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Monday, 20 August 2007

Learning Chinese While Hiking the Great Wall - Page 2

Written by Elizabeth Yeoman
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Years ago, there was a regular announcement in the New York Times classified section. "Learn five languages a year while striding for exercise, “it announced. That idea fascinated me; on the one hand, it seemed the ultimate in over-achievement; on the other, the thought of seeing the world by walking (though maybe not striding) and engaging with it in its own idiom(s) was just so appealing.

And some helpful and engaging Chinese history as well:

Ci Xi (the last empress) was quite a character! When she was young she was a beauty but she became a bit of an old bag when she got older. Anyway, she kept the emperor enthralled and happy so she must have had her ways. Legend has it that she had a bit of a fling with a laowai when she was young. He taught her how to give a big sloppy kiss. When she tried this on the emperor he thought it was awful (because they did not do it in those days), but when she tried again he liked it. By giving him lots of surprises she became his favorite concubine. When the old sod died she became the Empress Dowager.

Besides the laowai, she had another dally with a young man. She left him because she wanted to be a concubine. He was so broken hearted; that he had his bits chopped off and followed her into the Forbidden City to become her favorite eunuch. Now this eunuch was very good at his job, which was to keep the Ci Xi happy! But he grew ashamed of this, found faith, and became a very holy man.

Who could resist? I emailed Beijing Hikers and they emailed back, "we have a wild wall hike is recommend". They cautioned that the only guide available for the dates we wanted spoke no English. Perfect! So we set off to hike the Great Wall -- or at least a small unreconstructed fragment of it -- with Mr. Mao, a farmer who had lived all his life in the shadow of the wall.

chinaThe Great Wall is one of those places to see before you die. Though perhaps “place” is not the right word – cultural phenomena, historic site, icon – it is many things. Mao Ze Dong said, “In order to be a hero you must first climb the Great Wall. ”Richard Nixon fatuously declared that it took a great people to build a great wall. My mother in a letter the week before had written, “Have you seen the Great Wall yet? I think I’ve heard that it is one of the few things on earth you can see from space. I suppose it was all built by slave labor…” The wall was in fact the product of immense cruelty, cemented with the sweat and blood of its builders. Built to keep out Mongolian invaders, it didn’t work. Genghis Khan just bribed the guards to get past the gates.


These days much of it has crumbled or is inaccessible to all but the truly heroic or those who live nearby. A few spots, most notably Badaling, have been rebuilt very recently to provide access for tourists. Just think: tour buses, entrance fees, “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts and hordes of people. But there are still places solid enough to walk on, yet crumbled enough to be atmospheric, with relatively easy access, yet remote enough to avoid the hordes of people.

Following the complicated instructions written in English and Chinese by Huijie Sun of Beijing Hikers, we took the 916 bus from Dong Zhi Men station in Beijing to Huai Rou County. We were the only westerners on the bus and the ticket seller came back three times to check whether or not we really knew where we were going. We didn’t really, but Huijie seemed to think it was simple enough: take the bus to Huai Rou, get off at Mi Yi Zhong Xin (we thought this is some kind of meeting area though we weren't sure) and hire a car to the outskirts of Guan Di where Mr. Mao would be waiting for us at the T-junction by the sign board. I didn’t know how to say T-junction in Chinese and it wasn't in my dictionary so I hoped anxiously that we’d recognize it when we saw it.


The weather was dank and unpromising and we were both thinking maybe we should have just taken an organized tour to Badaling instead of trying to do this on our own. But we both have a phobia of being herded so there we were. Off to hike "the wild wall". In fact, this part of the Great Wall is so little known that my friend Liming, an avid hiker who lived in Beijing for several years, assured us that the Great Wall didn't go through Huai Rou county.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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