By Laura Bowden
Today started much earlier than I would have liked, waking up only a little past six and heading across the city to Shaohan’s house, which is much larger than the 17th floor apartment that I’ve gotten used to. We then traveled a few hours outside of the city, watching as the sky scrapers turned into trees. We passed farms that were cut into tiers on the side of the mountains, and I did not envy the workers who were in the intense heat rather than the air-conditioned bus we were driving in. Finally, we made it to the Great Wall. Well, we didn’t make it to the actual wall, we had to find several banks, none of which actually gave us money, and then find the bus that would take us to the wall. The bus was crowded, but nothing compared to the subways in the city. We made it to wooden bridges and staircases, all of which were new since the entire town surrounding that section of the wall was made in the past six years, but it looked as authentic as any of the other historical sights we’ve seen. The bridges and staircases were far too long and too strenuous for my liking, causing me to be winded by the time we actually got to the wall.
The wall was, of course, beautiful. There were mountains and a dam just below us, but I only saw the landscape when we stopped for breaks, anything in-between was focused on not slipping. I complained more than I’d like to admit. Every few seconds I claimed that I was dying, and I’m surprised no one decided to push me off the side of the mountain, it would be a much more serene journey without my constant whining. Finally, we made it to the first tower, the only real shade we encountered the entire trip up. We stopped for a little bit, just long enough to take pictures and rest. Then we climbed to the next tower, only three more until we were at the highest point of the mountain, but it would take us almost an hour to get there. We ate, I complained, and then we left. The steps from there on were harder than the one’s we had seen, they were uneven, some of them only an inch or so tall, hardly even a step, others were nearly a foot tall, and I had to jump to be able to pull myself up. The sides were sometimes too tall for me to comfortably reach, and others too small to even be considered walls. By the third tower I was so tired and sleep deprived that I convinced myself that everyone was speaking french rather than Chinese.
Finally we were reaching the final tower, the steepest by far. On some places there weren’t even stairs, just a steep incline that was terrifying to walk on. At some point, I can’t remember which tower we were approaching, I saw something that looked like blood and I looked away, assuming it was my imagination, when we reached the bottom Dr. Liu told us that someone had fallen and gotten scraped up an hour or so earlier and the mystery was solved. It was a miracle I reached the top, climbing a ladder to get to the final tower and looking over the wall. It was beautiful. I instinctively reached for my water bottle, and suddenly I remember what Mr. Fritz told us a while ago about people who were building the wall. Sometimes they would have to climb to the bottom to get water, other times they would have to carry a bucket all the way up the mountain. People died of course, and then their family members would have to take over their responsibility of building until their sentence was over, this would go one until the sentence was complete or there was no family left to carry it out.
Just imagining them carrying the rocks and building the steps was hard enough, but the worst part was going down. The steps were all declining and it took all my focus to not slip, trying to ignore the pain in my knees and think about all the others who have climbed. I thought about the girl we passed on the way up wearing heals and a dress, the children who weren’t even breaking a sweat, but mostly I thought about the poor souls who were forced to build the wall. I now understand why it was called the longest grave yard.