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Climbing the Great Wall

I woke up early and caught a taxi to Tiannamen Square. The driver charged me a little too much, but I was too happy to spend time haggling. The sun had yet to rise, but the pre dawn light was bright enough to show thousands of people doing Tai Chi exercises in an eerie slow motion.

I wanted to join them, to practice the Tai Chi with them. Instead I watched while a small fear inside me told me again and again that I needed a private space to concentrate. I recognized the fear for what it was. I just didn't do anything about it. And so, more and more days went by without me doing my exercises because I couldn't find a place where no one was watching me. After all, this was China, and I was a white foreigner.

The line of reasoning made me laugh as I looked out at people of all ages moving slowly. Some had swords, some had brooms, and some simply walked backwards with careful precision in an attempt to shed some of the negative karma they had gathered by walking forward in life each day. This was the last place that I should feel shy about doing Tai Chi, but I didn't want to be a spectacle. The Chinese stared at me enough without giving them any special reason.

It was disconcerting those first few days. The way people had simply stared at me as if I were some sort of ghost. After the first score of encounters I recognized a word that seemed to indicate me "Laowai." The Chinese would stare, one in the group would sing song "Lao-wai" and the rest would laugh, while continuing to stare at me. The word seemed to hold a certain contempt. Most of the actions of the Chinese towards me, in fact, seemed to hold that same contempt.

As the sky lightened, the benevolent face of Chairman Mao looked down upon the people from where it was painted on the outer wall of the Forbidden City. A soldier appeared next to me and indicated that I should move to an area a good distance away. I didn't ask any questions, taking the order from the tall youth in a perfect uniform.

I had heard that the soldiers in Beijing had to be six foot or taller. I'd wondered where they found so many tall Chinese, but it seemed they grew em big in the north. The regulation seemed to accomplish its purpose, because as a visitor, I was impressed and intimidated by the physical size of the military. I'd thought I might be tall in China, or at least average height. Not in Beijing.

A flag platoon marched out with perfect timing and precision. Other soldiers pushed and prodded a select group of lucky civilians into a platoon position of their own. The civilians squirmed and wiggled in undisciplined contrast to the soldiers as the Chinese national anthem began and the flag was slowly raised. It was easy to believe that China was the master of the world as the ceremony unfolded in the city of giants.

A giant flag, on a giant pole, raised by giant soldiers in a square of nearly a mile, surrounded by giant gates, temples, buildings, and more than 15 million people. The thousands of people doing their exercises stood at attention while the flag was raised. A final burst of martial majesty ended the daily proclamation of Chinese greatness and the daily business of making money began.

As I walked through the square to the bus terminal, I was approached by dozens of vendors selling everything from postcards to the gaudy Chairman Mao lighters that lit up and played the Chinese music. I turned them all down with a firm "Bu yao, xia xia." No, thank you. The vendors and merchants almost never called me laowai until I had passed them. I wanted to find out what it meant. Laowai.

I walked through the pedestrian tunnel that led from the square to the other side of the gigantic streets that circled it. Circled the square. Everything was so big here, even the geometry. "Badaling, Badaling - Hey, you go Badaling?" The street hawkers were savvy to why a white person shows up at the bus station so early. The reason could only be to take a tour of the Great Wall. I didn't really want to go to the Badaling section though, I had heard that Badaling had been completely rebuilt by the Chinese government. Simatai was the area that had been recommended to me. It was there that people got the experience of "walking the wild wall."

"Bu yao, xia xia," I told them "Simatai?" at which point they would generally walk away calling me laowai.

Nobody at the bus station seemed to be going to Simatai. All the special tourist buses were going to Badaling. I might have guessed it would be like this. I'd asked one of the many English speaking art students where I should go to get a bus to the Great Wall. She brought me there and told me to come back in the early morning. I should've known she would point me to the section most tourists went to.

The buses left at 8 AM and I waited until 7:45 before resigning myself to seeing the "new" section of the wall. The important thing was to get to the wall and climb it. I had to do that if I wanted to be a hero. That was what the art student had told me. She explained that Chairman Mao had proclaimed that any person who wanted to be a hero must climb the great wall. Every Chinese Emperor, Sun Yat Sen, and Chairman Mao himself had all climbed the wall.

And now, as soon as the tourist bus got me there, I would climb the wall too. I felt silly and serious thinking it: I would be a hero.

The bus finally filled up. Everyone on board was Chinese except for me and a European looking couple in stylish jackets with wolf fur lined hoods. I had on a beat up army coat—not very stylish at all.

I stared out the window as the bus took us from the city. It was an extremely quick transition from masses of humanity to rolling countryside hills and water filled fields. I was mesmerized looking to see how different everything was from the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I heard the whispered exclamations of the Europeans several seats behind me. "Mon Dieu, C'est Fantastique—C'est tres beau!" The woman had a lovely voice made more so by the Parisian accent. I snuck a peek back at her. She was beautiful. I noticed the large diamond wedding ring on her hand wondering if I could have such a beautiful wife if I could afford such a giant gem.

An hour later, the bus made its first stop at Juyong Pass. One moment we were winding through green hills looking at farms and villages and the next we were pulling into a huge parking lot and seeing the serpentine architecture of the wall winding up and away in two directions. It was breathtaking. It seemed to go straight up and just kept going on and on as far as the eye could see.

The bus came to a stop and the woman who was conducting the Chinese tour showed me her watch. It was 9:15. Then she wrote on her hand 11:00 AM. "Ni dong?" You understand? She asked me. "Wo dong." I felt like I had learned the right thirty or so words of Chinese—I just wanted to know the meaning of laowai. I heard her going through the same routine with the French couple but decided to avoid the tourist formalities of introducing myself, finding out who they were, and exchanging the "where ya been, what ya dones?." It was a sort of expected thing that white people should meet each other in China because there weren't too many of us. Overall it was an annoying custom to me, who hadn't come to China to meet white people.

So I bounded out of the bus, bought the ticket that allowed me to climb the wall, and started up the huge stone steps. I had less than two hours to climb and come back down the wall and I didn't want to waste any time. Ours had been the first bus of the day to get there so there was no one on the wall. I looked up and could see empty stairs all the way to the top. It was a long way.

Top was sort of a subjective term anyway because the wall went on for miles and depending upon which section you were on, the elevation varied quite a bit. I picked out the highest guard tower. I would have to pass three other tower sections in order to reach it and I wondered if I would have the time. I figured an hour going up and that left forty-five minutes to get back down.

Five minutes into the climb my leg muscles began to burn. The steps too were giant. Each one a minimum eighteen inches tall. Some of them were more than two feet tall and less than six inches wide. I developed a sidewise stepping action and began to zig zag up the wall using a crablike motion.

Fifteen minutes after I began I reached the first guardhouse. It was only then I looked back down the immense number of stairs I had climbed. Others were climbing the wall now, they were far below me, but I could recognize the coats of the French couple steadily climbing. A fierce competitive streak burned in me and despite my already aching leg muscles I pushed on, focusing on the next landing, and then the next, and then the next—seeing the second tower getting closer with each series of steps completed. Refusing to look behind me for fear that someone was going to catch up with me and pass me.

Slightly more than thirty minutes had gone by when I reached the second tower. An armed guard boredly looked at me as I huffed and puffed past. I chanced a look down and saw that the Europeans and most of the Chinese had stopped at the first tower. They were sitting, taking pictures, and admiring the only manmade artifact that can be seen with the naked eye from outer space, but from the ground. A few figures trudged further up though; getting closer to me each moment I rested. I cut my break short and set off again.

The distance was shorter to the third tower, but the steps were steeper. My lungs gasped for air as my hands on my legs attempted to ease the frightful burning that occurred each time I lifted them for another huge step. I took frequent breaks during this section and noticed that some of the Chinese were catching up to me and the Europeans had started to climb again. I pushed myself harder. For some reason I felt that I had to be the first to the top today. It was as if I thought the wall would only allow the first person to climb it each day to achieve the hero status I so desired. I would be a hero. I would be the hero.

At the third tower I checked the time. Fifty minutes had gone by. I had fifty-five minutes to climb back down and make it to the bus. My tired body told me it was a good point to turn around. The view was stunning. The Great Wall of China stretching serpentine along hilltops for scores of miles. I snapped a photo of himself with the wall in the background. I looked down the steps where two young Chinese men had nearly reached my resting point. They would keep going past me. They would pass me up. I had to keep going. The climb to the fourth tower seemed less steep than the last section had been but a little longer. The fourth tower was the highest I could see. If I reached that tower, I would be able to claim hero status. I had to go on. I looked down the steps again and saw the Frenchman nearing the third tower and his wife watching from the second.

I didn't understand this competition I had placed myself in with the Frenchman, but I had to win. The other guy didn't even know he was competing. Well, maybe he did. It felt like he was trying to get as far as me. I didn't mind that, I just needed to be first.

So I set off again. My mind and body wanted to turn back each moment. I checked my watch over and over again realizing I had passed the one-hour mark and should turn back. It wasn't much further though. An hour and five minutes. Almost there. An hour and ten minutes. Just a few more steps—and suddenly I was there. I was at the top of the Great Wall looking down at the massiveness that is China. Wondering which side of the wall was meant to keep the Mongol hordes out and how many men had stood in this spot before me. From here I could see the dozen buses that now filled the parking lot and the hundreds of tourists who trudged up the mighty steps like ants far below me. I was the first. I was the hero. And as such I felt magnanimous towards the Frenchman who had reached and passed the third tower and was midway to the fourth. I wanted to share this moment with someone who could understand. I wanted to keep it forever and I realized that by my being at the top when the Frenchman arrived, I would be keeping the feeling from the man who now carried his coat and had a scant thirty-five steps to go before reaching hero status. I decided to share and even though I would have liked to rest a moment more, I began to vault down the stairs two at a time so that the other man could enjoy the feeling I had just been reveling in. "How was eet?" the Frenchman asked in English.

"C'est fantastique mon ami. C'est fantastique. Au revoir." I leapt down the mountain hoping I would be in time to catch the bus. I passed the man's wife who after a brief rest was continuing on. Not far behind her a Chinese man with a video camera nodded at me and said rather breathlessly "You verry fast"

"Thanks" I continued on. It only took me twenty minutes to reach the bottom. Fifteen minutes after that, the Europeans came down and wandered up to where I was smoking a cigarette.

They stood nearby drinking water and catching their breath as the man with the video camera reached the bottom of the steps. He came up to me and turned on the camera. "Why you climb so fast?" he asked in pretty good English.

I grinned. "Laowai fast. Laowai first."

The man laughed and shut off the camera. "You know meaning of laowai? You speak Chinese?"

I shook my head no. "Just a little... what's it mean? Laowai?"

"It mean like old white ghost. You say old white ghost first. Fast old ghost." The man continued laughing as he walked to the placard describing how the Chinese government had invested such a large amount of money into rebuilding this section of the wall and filmed it so his friends could read it too.

As the rest of the Chinese from the bus reached the bottom, they would speak to each other and point at me. The words they were saying sounded complimentary. They pointed to me, smiled, and said serious sounding words. The way they looked at me, I felt a little like a hero.

--Excerpt from Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond by Chris Damitio. Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond is available at or by special order at bookstores worldwide. Chris Damitio's Rough Living.... Free chapters, great links, reviews, photos, and more Can you handle Rough Living?

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