On the way out of town to see The Great Wall, we stopped at what are now the remains of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Staging the Olympics, showing the world China’s prowess as a world leader, was a major plank in the country’s economic plan for the new millennium. It led to massive new building projects, and none were more spectacular than the Bird’s Nest stadium where the opening ceremonies were held, the aquatic Water Cube for swimming events, and the dragon-headed office tower with its tail of three more buildings that dominates the skyline.
You can find all three landmarks still standing on the Olympic site – and little used. The bird’s nest is too big to open for anything but spectacular events. The demand for platform diving competitions has waned. And the office tower––still tagged with the IBM logo on top––is said to be operating at less than 20 percent occupancy because it is one of the most expensive office spaces in the city.
Street vendors hawk cheap paper kites to visitors stepping off the tourist buses. We walk across the open plaza taking pictures of ourselves in front of the iconic buildings. Off to the side, there is a set of smaller sports arenas used for the Asian Games, and still in use by local sports teams. But the Beijing Olympics themselves are a memory cast in concrete. The dance of 1,000 swirling silk bearers lives on in our imagination (and on DVD), but no one wants to look too deeply into the billions of yuan that were spent to make it happen.
Symbolism Over Substance
That is the case with many of China’s landmarks. Whether it is The Forgotten City or Qianmen Street or Tiananmen Square, the symbolism is often more important than the substance; and that is never more true that when you are talking about The Great Wall of China.
Let’s get some facts out on the table so we can debunk them one at a time. The Great Wall is 4,000 miles long, give or take a couple thousand miles. Legend has it that it was built to protect the Chinese empire from the Mongol hordes and manned by intrepid sentries who huddled high up in its towers waiting to send smoke signals at the first sign of an invading army. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and you can see it from space––a claim that predates any human ever going into space.
The wall does indeed cover a lot of ground, but it is hardly contiguous. The first segment is said to have been built in Xi’an––1200 miles away––in 210 BC by the first emperor Qin Shi Huang. Other portions are credited to the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are places where the stones are fairly well persevered; and other places where the wall is the backside of a fort guarding a small village, or a long mound of dirt, or it doesn’t exist at all.
It’s better to think of The Great Wall as a string of fortifications across China that in times of war protected various cities, and in times of peace kept the sheep from wandering away. Can you see it from space? Please. I once heard a PR guy say the same thing about the fireworks at Disneyland. Can you see the face of the man in the moon from earth? You can see anything you want to see if you look hard enough.
A Great Photo Op
To say The Great Wall is not the seventh wonder of the world doesn’t diminish the fact that thousands of laborers put in countless hours building it––especially in the 1960s when Chairman Mao decreed that the 3.5-mile portion at Ba da Ling outside Beijing should become a national park.
Once a skeptic who advocated reusing the bricks for people projects, Mao changed his tune when he realized the wall’s symbolic value. “He who has not climbed The Great Wall is not a true man,” he once declared. But there are no pictures of him standing at the top.
Ba da Ling is one of three areas near Beijing where you can officially visit the wall. We know it in the United States because that is where all the recent presidents have gone. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama. Standing with Chinese leaders at the foot of The Great Wall is one of the great photo ops in history––and I can show you just the spot where they did it.
The road to the wall cuts through farmland once rich in fruit orchards that are now rapidly turning into suburban malls, office buildings and more apartment complexes.
When we turn off to go to the park entrance, I see a sign for a new Tradewinds Resort and a farmer’s field with eight cranes standing ready to break ground. There is a ski resort nearby and little vacation villages all around. At the foot of the wall, there’s a mini-mall of shops and craft stores, even a Subway sandwich shop.
The Reluctant Tourist
I’m there reluctantly. Did your guess? I’d rather have spent my last day in Beijing wandering the streets. But there were Christmas cards to be made so we cross a bridge over the mall to begin our ascent. The path is crowded with tourists, all bearing cameras and taking pictures along the way––as if each stop might be their last.
It is an arduous trek, but park officials have graciously provided a handrail for the exercise challenged. Every ten yards, there are cutouts in the wall where you can imagine legions of soldiers standing at the ready with crossbows or boiling water to pour on the heads of the invading armies. Where they get the water beats me. There are little watchtowers spaced along the route. But none are large enough to hold more than a dozen men.
The higher you climb, the more you can see of the majestic mountains and the wall ramparts snaking their way up and down the mountainside. Which leads to my next question: why would an invading army climb over this treacherous terrain when they can just go through the valleys? There is no record of any battle ever being fought at The Great Wall. The one time it was breached, the invading Manchus bribed the Chinese commander to open the gates so they could pass unmolested.
My companions were hell bent on getting to the highest watchtower (and taking a selfie). But at the second to last resting point, I saw a roller coaster ride down and bought a ticket. Now, that was fun! They strap you into a sled in a chain of cars led by a driver who presses on a hand break to slow down for the curves. The ride lasts about five minutes. It ends in a carnival of souvenir shops, food vendors and still more photo opportunities to get your picture taken on a live camel or feeding tamed bears.
Unfortunately, the carnival is about half a mile away from where our bus is parked. So after choosing between signs pointing to the “farmer’s parking lot” or “park entrance,” I walked back to the lodge to drink cocoa and wait for my friends.
While I was sitting there, I imagined myself a Chinese tourist coming to America to see the cherry tree at Mount Vernon that George Washington chopped down or the huddled masses at the foot of the Statue of Liberty yearning to be free. It’s all about the symbolism.
I can’t say this was the best collection of souvenirs I found on my trip, but I walked away with a snow globe of The Great Wall and felt like a true man.