By Chris David Damitio
I woke up early and caught a taxi to Tiananmen Square. The sun had yet to rise, but the pre dawn light was bright enough to show thousands of people doing Tai Chi exercises in an eerie slow motion.
I looked out at people of all ages moving slowly. Some had swords, some had brooms, and some simply walked backwards with careful precision in an attempt to shed some of the negative karma they had gathered by walking forward in life each day.
As the sky lightened, the benevolent face of Chairman Mao looked down upon the people from where it was painted on the outer wall of the Forbidden City.
A flag platoon marched out with perfect timing and precision. As the Chinese national anthem began and the flag was slowly raised. It was easy to believe that China was the master of the world as the ceremony unfolded in the city of giants.
As I walked through the square to the bus terminal, I was approached by dozens of vendors selling everything from postcards to the gaudy Chairman Mao lighters that lit up and played the Chinese music. Nobody at the bus station seemed to be going to Simatai. All the special tourist buses were going to Badaling. I might have guessed it would be like this. I’d asked one of the many English speaking art students where I should go to get a bus to the Great Wall. She brought me there and told me to come back in the early morning. I should’ve known she would point me to the section most tourists went to.
The buses left at 8 a.m. and I waited until 7:45 before resigning myself to seeing the “new” section of the wall. The important thing was to get to the wall and climb it. I had to do that if I wanted to be a hero. That was what the art student had told me. She explained that Chairman Mao had proclaimed that any person who wanted to be a hero must climb the great wall. Every Chinese Emperor, Sun Yat Sen, and Chairman Mao himself had all climbed the wall.
And now, as soon as the tourist bus got me there, I would climb the wall too. I felt silly and serious thinking it: I would be a hero.
The bus finally filled up. An hour later, the bus made its first stop at Juyong Pass. The bus came to a stop and I bounded out of the bus, bought the ticket that allowed me to climb the wall, and started up the huge stone steps. I had less than two hours to climb and come back down the wall and I didn’t want to waste any time.
Top was sort of a subjective term anyway because the wall went on for miles and depending upon which section you were on, the elevation varied quite a bit. I picked out the highest guard tower. I would have to pass three other tower sections in order to reach it and I wondered if I would have the time. I figured an hour going up and that left forty-five minutes to get back down.
Five minutes into the climb my leg muscles began to burn. The steps too were giant. Each one a minimum eighteen inches tall. Some of them were more than two feet tall and less than six inches wide. I developed a sidewise stepping action and began to zig zag up the wall using a crablike motion.
Slightly more than thirty minutes had gone by when I reached the second tower. An armed guard boredly looked at me as I huffed and puffed past.
The distance was shorter to the third tower, but the steps were steeper. My lungs gasped for air as my hands on my legs attempted to ease the frightful burning that occurred each time I lifted them for another huge step.
The view was stunning. The Great Wall of China stretching serpentine along hilltops for scores of miles. I set off again. My mind and body wanted to turn back each moment. I checked my watch over and over again realising I had passed the one-hour mark and should turn back. It wasn’t much further though. Just a few more steps—and suddenly I was there. I was at the top of the Great Wall looking down at the massiveness that is China. I was the first. I was the hero.
It only took me twenty minutes to reach the bottom. As the rest of the Chinese from the bus reached the bottom, they would speak to each other and point at me. The words they were saying sounded complimentary. The way they looked at me, I felt a little like a hero.