129. Climbing Walls

Climbing Walls: After Mongolia, Amy and I made a brief stop again in Beijing to hike one of the less touristy sections of The Great Wall, some parts of which might still be better described as The Great Souvenir Stand. Refreshingly, the quieter, more remote sections of the wall outside of Beijing deliver mightily on the World Wonder promise. It really is a serious climb at times, hand over hand, nearly vertical, and it was pleasantly treacherous to pass through those rough sections that haven’t been reconstructed, left instead in their wild and crumbling state. The Wall also turns out to be a comedy goldmine, especially when you’ve just finished climbing a particularly grueling incline, past all sorts of innovative defensive doo dads, and someone, gasping, mentions again that bit about Genghis Khan bribing a couple of guards and walking through the front door. Everyone was duly impressed anyway, though there was lots of competition in our group to name some better walls. Garrett from Dublin won handily.

Garrett: I’ve seen better walls.
Me: Pink Floyd albums don’t count.
Garrett: Ok, I know at least one better.
Me: I doubt it.
Garrett: No no, I’m serious. There’s this wall behind my house and if you can get over it, the bus stop is like right there. Saves you fifteen minutes walking.

So we were in good company for the hike. We were also, it turns out, in celebrity company, as we walked for four hours with actor Josh Hartnett without realizing it. At one point, I even sat next to him and noticed that he and I were wearing the same sunglasses. Seconds away from saying “nice sunglasses,” I heard the crap that he and his travel companions were talking and decided he was an anonymous American idiot. Turns out he was a famous American idiot. Amazingly, Amy didn’t recognize him either, despite all those years of celebrity training with Us Weekly and People Magazine subscriptions, so she unknowingly took some hilarious pictures of me cluelessly fussing with my camera while he walked behind me (inset). Should have known the minute he started using a spare, slim-fit white undershirt as a scarf. Who does that? Of course, once she did realize who he was – only after we saw him posing for photos with two other, more vigilant tourists – she spent the better part of the afternoon taking sneaky pictures of him. Later she would salaciously zoom in on these pictures while saying things like, alllllright…celebrity crotch.

Celebrity sightings and Pretty Big Wall jokes aside, we also had a few really nice “we made it” moments here. I suppose it was namely because, on the train back to Beijing from Mongolia, we shared a cabin with a lovely but weary American couple from Seattle who were also attempting a year abroad. They’d had a memorable six months across Eastern Europe before promptly hitting a not-so-great wall; they were utterly exhausted with the grind of budget travel and starting to plan their early return to the States. Their admitted undoing was simply in taking on too many places in too little time. They also tried to live in Europe on something like $30 a day which (and I don’t care how many free museum admission days you avail yourself of) is pure madness. We’ve known all along that a crowded itinerary is a setup for the kind of fatigue that sucks every moment of joy from travel, so we forgave ourselves again those long, deliciously unproductive weeks tendered on tropical beaches in Malaysia and the darkened pubs of Ireland. I suppose we’ve known that those decisions were probably our best, but it took a couple of deep, semi-fresh breaths from the top of one of the world’s most recognizable ancient monuments to really bring it home. We made it. Almost nine months. That feels really good. I suppose it is a pretty great wall after all. Top five with a zip line, anyway.


  1. erin says:

    I’ve always wanted to see the great wall of china…and you were there….with a b-list movie star. How exciting! Beautiful picture, I am already telling people I took it over the weekend.