Hiking the Greatest Wall

By Claire Gault

Jagged in geometry as piranha teeth, over 3100 staircases in total lay before my skinny and sweaty 18 year old frame. We couldn’t wait to jump into the fish’s mouth, or what one would call upon a single sight The Great Wall of China. My group of 13 was entering the JuYongGuan gate, which lay north of Beijing in the Changping district. The tiredness from urban Beijing held us, but after a while, the jade mountains released us. This is where Meng Jiangnu wept, where the Silk Road was ferociously guarded, and where fortresses burned and lived past millions of lives. Each laborious step and each clank of my university water bottle was marked by tinny music, which slid down the stone handrails on the long way up.

And it was long. Longer than watching the clock in high school Chinese classes, longer than the endless metronome that kept bands marching in the Michigan sun, but mostly longer than the 18 years spent with my family. No one likes homesickness, and my jiao ao- like behavior of a youth led me to believe that ten weeks wouldn’t be much separation. That a wall listed as one of the Wonders of the World wouldn’t be much separation, but still, we kept climbing. Alongside friends from Michigan State, the ascent was improved by mutual groaning – either concerning Ethan, Mark, and Billy, who were determined to reach the farthest sentry tower in sight, or the observation that an elderly woman, a nai nai, effortlessly sped past us.

The first sentry tower smelled strongly of urine, and this is where one of our classmates decided to take a rest. Our friendships were partly conditional, with our choice to definitely keep walking. The dirt soaked air pervaded through the blue skies, and the sky really was blue if you set your eyes about 100 degrees to the horizon. I tried constantly to bring myself moments of clarity, moments not on a wall hiking with global tourists, but times where I could just see blue. The men and women in Chinese ancient history may have struggled with much more than college students, but seeing the Wall without the distant city pollution would have been even more incredible. We as people crave beautiful experience, and our group looked for natural stimulus everywhere while away from home. After a stop in a stone arched window and these musings, we continued our walk.

A dangling red fish from a pole waited for us at the base. The owner was our tour guide named ZhenLi or Lisa, an energetic woman that previously took Michelle, one of my good MSU friends, around the city in summer 2015. Even in China, we found familiar faces outside of our group. We thought of this often when we passed hordes of strangers, although the Wall wasn’t especially crowded that day. In my hometown of Rockford, MI, last name knowledge could connect to a swim team sponsor, American Legion center, or the local Rogue River fisheries stand. In China, a last name would usually be one of the ancient 100, with each having a unique meaning and context. My last name is “Gault”, having origins in heavily packed clay or snow. My friends used to make light of this name, but after hearing those in China proudly explain their family names, my travel group does likewise. Personal identity abroad is vital.

We continued our quest, steadily distancing ourselves from the front gate. I ended up struggling next to John, one of the senior members of the group. The well placed sentry-tower gift shop was about 50 feet away, and every lurch up the wall drew it steadily closer. We finally breezed inside the hot, stone shade refuge, and walked around, looking at the numerous tiny Buddhas, “hero” certifications for having climbed thus far, and multicolored woven souvenirs. After buying water and ice cream we took a seat outside, by Mary, Kelly, and Linda, taking up as much shade as we could in the high altitude and humid heat.

As an 18 year old woman struggling to find her place in China and at home, hiking a wall seems to help with the journey. I felt air ripped out of my lungs, to be restored in time at a much higher altitude. This happened back in Michigan as well in a less literal sense; through marching band and freshman year at MSU, this sense of breathlessness was and is felt often. In times of stress, we can feel like a big fish in a river gets away, with futile attempts to reel it in. By climbing the Wall in Beijing, a realization came to me that a fish isn’t caught through impatience and tears. Even a newly arrived adult like myself has the ability to wait, has the ability to admire, and even change the sight of the Wall from a pirahna to a shimmering goldfish.

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