thoughts on the Great Wall
The Great Wall snakes across China for thousands of mountainous miles. It’s accessible to travelers in several locations, and I count myself fortunate to have walked on those ancient stones twice. But as I read the account of a recent visit by my nephew, I developed a bad case of traveler envy. Whereas I had visited the wall both times at Badaling, Mike had trekked the wall at Jinshanling, twice as far from Beijing and far less overrun by tourists.
“ …the wall is built on top of the rugged and jagged green mountain ridges … looming imposingly large,” Mike wrote. “… [this] remote section of the Wall … was nearly deserted on this overcast but fine Chinese morning. … [I experienced] a sense of disembodied disbelief … the vast distances and ancient toil involved in creating these fantastic relics to human history is as surreal as the remote, serpentine work of art itself. … Traveling done right gives you a buzz of epic proportions.”
Compare that to this very different story I had written two years earlier, in 2013, as I reflected on my second visit (the first had been 14 years before) to the Badaling section of the wall:
“ … the road leading to the entry gate, which … in 1999 boasted only a lonely tourist center and sparsely stocked souvenir shop, had morphed into a bustling pedestrian mall … Walking on the wall was more of a challenge this trip than last, not so much because of the characteristics of the wall itself … but because of the hordes of visitors. … We soon found ourselves resorting to what our guide had told us was the Chinese way: When stuck in tight quarters, push!”
Reflecting, as Mike did during his hike, on the wall’s long history? The vast distances? The ancient toil? Hardly. Jostled by chattering tourists rushing to reach some (but what?) destination, I was too busy negotiating jagged steps while swept along by a crush of humans in a hurry.
Until reading Mike’s story of his hushed hike along the wall with a small band of compatible companions, I had told myself I was fortunate that on my first visit to Badaling I hadn’t been rushed along shoulder-to-shoulder from one living logjam to another. During the earlier visit, in fact, I had managed to stop along the way and appreciate the history I was standing in. However, comparing Mike’s current photos to the ones I took in 1999, I realized Jinshanling now is actually less crowded than Badaling had been 14 years before.
Distance from Beijing and slower restoration work at Jinshanling accounts for some of the difference in the appeal of the two sites. Still the contrast was jarring. Moral of the story: No matter where you go, you’re seeing only a slice of a place in an instant in time. No two travelers’ experiences will produce the same impressions.
Traveling changes the traveler. It makes you think and connect abstracts to reality. As I looked at the photos Mike and I had taken, I remembered my father’s opinion, expressed long ago, that the earth’s major problem would become over-population. Curious, I looked up the stats on global population change. Here’s the mid-year population world-wide :
Rate of population increase in 2015:
Gives one pause, doesn’t it?
(For accounts of more of Mike's travels, click here.) October 28, 2015
Below: The Great Wall at Badaling, 1999
Below: The Great Wall at Badaling, 2013
In 1999, we were told the Wall was "crowded" because it was a holiday period in China. As you can see, the wall was much more populated during a non-holiday period in 2013.
(Click on photos to enlarge)
The Great Wall at Jinshanling, 2015