Drop me off a Chinese wall.
Peel my fingers off the rim.
We trusted our hired driver, who piloted his car north from the blind smoggy blankness of Beijing. The car was, like us, a western import and our driver spoke enough english to act as something of a tour guide. North of Beijing, however, there simply isn't much to point out. The very fact of a Chinese highway is interesting enough in itself to pass the ride.
There were rough roadside analogs to things you might see driving through the rural US. Filling stations constructed mostly out of crumbling cinderblock and spanish tile; gas pumps sprouting from dirt. Snack stands hawking white dumplings which steamed in the January air. Yes, kids leading oxen. This is suburban Beijing.
Further north, into the hills, the road is dirt and the people more sparse. Regardless, this is tourist country even if it is the off-season and the locals watch our passing car intently from deep inside their tented coats. More cinderblock shelters, handpainted. Cars on blocks in the front yard are an international language.
Up and around through the twists, we can see the Wall looming on the mountain ridge. Our driver parks us in a paved oval at the base of the mountain. The parking lot is clearly large enough to accomodate several tour busses and a fleet of autos, but we are the only people there. The Wall is a long way up a steep mountainside, but the only strenuous climbing involved is walking the rough path up to the ski lift. The vendors we pass are starved for customers, and call after us in vague english as we puff our way up the incline.
They fire up the chair lift just for us. No line, no waiting. Simply pile into the orange gondola. My father is afraid of heights, and sits stiffly as our glass-bottomed carton swings out of the station and up, bobbling on a thin wire of braided steel. He's been working in China for over a year and, sadly, knows a bit about the general state of maintenance for things mechanical. I, in my giddy ignorance of potential plummeting death, snap photos of our ascent.
We pour out of the lift at the summit and there, out the back of the station, are simply stairs up onto the wall. And there we are. We are walking on the Great Wall of China. Alone. Ancient stone under new snow under my (probably) Chinese-labor-made boots. Bitter winter wind tears at us, but my counterfeit North Face jacket prevents total hypothermia. We crunch off, along the snake, seeing what we can see.
I run my hands along the rough rock, creating a tactile memory of where I've been and what I'm doing. It's my habit around historical construction, or famous geology. Bits of my skin are left behind, and I take fragments of the attraction with me. I peer through the loopholes, imagining marauding Mongols pouring up the mountainside. The truth about this thing is that the whole mountain is the Great Wall. Imagine a plundering army roaring down from the north; not only must they struggle up an entire mountain, then they must overcome a giant wall and soldiers stationed thereon. Assuming they're successful, and assuming they don't die in later raids, they're forced to cart whatever booty they can grab back over the accursed thing. The Great Wall of China, at its essence, is psychological warfare.
My dad decides to strike out ahead, nearer to where the Wall crumbles away, to explore. I capture a photo of him, tiny and colorful, on the crest of a hill out on the wandering line. My stepmother stands in a guard house, silhouetted against what small amount of daylight filters in through the tiny door. We slip and slide our way up, down, along stairs, and back to where we started.
There is one other man on the wall; spiritual descendent of the Qing guardsmen. He sits at a folding card table, selling souvenirs. We are the only people he's seen all day, but he remains professionally cool as we pick through his pins and postcards. I buy a pin to prove to the rest of the world where I've been, and a postcard for a girl back home. "Yeah, baby... I've been to the Wall". My parents haggle in their limited Chinese and, not for the first or last time, I feel like a mute moron.
Back to the chair lift and, of course, it's out of service. My father heads out to a promentory to try to get reception for his cellphone, the better to tell his office he's either going to be late or completely stranded. About an hour of locked bathrooms and unmanned, locked refrigerators later the winch starts up again, and we're off floating down the mountainside. The Wall has barely noticed our visit.
Off the wall and down the path, we are set upon by rabid t-shirt vendors. They bar our path and will not let us through without looking at their goods. I bought a t-shirt with mysterious Chinese characters on it which almost certainly translate to "gullible American tourist". It cost about a dollar.
Our driver had passed the time playing dominoes with the underworked trinket vendors. He smiled as we stamped down the path and went to start the car. "How was it?" he asked us, his long, white teeth visible from gum to blade. We enthused appropriately in the substance-light way you converse with those unfamiliar with your language.
We roared off back to Beijing, and there was so much to see along the way that I fell asleep.