind is howling, blowing in from the frozen steppes of Mongolia. It is new years day, there is a special ceremony put on by the Government, so there is an army band, a heroic sounding anthem about Mao and the People’s party playing continuously, balloons, lion dances (rather good), flags snapping in the wind, groups of people with vests of similar color being led by people with similar colored flags through the crowd onto the Great Wall and then on high up the Great Wall to the left. Jack pays for our tickets for the Great Wall and up we go. Onto the Great Wall of China! Up we go, it is steep as it rises up the side of a mountain. We see Chinese graffiti on the bricks and the worn stones of the walkway.  

The wall is crenulated so we can look out to see if hostile Mongols or Kirby Vacuum Cleaner salespeople are approaching. There are lots and lots of people on the wall, mostly Chinese and a few Caucasians. Caucasians see each other, but act like we would with Caucasians anywhere, we note each other but don’t talk unless it is necessary.  

The Great Wall is about 12’ across, with occasional low steps and places where the stone is very smooth and slippery in steep places if one is wearing leather soled shoes. The wall protects you from the wind except if you look out one of the crenulations, and there the wind is brutal, it almost knocks Marilyn’s hat off, pushes me back and brings tears to my eyes whenever I look to the North. Finally, Marilyn, Jack and I huddle in the north-east corner watchtower halfway up the mountain, protected by the wind and warmed by the sun.  We proceed carefully down the mountain on the wall. We stop to see a lion dance in the square below us from the wall. There are 6 lions, comprised of 2 people each. One white “lion” is particularly acrobatic, as we watch, Marilyn says WOW! Jack Huang explains what is going on. A young pretty girl says "hello" to Marilyn, and asks if she will be in a photo with her, Marilyn says yes and joins someone’s photo album.  

It is difficult to describe the experience of being in a place of such colossal scale and where there has been so much violent history, from the building of the wall to great battles on the wall. Seeing it wind across the hills and mountains for miles and miles does evoke awe and wonder. Walking on it up the steep steps and walkways, being able to see for miles and miles, seeing the watchtowers connected by the walls, is awe-inspiring. 

Ultimately, the Great Wall succeeded in giving the Chinese a sense of pride in the monumental project that was completed 1000 years ago, able to be seen from space, awesome in concept, design and execution, overwhelming evidence of very rich land, culture and empire, and truly a wonder of the world. Jack Huang, always the gallant host, guides us back to the cab area, escorts us to the grande hotel he has reserved a room for us, wishing us well. We will sleep well tonight.