At the great wall

I am back again in my room at the campus of Peking University. It's Sunday morning and I can hear the birds in the trees outside -- and what I now recognise as the sound of distant construction works. Construction never stops here. In China, work like that doesn't stop for the night or the weekend. In Xinlong, at the observatory, in the forest, we often passed a derrick drilling a well to bring fresh water from deep underground. Drilling continued all day and all night, making a clanking, grinding noise which could be heard all around the observatory. In the morning, returning from our observations, lights still burned on the drilling platform and through the trees we could see three or four workmen wrestling with heavy machinery or leaning against the derrick and watching the drill bit slowly spiralling downwards. In the corner of the clearing I could see a small green tent, and nearby, clothes were strung out on a line. Did they sleep here? If they slept here, how did they sleep with the unending noise of the drilling?

Yesterday we did not return directly to Beijing - instead, we went first a little further to the north and south, taking us to Great Wall - note the capital letters. Over the past ten days, during my arrival in Xinlong and last Monday during our excursion to the Qing tombs, we could often see sections of the wall around us on distant hilltops, some of it restored, some of it crumbling and showing the passage of time. But on Saturday, we drove (or rather we were driven, by once again our gracious host, who had never yet visited that section of the wall) to Jinshaleng, where there is a very large section one can walk -- more than four or five kilometres of total length I think, although we only walked a fraction of this. It is quite remote, around two hours from Beijing and consequently there are far fewer people than on the more heavily frequented sections like Badaling, where most buses from the capital arrive. So it was a real privilege to visit there.

We arrive at the parking lot at the foot of the mountain at around midday. Despite the supposed remoteness of the location, we find that the parking lot is already full. A cable car takes us to the wall; the cars advance with maddening slowness, swaying slowly in the breeze, trees below scraping the cabin. A trapped fly buzzes angrily in our cabin for perhaps fifteen minutes, but there is no way to open the window. We can hear people talking on their mobile phones in cars passing in the other direction.

Then we arrive, and jump from the cabin. Leaving the platform, I see the wall from close at hand for the first time: not only is the nearest section only a few hundred meters away, I can see both to my left and right sections disappearing down into valleys only to rise up again on more distant hilltops even further along. The wall continues across the mountains until it merges with the distant misty horizon, always tracing the crest of the hills, following the steepest path imaginable, continuing on. At each hilltop there is a guard tower of perhaps two or three stories in height, and it is one one of these guard towers which is our first direct contact with the wall.

Through the northern windows of the tower we see the rugged hills disappearing into the distance. To the south, the same hills, and near the southern horizon sunlight through the clouds picks out a shimmering distant lake -- this, I am told, is the main water reservoir of Beijing. Here at the wall, the sky is overcast although an occasional patch of sunshine slides across the hills. There are a fair amount of people at this part of the wall, so we continue to walk. We don't have enough time to walk the entire four kilometre length of this section so we will turn around after one hour and head back and retrace our steps.

After walking for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, there are already far fewer people. Here there are long, straight sections of the wall where we are almost alone with the exception of or two locals trying halfheartedly to sell us "tea coffee beer". Standing there on the wall I am reminded of Angelopoulous' film "The hanging foot of the stork", a film about frontiers and borders. Imagine, says a character in the film, I stand here on this bridge, a bridge on a river dividing two countries, and I raise my leg on the border line, in the middle of the river, the centre of the bridge: where am I? Where am I indeed. We walk further along the wall, up the steepest steps I have ever climbed in my life, and I think the same thing as Angelopoulous' character, here on this wall separating civilisation from the outer darkness. At the highest point, a kilometre from where we arrived, I can see the wall extending far into the eastern distance, merging with the horizon. I wonder how it must have been to be here in the darkness of night six hundred years ago, surrounded by this desolate and empty countryside. I see the soldiers eating their noodles, drinking tea and straining to hear sounds or distinguish shapes of against the darkened treeless hills. Fearing the arrival of intruders.

Suddenly, it seems, it is time to return, although we have no particular desire to leave the summit of the mountain where it is quiet and peaceful. We retrace our steps, leaving the further western reaches of the wall unexplored. It will have to wait for a future trip. The return to Beijing is uneventful, although almost half of our journey seems to be spent crossing the endless sprawling expanse of this vast city, roads thick with traffic, people returning from vacation and weekends. Far in space and time from the frontier lands we visited only hours previously.