“Do you know what Wan-Li means?”
I looked back at him blankly as he took a long drag out of his cigarette. He was wearing a faded orange t-shirt with oil stains on it; his denim was torn in a couple of places above his thigh. He had walked straight up to the counter of the hostel bar and picked up a towel from one of the cabinets to wipe his face and rub his short coarse hair dry. His wet rubber shoes squeaked as he walked.
Though it was raining heavily, he had been outside working on his bike. I had seen him working as I ran inside the hostel as it thundered down heavily.
Now here he was, sitting in front of me, quizzing me about The Great Wall of China.
“Wan means 10000. Li is half a kilometer. They call it the 5000 kilometer long wall. Wan Li Chang Cheng!” He continued.
Similar to what some our bosses might mean when they say, “You are not getting promoted in a million years!”, Wan Li is actually used figuratively to mean immeasurable.
In 2012 however, after four years of laborious investigation and calculation, the Chinese government declared the wall is 21000 kilometers long. This figure included the main wall, all the side walls and trenches built under various dynasties.
To put this in perspective, if you were to travel from Srinagar to Kanyakumari (India) by road, the total distance will be somewhere around 3600 kilometers.
They call it The Great Wall for a reason.
His name was Mike and he wore many hats in the hostel. He was the driver and picked up guests from the Beijing Railway station and airport. He cleaned the hostel rooms. He attended the bar when the bartender bunked work. He repaired the ancient air conditioners which seemed to break down more than often. In the morning he went to the market with his coworkers to buy stuff for the hostel kitchen. Every Sunday, he led a tour to the Badaling section of the Great Wall.
I had signed up for his next day’s tour.
Over the next two hours, Mike told me about various stories surrounding the wall. He got me interested in the stories so much in fact that I would found myself reading more such legends on the internet late into the night.
“6 am tomorrow at the reception.” He told me, with a wide infectious grin, as he left that night.
Thankfully, the rain had reduced to a light drizzle as we gathered around the main gate early next day. A quick dumpling breakfast at a nearby eatery followed by a cup of strong coffee had cured the slight hangover I had woken up with. There were eight of us apart from Mike and the driver; a couple of Spaniards, a Danish (who was also my roommate), a couple from Hong Kong, an Australian and an American.
Mike was his cheerful self as he announced that we will be hiking 8 kilometers up a section of the wall that is not frequented by many travelers. He would repeat this several times during the day, to the level of mild annoyance. He and the driver shared a cigarette as we got up on the bus.
We drove through the city on our air conditioned minibus as Beijing slowly woke up. Seeing the city without the crowd or the noise was refreshing. The narrow streets around Beijing’s traditional houses, popularly known as Hutongs, were full of activity. Vegetable vendors seem to be having a busy day already dealing with the bargaining residents; elders sat outside on the porch, reading newspapers, chatting and lighting up their first smokes of the day.
A loud screech of microphone brought me back to the activities inside the bus. Mike announced that we were two hours from the Great Wall and that we can catch some sleep, if we wanted to.
“It is going to be a tiring hike.” He smiled and turned off the microphone with another loud screech.
I tried to sleep but couldn’t. Seeing Beijing through the window seemed a much more enjoyable thing to do. Plus the coffee had kicked in.
“I’ll try to take a nap once we drive out of the city” I told myself.
Once we were out of the city, the excitement grew to the point of restlessness. I found myself frantically counting down minutes till we were on the gates of the wall.
Legend #1: The Story of Meng Jiangnu
During Qin dynasty when the wall was being built, commoners were summoned by government agents and made to work in construction sites. The work involved long hours, staying away from family and horrible working conditions. Afraid of being called in to work on the wall, a man named Fan Xiliang went into hiding. He hid in different places before coming upon a private garden. During his time in the garden, he fell in love with the garden owners daughter, Meng Jiangnu.
Not long after their wedding, the government officials caught hold of Fan and sent him to the construction site. Meng waited for months; she couldn’t sleep and constantly worried for his safety.
Finally she decided to visit the construction site Fan was working in. When she got there however, she was told Fan had died many weeks ago and his body was built into the wall.
She cried and cried and cried. She cried so much in fact that the Gods felt sorry for her and they collapsed the part of the wall (Yes, the Great Wall!) where Fan was buried so she could say her final goodbyes and give him a proper funeral.
Couple of hours and a few dizzying naps later, the screech of the microphone pierced through the chatter of the bus one more time. Mike announced we were almost there. The weather was nice and cool. We were driving through winding roads; in the distance were beautiful green hills. The light drizzle continued but it didn’t look very threatening.
On our left, Mike pointed out, was the gate where most tour groups begin their tour/hike.
“We are not going there. We are going to another gate which is not visited by other groups. Less crowd. Less Salesmen. Less shops. Less noise….”
I could actually hear everyone rolling their eyes in unison.
Give it a rest already, Mike!
And then, just as I was thinking of going back to my book, I saw it. Veiled partly under the clouds was the solid rock structure, winding up the hill like a mammoth snake.
“See that!! That’s the Great Wall of China.” Mike announced excitedly. It was amazing that despite leading hikes on the wall every week, he was still just as excited as we were.
At the gate, as we stretched in preparation of the hike, Mike shared his views on the wall.
“If I was the emperor I would not have built this wall. I would have fought the Mongols”
As weird as it may sound, at that moment I did agree with him. Building the wall needed serious efforts and sacrifices. 500000 common everyday people were involved in construction of this wall. A majority of them died while building the wall and their bodies were built into the wall. Rocks, stones, wood and other materials were brought to these mountains from different parts of the ancient Chinese empire. They did not even have the modern technology that we have today. 300000 soldiers were posted in different towers along the wall.
The Great Wall is literally made out of blood, sweat and tears. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just guard the borders and fight off the Mongols?
But then, their sacrifices didn’t go to waste. It still stands as a symbol of the will and grit of ancient China. If there is one structure that truly is a wonder, it is this wall.
The Great Wall of China.
Legend #2 The Story of Jiayuguan Pass
The story goes that Yi Kaizhan, a workman who was proficient in arithmetic, calculated that it would take 99,999 bricks to build the Jiayuguan Pass. His supervisors told him that if his calculation was wrong he along with other workmen will be punished for three years.
After the construction, it was found that the one brick lay unused behind the Xiwong City gate. When asked, Yi Kaizhan said that the brick was kept there by supernatural force and the brick, if removed, will result in the collapse of the wall.
The brick was never moved and it can still be found at the exact same spot!
We began the hike, 4 kilometers up and 4 kilometers down. It may not sound like much, but for people to whom going to the gym is as ancient as ancient China, trust me, the 4 kilometers climb up on the Great Wall is a very big deal.
Thankfully, the weather was on our side. The cool wind caressed us as we climbed. An hour into the hike, the Spaniards and the Hong Kong-ers had disappeared up the wall. Mike, the Australian and the American were left far behind. The Danish guy, Calle, and I reached upon a tower where we decided to rest for a while and take some pictures.
White clouds flew over the hills, obstructing the view of the distant sections of the wall. Mike was right. Apart from our group, there was no one else on this section of the wall.
“This is hard.” Calle said, in his thick Danish accent, as he sat upon one of the windows of the tower.
I nodded, unable to even say “yes” out of fatigue. Taking pictures was just an excuse to rest.
“I thought I was fit. This is a reality check.” I finally said, after I drank some water.
Calle laughed and nodded.
After about fifteen minutes of rest, we decided to climb up further.
“You know we have to come back down too, right?”
Legend #3 “Metal Soup” Great Wall
General Cai Kai was put in charge of constructing the Huanghuacheng section of the Great Wall. Emperor Wanli, however, was not happy with the cost and time it took to build that section of the wall. They had the General executed.
Later however, they found out that the Huanghuacheng section of the wall incredibly strongly built. Regretting the General’s execution, the emperor decided to build a tomb and memorial stele in his honour.
The emperor had two characters “Jin Tang” (Metal soup) meaning “solid and firm” engraved on the face of one of the rocks on the wall.
We finally caught up to the Spaniards. The cool breeze soothed us as we sat down on the steps of the wall. The inclination was taking the breath out of us. In the distance, we could see Mike and the rest slowly heading our way. It was unreal to think that large rocks, boulders and other materials were brought up there on carts to construct this wall. The terrain seemed so hostile and tough.
As tired as we were, we couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the incredible beauty that surrounded us. The chaos of Beijing seemed like a distant dream as we sat on the wall where archers had once stood to protect their country from invaders. I felt lucky to have walked on the same soil that the warriors had once guarded and fought. Unlike the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids, the Great Wall was not built on the whims of the kings. It was built to protect the country. It served a greater purpose. It is hard not to respect that.
As far as we could see up ahead, the wall went on, slithering up the impenetrable hills. I found ourselves sitting in isolation in complete silence and awe as clouds flew through the mountains, bringing into view distant sections of the wall. There is no better testament of the grit, ambition and courage of the human race than The Great wall.
The legends and stories about the wall are countless. It seemed every brick, every breeze had a story to tell.
Sitting there, feeling the cool mountain air, with miles and miles of the Great Wall and insurmountable mountains in every direction, one cannot help but feel insignificant.
As the French writer Gustave Flaubert once said..
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”