by Carla King Asleep on the Wall
  Beijing's economy has grown rapidly since the handover of Hong Kong from Britian and the re-instatement of Beijing rule to the whole of the country, the first time since the Opium Wars. Many of its residents had grown rich, buying cars and drivers licenses. Imagine a city filled with newly-licensed sixteen year olds. Traffic is gridlocked with them and the thousands of bicycles and pedestrians. The only way to negotiate the streets is to drive on the sidewalks or down the wrong side of the road, anywhere clear of traffic. White-gloved traffic police on large pedestals in the center of intersections ineffectively signal stops and starts, rendering their function merely decorative, an evaluation they surely wouldn't appreciate.

Beijing is about the same physical size of Belgium, with 11 million inhabitants obstructing our way at every opportunity. It took the group of us -- seven motorcycles -- to completely escape into the clear blue Indian summer sky. The high mountains of Inner Mongolia were visible to the northwest, stark and raised in spiked brown peaks over which lie the territories of the dreaded Barbarians.

Beijing is roughly the same physical size of Belgium, with a population of over 11 million, about a million over Belgium's total. Belgium's population growth rate is 0.11%. China's is 0.93%. Source: CIA World Factbook

Only ten percent of China is aerable and farmland stretches right up to the feet of these mountains, not wasting a crevice as it follows the countours of the flatlands. Now, in October, the peasants are busy harvesting, and use half the road as a drying surface for yellow corn.

The Russians reverse-engineered the WWII BMW to create the Ural and the Ural Manufacturing Plant in Irbit, Siberia at the foot of the Ural Mountains which was far enough away from the action to be pretty safe from the wartime activities. The first ones rolled off the line in 1942 and they've been making them the very same way ever since. But this is what I've heard about the Chang Jiang... that the German's sold the actual factory mechanisms to the Chinese when they were finished making the BMWs, and the Chinese simply took over the manufacture, albeit with lower-quality parts and machining. Unlike the Russians, however, the Chinese have improved the bike over the years. I know there are a lot of other bikes that fit this category, the Dnepr, for instance.
The farmers sit in piles of it, the men, lounging, taking a break from furrowing the fields, and the women are busy separating the husks from the ears, piling the husks in the middle of the road, and the ears to the side of the road. Other women thumb the kernels off into neat patches of gold onto the black asphalt. Traffic, such as it is, drives around the patches and over the husks to help with the threshing. A farmer burns fallen willow leaves and twigs in his field, brown and furrowed already by a plough his donkey dragged through the dirt.

We rode on, higher into the hills, breathing deeply of untainted air and polluting the silence with the sound of seven Chinese sidecar motorcycle engines headed toward the wall.

The fields gave way to a lake and a road up against a mountainside, its gray granite cliff dripping with vines turning yellow and red from the season and the sun, rapidly setting now, three hours from Beijing.

The piles of corn gave way to piles of fat orange persimmons, luminous in the fading light. Amongst the persimmons were baskets of cream colored apples streaked with red, walnuts, pheasants in cages of wood-framed chicken-wire, and by the lake, tiny silver fish strung horizontally through their middles with string and hung to dry on a line like rows of metallic windchimes.

Beijing was made capital of the whole of China in 1267 under Khubilai Khan. Though the Forbidden City dates from this period, the buildings seen now are 15th century with later additions and alterations. In 947 the city of Beijing, then called Yanjing, first became a capital city - though only of the southern half of the Liao empire, ruled by the Khitan from Manchuria.

During this time the chair became a common household item, influencing the design of other furniture and style of dress. The Chinese were the only Far Eastern people to use chairs (and not mats) before modern times (source: A Traveller's History of China by Stephen G. Haw, Interlink Books).

We were racing the sunset, and the sunset won, so my first view of the wall was in silouette, a regular line along the mountain ridge that folded in close to the valleys but forever stretched on toward the desert of Mongolia.

Watchtowers appeared regularly along the wall in regular intervals as it twisted off into the distance and overwhelmed me with the enormity of the effort which I had not before realized. For the first time I thought about the carriers of the stone to the ridge, the strength required, the ingenuity, the tumbles and falls of people and stone back to the bottom, the injuries and deaths and the constant toiling. This, sustained for 4000 miles, was simply unimaginable.

We pulled up to a gate and were surrounded by villagers. I'd barely seen the buildings, low brick structures at the foot of the mountain. I sat shivering in the fading light while the Chinese speakers in the group negotiated with the villagers, what sounded to me a mess of nasal howling, along with some laughing, fake exits, hand waving, laughter, and more shouting. The language was ridiculous, all the nasal toning, the dramatic pitches high and low. Nothing could be made of it at all, not from English, nor French, nor from the little German and Dutch I knew. Understanding this would require starting over completely.

Chinese currency is called the yuan, and 1 yuan () = 10 jiao. Here's a currency converter if you'd like to see what a yuan is worth today. The whole deal ended up costing about $16 for all 14 of us, an all inclusive package of admission to the wall and permission to camp on it, portage of our things up the mountain, a boiled egg breakfast at dawn, and a promise from them to leave the souvenier hawking til morning. It was a deal both sides quietly laughed about, each sure that the other came from the stupidest part of their country.

On top of the wall at Jinshanling, I could have just time traveled to the era when Mongols threatened from the North. Round watch bays, unique to this section of the wall, hulk on the foothills where guards waited for approaching Mongolian troops, ready to send up a warning signal -- blue smoke made by burning wolves paws. It seemed absurd that we were pitching our tents here and nobody cared.

The Jiangs stir-fried lamb, onions, and green peppers on a flat-topped grill and offerred it from white paper plates studded with dollops of plum sauce. Rick contributed chicken wings and Pringle's, John and Susan brought barbecued ribs, Walter and Ursula grilled hot dogs.

 

Most people see the Great Wall at Badaling, only 50 km from Beijing and the best preserved part of the structure.

The Great Wall at Jinsanling runs through mountain peaks for for 7.5 kilometers from Gubeikou Pass, which was a strategic outpost between Inner Mongolia and Northeastern China.

We sat on one of 90 watch towers on this 13-kilometer stretch of wall. The watchtowers here are built at intervals of 100 meters except where the terrain is more complicated, and then they are even closer. This density is quite rare, but the defense here needed to be strong to protect the capital. There is even a shorter wall that protects the Great Wall at this key stretch, to further enhance the defense. It was the Ming dynasty. The Mongols had been ousted, and the Chinese had reason to be paranoid.

After dinner, I fished through my pack for the bottle of aged Kentucky bourbon protected in a layer of bubble wrap amongst the camera equipment, and put my hand on a velvet bag. It was a selection of duty-free Giredelli chocolate bars I'd forgotten I'd bought, to go with the bourbon. These treasures gave me momentary status as "most popular camper" until the full moon burst over a far-away mountain to wash us in its cold white light and send our thoughts centuries in the past.

Between swigs of bourbon there were silences filled with the awareness of a place that holds generations of souls. Soldiers and slaves, peasants and princes. A place of nightmares and sweet dreams.

The old woman gave me an extra inked gourd as a gift. It's stem is elongated and I had shaken it and laughed before I put it back, only glancing at the inking, which seemed badly done. The artist has drawn a large cup-like leaf on one side, in which sits a woman. The circle drawn around her head marks her as a deity, and the other end of the leaf stem trails off and connects to a flower which must be a lotus flower. On the other side is drawn a man with a very fat belly who is standing in the clouds with a sheaf of wheat in his hand.

Sleep comes and goes. In the middle of the night I crawl out into a moonlight so bright that the zigzag of wall takes my imagination to the Gobi Desert where it ends abrubtly in the sand. But here there is a watchtower at the apex of each hill, a square silhouette in the weak gray light. To reach the last one I would have to walk for hours in the night, through dark passages under each watchtower and along crumbling stones in a still cold air as dry as ice.

My bootheels click against the pounded earth surface and the sound seems to echo all the way into the craters on the moon. I continue walking until I cannot see the tents any more and then I notice that there is perfect silence. No nightbirds. No scurrying rodents. Where are the animals in China?

In the morning I walk the wall again to take a photo of our tents. From my vantage point I see the villagers approaching approached camp, bearing the promised boiled eggs and souveniers, and I walk back to meet them.

Adorned in "I climbed the Great Wall" sweatshirts they gently press me to buy gourds inked with romantic scenes of ancient China, and cheap ceramic necklaces scratched with symbols of long life and happiness. I study the gourds for a long time, selecting them carefully. The scenes are full of myth and romance. A long-eared pig-man dancing with abandon. An offerring to a goddess. Two women in robes, their black hair piled meticulously into three bundles, one atop the other. There is one gourd with a handle, badly etched but unique in shape. I shake it, laugh, and return it to the bag, much to the amusement of the toothless old one.

In the end I buy more than a dozen each of the necklaces and gourds and the old toothless one smiles and holds up the gourd with the handle. She rattles it at my ear, and then pushes to my breast. Yes, I have paid too much.


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