Fifteen years ago today, I sat on the Great Wall of China and pondered the journey I was setting out upon — 61 weeks by land across Asia, from China to Turkey. To commemorate the anniversary, I post the following excerpt from my unpublished manuscript about the journey:
Sitting alone on the Great Wall at Simatai, sixty-five miles northeast of Beijing and half a world away from home, I traced the meandering of the Great Wall with my eyes. It twisted up and over the autumn-colored ridges until, finally, it vanished completely beyond the horizon. I, too, was embarking on an extensive westward meandering. Somewhere in the distance were windswept mountains, raging rivers, vast deserts. There were urban slums and affluent neighborhoods. Somewhere were strangers who would welcome me, one who would rob me, and children who would take my hand.
From the Great Wall, of course, I couldn’t see these things just yet, only the horizon beyond which they lay. All I could tell for sure was that Asia was vast, almost impossibly vast, and that it was an anvil over which I would be shaped. I could see this from atop the wall, not in the way I could see the stones and tourists and cameras around me, but in the way one sees things that lay beyond sight, in that place some call faith. It was there that I hoped to journey.
I got up and walked along the wall for almost an hour until I had escaped the tourist-congested section closest to the parking lot. Finding a quiet place, I sat down and took in more of the thought-provoking view. Four thousand miles long — greater than the width of the continental United States — portions of the Great Wall were constructed as early as the eighth century B.C. Five hundred years later the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, in an effort to protect the newly unified nation, connected the series of separate walls into a single structure. Centuries after that, the Ming dynasty, fearing Mongol invasion, extended the wall even further. The final product — what I was sitting on now — was a stunning feat of engineering. But I thought it a shame that one of the wonders of the world is a wall.
Many ways exist to measure a journey — miles, months, passport stamps. But now another measure came to mind: walls traversed. Today the Great Wall stretches out like a slithering dragon across the landscape, tourists riding its back, and it keeps no one at bay. What a wonderful thing for a wall to have become: a defunct barrier-turned-tourist-attraction. Walls are sometimes necessary, but so is the effort to hurdle them. For when people are separated from one another by barriers of our own making — whether physical, ideological, religious, or national — healthy relationships are impossible.
Few stories illustrate the wall-breaching value of travel as well as Mark Twain’s account of Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi. Through adventure and conversation, a white boy and a runaway slave came to develop a sort of friendship, something that wouldn’t have been possible had they stayed put in their normal situations in life. Like Huckleberry Finn and Jim’s nineteenth-century drifting down the Mississippi, backpacking through distant lands in the twenty-first century is to journey into a complicated world of divisions and prejudices. Both journeys hold the possibility of getting lost and being found. Both are ways of living on the edge of society, of escaping it as a means to discover what it is missing and what it could be — or maybe even what it has possessed all along that for some reason you couldn’t see before. Both are movements beyond black and white and into a shared humanity. Both take you not only to scenic viewpoints; they carry you beyond the horizon itself, where transformation awaits and where you may even discover why you left home.
I would have liked to have stayed on my perch all day, but my driver hoped to return to Beijing in time for dinner. So I took a final look at the wall and descended the trail to the parking lot, where I brushed past the souvenir stalls and quickly found the van. The driver raced us back to Beijing in silence, speaking only when we detoured around a fatal motorcycle crash.