By Navita Nauth
A sound dinged overhead and the pilot announced the plane was cleared for landing. After two months of filling out tedious and repetitive paper-works, waiting on long lines for my visa, and making over $3000 in payments, I still could not believe that I was really here.
The plane descended faster now. I could tell because the change in air pressure affected my ears. The plane turned to one side and then the other after a few minutes. I could see the night sky through my window; the city lights glimmering just below. The lights were getting closer by the minute.
There was a final push forward and we were on the ground. The tires screeched as they touched concrete. There was a hard break and I was pushed back into my seat. The plane started to slowdown until it came to a steady pace. The pilot announced, “Welcome to Beijing.” I arrived a few minutes after 12 a.m. Thurs Jan 3. Despite all of my preparations and the 16-hour flight, it still felt unreal to be in China.
I gathered my book-bag as I rushed to put my jacket and hat on. I retrieved my duffel bag from the overhead bin and exited the plane. I came to China to learn about its history through a study abroad program, but I was honestly not sure what to expect. I was one among 60 students who were just as curious at being in China for the first time. I waited on line for about an hour to see the immigration officer and then I was off to find my suitcase. It was another hour until I reached the hotel, and by that point I was tired and groggy. I was only able to sleep for two hours.
That same morning, we left the hotel at 7 a.m. We were going to visit the Great Wall of China. It took me a while to wrap my head around that fact because the Great Wall was something I had heard of only through my history classes or TV. It is one of those marvels that you always say you want to visit, but don’t know if you ever will.
The bus ride to the Wall was not too bad either. The tour guide, Mark, was entertaining. He was a scruffy looking guy. Mark was below average height for a guy; I was about the same height as him and I’m 5’4’’. He had smooth black hair that hung a bit in front of his eyes and creamy yellow skin. He wore a cobalt blue bubble jacket and black slacks with sneakers.
He was friendly and didn’t talk us to death by explaining the history of the Great Wall in every intricate detail possible. Instead, he pointed out important monuments here and there as we were driving and told us stories about China. When he got tired of talking, we took a nap.
A few minutes before we arrived, Mark said there is a tradition in China that says a person does not truly becomes a man if he does not climb the Great Wall. That got my attention. I wondered if that custom applied to women as well.
I noticed the mountains outside my window. Each one was covered with trees in hues of green and brown, with evergreen trees scattered across in blotches. Each mountain curved into the other. The taller mountains almost touched the clear blue sky.
As we drove closer to the site, I saw there was something that snaked along the tips of some of the mountains. It was barely noticeable. I had to squint to see it from a distance. I realized that it was the Great Wall.
After straining my eyesight for a minute or two, we arrived at the tourist spot at the bottom of the Wall. The only thing I noticed, however, was the bitter cold wind. My fingers became stiff after a few minutes. My cheeks felt prickly and my ears started hurting from the chill. I wore a vest, a thermal, a sweater and a jacket with my scarf, hat and gloves, yet I shook from the freezing wind.
But despite the icy atmosphere, I felt awed because here I was, standing at the foot of the Great Wall. I was eager to climb the wall because I secretly believed the story Mark told us on the bus. But then I noticed that the Great Wall was not exactly a wall; it was more like a very long and steep stir case.
The clay bricks were patchy, with pieces missing. There was an ancient feel to the place, even though I passed a gift shop stand on my way up the stairs. Mountains surrounded the stairs; the same ones that I saw earlier. Walking up the stairs literally took my breath away because as I started climbing it became harder to breathe.
My knee would bend at a 90-degree angle at random intervals to climb the steps. Some steps were inches apart, while others were at least a foot apart. It was like a built-in cardio workout during my climb. My lungs hurt and my nose burned to breathe in the dense cold air. I took periodic breaks, so that I wouldn’t faint from light-headedness. By the time I reached the top of one of the stair levels, I was bent-over panting for breath.
I rested a little for five minutes, and then took my gloves off. I touched the brick wall because I wanted to touch history. I stayed there for a while to take in the view and the fact that I was standing on the Great Wall of China.
The journey going down was just a difficult. I was afraid that I might slip and fall from one of the uneven steps. By the time I reached the end, my cheek and toes were numb; I could not feel them. I stopped shaking because my body was frozen. By 3 p.m. we were ready to leave. As the bus left the site, I was thankful for two things. The first was that my body was able to thaw and the second was that I was able to have this experience.