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Written by: Danny Spitler

06 July 2002

I could hardly contain my anticipation for Monday’s tour.
There were a couple of stops scheduled along the way, but the day’s bus ride was going to conclude at The Great Wall of China. I was fairly sure that this would the highlight of the trip for me.

We fought our way through the Beijing Monday morning rush hour to the outskirts of the city where we made the mandatory factory stop. The Chinese guides are required to take us through a number of factories with an accompanying store where we are always given ample time to be separated from as much of our yuan (Chinese currency) as possible.
This stop was at a Jade factory. The factory was strictly for show as the retail part of the building was 30 times larger than the tiny factory, and you were a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of Jade figurines. They ranged from tiny little jade figures to huge complex pieces of ocean going ships carved in intricate detail.

This was our first exposure to the Chinese retail sales philosophy. If you expressed the slightest interest in an item you would immediately find yourself approached by a tiny, fresh-faced sales girl. She would bow respectfully and say; “You like?” If you made the mistake of asking how much the item cost then this petite little salesgirl suddenly transformed into the toughest used car salesmen that you could ever imagine. I have bargained in Mexico and Thailand, but the Chinese have taken the process to a whole new level. After 45 minutes of Jade overkill we all stumbled back to the bus lugging our packages and feeling like a bunch of shorn sheep.

Our next stop was the Ming Tombs, which included a stroll up the Sacred Walk. This is a quarter mile sidewalk lined with gardens and trees. It is guarded along the way by dozens of large statues of lions, camels, and elephants, followed by statues of soldiers. The funeral processions started in Beijing and finished at the Sacred Walk, which led to the entrance of the tombs. From the entrance there was still a short drive to one of the actual tombs all of which were placed at the base of a mountain range. Each tomb is actually a small city of buildings and gardens, and the emperors’ coffins were buried deep within the mountain. Those who placed the coffin were then killed so no one knew how to find it. How is that for a severance package?

We only visited one of the tombs where we viewed some relics. Some of the displays were reproductions since the originals were destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. We learned that many treasures of ancient China were destroyed during this period. Our guide tried to be subtle, but I could tell that he was disgusted by what had been done by these government sanctioned marauders during the 70’s.

About 45 minutes after leaving the Ming Tombs we caught our first glimpse of the Wall. Just looking out the bus window at a small section high above on the ridge of a mountain sent a shiver up my spine. For the next several miles we could see sections of this amazing structure snaking around the tops of the mountains. Jon Jin gave us a running commentary about the history of the wall as we anxiously awaited the opportunity to jump off the bus and stand on it.

It was 2:30 when we arrived at the most popular tourist spot along the wall. This is the place where Nixon had visited on his historic trip in 1972 followed by a whole array of other dignitaries in the ensuing years. We fought our way through the souvenir stands and handed our tickets to the guard at the gate. As I placed my Nike hiking boot on the first set of steps another shiver climbed up my spine, and I practically leaped up a flight of stairs to the first view point.

I was standing on the wall looking up at the most photographed section. It was at least a mile and a half to the uppermost point and there were many sections that looked like they were practically a straight up climb. I was looking at well over 1000 steps, and a significant change in elevation. I took several deep breaths and prayed that the last eight weeks of weight training, stair climbing, and treadmilling were going to be sufficient.
It was almost 3:00, and we had been told to be back at the bus at 4:15. I was standing next to Don and Marie. Don appeared to be in pretty good shape and was staring at the wall with a determined look. I had bumped into Marie both mornings in the weight room and she seemed to know her way around the equipment. The rest of the group was milling around the landing taking photos and gaping at the amazing structure stretching endlessly across the mountaintops.

Don and I attacked the first set of steps at a quick pace, and we didn’t stop climbing for the first 150 steps. By the first landing my calves were screaming at me and the first beads of sweat were starting to drop off my forehead and down the middle of my back. Less than a minute behind us Marie arrived red-faced but looking determined. As soon as the leg pain subsided we took on the next flight. There were plenty of other tourists on the wall, but it was wide enough to accommodate all the walkers without slowing us down.

With each increase in elevation the views changed and additional photo ops appeared. While catching our breath on one of the landings Brad and Chris struggled into view.
I was impressed that Chris was pushing herself so hard after hearing the story earlier about her thirteen knee operations. We all began pushing each other to keep going and eventually we arrived at what appeared to be the last major set of stairs. These were formidable. There were over 60 steps, all very steep. In fact, they appeared almost vertical. Descending walkers were coming down slowly and hanging onto the guardrails.

All of our shirts were soaked with sweat and the legs ached terribly, but there was no thought whatsoever of quitting.
I asked Marie how she was doing. She replied that she was tired, but then added, “I didn’t come half way around the world to wimp out now.” I began humming the theme song from Rocky, and we began the final climb trying to blank out the pain with the thrill of where we were and what we were accomplishing. Don reached the top a few steps ahead of me and Marie was less than a minute behind. Brad and Chris along with Dale and Janet arrived a few minutes later, and we all hammed it up for Brad’s video camera.
Soon we were surrounded by Chinese who wanted their picture taken with the sweaty Americans, especially Chris with her blond hair and blue eyes.

From this uppermost part of the wall we could see spectacular views in all directions especially to our right side where we could see the wall continue to snake its way across miles of mountain ridges. There was also the view downward back to where we had just climbed. After plenty of pictures and several minutes of exhilarated exhaustion we knew we needed start back down. With regretful resignation we started down, determined to continue and relish the experience all the way back to the waiting bus.

After our Great Wall experience we were all ready for an early night, plus there was packing to be done. We hit the hotel buffet, where I reminded the group of the “foreign county buffet rule.” The rule states that if you are at a buffet in a foreign country you are only to take on your plate those items with which you are totally unfamiliar.
In other words, if you know what it is you aren’t allowed to eat it. Later, after seeing the open markets and learning what all the Chinese do actually eat, I suspended the rule.

After dinner I walked around the corner with Brad and Chris to an Internet café where we all sent e-mails and then headed back to our rooms. After I finished packing I collapsed into bed with the thankful realization that, if the trip were to end at that moment, it would still have been well worth the price.