Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

A weekend on the wall

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I was breathing heavily. Vivid green bushes and granite rocks marked our way. The dusty track weaved up through the hill as we pounded on, making our way to the wall.

The horizons were not clear — sullied by smog. The air produced a chill that reminded spring of winter. Our party carried two tents, five sleeping bags, alcohol, water, and food.

We were three women: a Czech; two Chinese; and two men: a Brazilian and myself. We’d decided to go camping for the weekend. To take a trip outside Beijing, to leave the city behind.

The beginning

We took a bus from Dongzhimen central bus station, a location quite conveniently placed for all of us. We were on the bus for an hour or so while I chatted to one of the girls I’d not met before, whose English nickname is Onion.

We arrived at a town on the outskirts of the city where we were approached by a driver looking for business. We hired him and his minivan, asking to drop us off at a supermarket first so we could buy supplies. We were then driven to our destination.

The destination turned out to be not what we thought. It was supposed to be a scenic area with an emerald lake framed handsomely by tall triangular trees. But there was no lake. The area was called “fragrant-water lake” in Chinese but there was no water and there was no lake and what fragrance there was did not make up for this.

We were undeterred. We had lunch at a rustic restaurant. There was egg pancake, wild mushrooms, tomato soup, green beans with fatty pork, and aubergine. Lunch was good, washed down with a beer. It was cooked by locals with fresh produce at hand so everything tasted better.

They gave us some advice about the hills we were about to tackle, orienteering us. A couple in their 50s, veteran weekenders, warned us not to make a fire and of wolves that prowled the area. I made a note that if I ever saw one I’d make sure to get a closer look as it would be akin to seeing a yeti in the area.

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The middle 

We started our ascent, on a track that wound and coiled up the hill, leaving a brown trail through the stony hills which were covered in short trees and low bushes. Two of our party were weighed down with heavy packs, while another was just slow, so they toiled up. Onion and I went ahead. We paused midway, at an elevation of 500 feet or so, at a clearing with a few trees for shade. We took pictures and joked for a bit. Above us was the wall strung out on crests or drooping down cliffs with alarming forthrightness.

The wall was an obstinate statement upon the landscape, saying something that even now wasn’t clear. That’s the thing with walls: they might be concrete and solid but their message is always ambivalent.

We carried on.

We entered the wall through a doorway strewn with rubble. It was the first time I’d ever set foot on the historic landmark. In my three and a half years of living in Beijing I had never tried to visit the tourist attraction, the world famous monument of Chinese history and imperial grandeur. The closest I’d been was at the Great Wall Music Festival when David Guetta headlined and the wall was lit by lights, an innocuous backdrop to the revelry.

We made our camp on one of the towers, one of many that interrupt the wall, like the telegraphs that hold up electricity cables. The towers usually have two storeys and we set up our tents on the top, a square roof with sheer drops on two sides and window ledges on the other two.

“I didn’t know we would be at the wall again”, said one of our party.

“It’s my first time on the wall”, I said.

The others expressed amazement at this.

“At least one of us has got something from this trip”, she said.

As the sun began to sink below the hills I climbed. Up and up. The wall was much more rubble strewn than I realized and with small trees and bushes growing on it. The vistas were stunning, with hills receding into more hills, giant silhouettes against a pale horizon, and with a thin, hard strip of man-made folly along the contours.

It was beautiful but I don’t revere the wall. I don’t feel any admiration or love for it. It represents folly and a kind of politics that has no place in the modern world. It was built over centuries; long walls that eventually joined up in a haphazard way. Some sections are said to have been fortified with the skeletons of the workers who helped build it.

And it didn’t really help to protect China, to keep its borders intact and to keep out the “barbarian hordes”. A wall built over rugged hills that did not fulfill much function except to project imperial ambition. Still, you have to thank those long deceased government functionaries, I suppose, for creating something that you can visit on the weekend.

Evening lengthened into night. The moon showed a sliver of its silvery self but disappeared not long after. We lit a fire as the temperatures dropped. There was firewood stacked inside the tower. We ate our dinner seated on stones arrayed around the fire, drinking red wine and rum. We had speakers with an iPhone playing through it. We drank and later we smoked. We danced. We drank some more and ate some more. We gathered more wood. The room grew warmer and more homely as the fire burned on through the night.

**

I needed to pee. The cold and the hard ground was making sleep difficult. Stones jagged into my back, legs, neck, and head. Guess we didn’t clear the floor enough. Beside me was Onion and another girl wrapped in winter sleeping bags. I only had a light summer one bought cheaply from Carrefour. Adjacent to us was another tent and where slept the other two of our group, one snoring lightly.

I climbed outside and gingerly made my way across the tower’s roof, barefoot, across rocks and bush roots. I was careful not to go too close to the edge, where a steep fall would be the fate. I relieved myself and looked up. The sky was speckled with so many stars. More than I usually see. I finished my business and stopped for a moment. I took a deep breath and looked around. At our camp. At the hills and the tower we were on.

And at the far horizon where lights could be seen, more garish and obvious than the ones shining above me.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 18, 2016 at 5:18 am

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