Having gone to Beijing again and seeking to present a wilder, or at least #adventuring, way of living, of course I wanted to head out to the Great Wall. And not any old touristy part I had seen before, but one of the wild parts.
1: Must (You) See?
By the descriptions, the Jiankou section of the Great Wall sounded like just the place to see, as well as a great chance to finally do some adventurous running/exploring again (other than the one through Beijing parks that is adventuresome only in terms of air quality and traffic, and exploratory only in terms of all the pastimes one can see people perform.)
At the same time, this being China, it being the beginning of a new year, me not really knowing anyone around here, I wasn’t so sure I really wanted to go. Parts of the Jiankou Great Wall are so particularly exciting and interesting because they are outright dangerous, but being in the last weeks before my return home, I wouldn’t want anything happening… and this is not a place to have an accident.
Decisions, decisions… and they lead back to a typical problem all about at-home-ness:
A big part of making oneself at home, I feel, is the necessity to snap out of the collective illusion that certain places, and only certain places, are worth visiting much more than others, mainly by virtue of their being heralded as such places.
You know that feeling. You go to visit a place, you make a list of the sights everyone talks about, you have heard of, and you’re sure you must go and see.
That is what I think of as the tourist view, the way of life that just skims across the surface of things, notices some exotic or otherwise extraordinary aspects, but doesn’t delve any deeper. It just ticks off the places to go – but why exactly?
The other half of the challenge, however, is to not become so familiar with the idea and existence of places both extra- and ordinary as to become inured to them.
You probably know this feeling, too: You live in a place, you see tourists visiting the must-see sights, but you don’t really feel that there’s anything quite so special about them. Once you have gone past the most marvelous of sights a thousand times, simply on errands, it’s difficult to stop and still see it as marvelous.
So, there aren’t necessarily any must-sees, but see (and see anew) we must.
2: Impressions and Images
The Great Wall, as it snakes across ridges into the distance, is impressive anyways.
In a place like Jiankou, where the landscape is more ruggedly impressive in its own right, all the more so.
It is sure to make for great impressions. We being as we are, we will also want to take pictures to bring images back home with us, not just impressions – and there it gets interesting again.
Photography can immerse one further, seeing and exploring things more deeply. Or it can keep one adrift on the surface of an experience, looking for the right light and angle when it would be better to just be there, in the experience of the moment, rather than trying to capture it.
It all leads right back to all the above issues:
Must you see, or can you step back from the perceived need to snap shots of everything? How interesting are the photos you can take when so many photographers have been there, in every light and every kind of weather, in all seasons, so that it seems as if every conceivable – and more beautiful – shot was done?
Will you just go when everything is to be seen in the harsh light of the plain day or seek out the magical hours when the light is softer? What about the opposite time to our normally active times, from sunset, with the stars, to the sunrise?
Talking of other light at other times, do you take snapshots at the mercy of your camera or do you – can you? – take photos that combine the capabilities of your camera and skills of your own to achieve the best-possible result?
This remains one of those paradox issues that we need to get a grip on, as they are what makes for a live really lived.
We can be thrown out of the experience of the moment by reaching for a camera – or we can be plunged deeper into the scene, seeing it through the third eye of the camera lens.
We can get a more indelible memory forgetting about everything but the flow of moving and deeply feeling a part of the land – but we can also deepen the experience through photographic projects. Developing better pictures, to the best of our skills, can be a very technical process, but it can also help re-live the experience. And of course, having pictures to jog one’s memory and share impressions with others can also be a very nice long-term result.
Themes like this do not have easy answers; one has to try and find one’s personal preference. And shift it.
3: Endurance and Exploration, Skill and Safety
It’s obvious, of course: if you want to explore, even if only your neighborhood, you have to be able to move and keep moving.
In the middle of sedentary lifestyles and supposed cultures of motion that are really cultures of transport, where the constant movement is not so much of one’s own power but by machines, however, this obvious theme is often forgotten (unless it surfaces in the extremes of body and fitness cults).
Not moving so much, physically and actively, breeds weakness that makes movement more strenuous and less rewarding, and so it goes… or it goes into a spiral up to better (with a need to avoid overdoing it that way, too), where more fitness leads to greater fun leads to greater fitness.
A trail – or here a path on the Great Wall – moving up and down constantly definitely requires quite a level of fitness and endurance. There were quite many people there on that glorious day, fitness comes in all sizes and shapes and genders, but it is not for the weak and inactive, even so.
Add that the ups and downs often require scrambling and sometimes approach the need for outright free climbing, consider how a few cliffs make detours along paths that are more or less well-marked necessary, and it’s not just endurance that is necessary but also some skill that is highly advisable. You better know how to climb rock/wall faces and have the experience that makes it more fun than frightful…
4: You’ll Never Be Chinese
Going to a touristy place like this (even if it is a less-visited one) serves as a reminder that you are still a foreigner, and you will always so remain.
As a person with a non-Chinese face in China, you are the exotic one.
As a consequence, I overpaid the usual foreign tourist price (for the ride to Xizhazi, the best village to go and stay for exploring the wild Great Wall at Jiankou), and if I wanted to feel bad about that, I easily could.
It makes it more difficult to feel at home in China, which is not the easiest place for a non-Chinese, anyways. (Hence, why I asked Jocelyn of “Speaking of China” how she’s doing with that – read her reply here.)
The more interesting experience, though, was just how nice many interactions were.
Sure, there was many a surprised look over my foreign face out there, some laughter over a let’s-try-to-say-“Hi” that got a “Hi!” back – but there were also many mutual greetings, some more words exchanged, whether in Chinese or in English.
One noteworthy interaction when it comes to English, and to outdoors sports:
“Yes, you too?”
Not that it’s much, but it’s been fun to see older Chinese keep up the habits of doing stretching or dancing or Taijiquan or other things in the parks and go out for evening strolls along country roads, and it’s at least as interesting to see younger Chinese get into running, and even discover hiking and ultramarathons/skyrunning.
Absolute favorite, of course, was the interaction with three students who had camped out on the wall, and with whom I spent the second day and the return journey… Not only did it make the return easier and cheaper, it also made for great Chinese speaking practice – and there, there was little of any feeling of great differences and un-familiarity, but a simple understanding of shared interests.
5: Do As You Please
It’s something I’ve also been noticing with the running in Beijing: Chinese contemporary society is a very odd mixture.
Many a social more and custom is very strong, and doing (and perhaps even more so, speaking) things differently is frowned upon. “Everyone knows” (a favorite phrase of students I taught before) how everything in life has to be, because that’s just how it has to be.
At the same time, though, there is a certain (and very strong) liberal streak.
If you go out running in jeans or hiking on the Great Wall in everyday clothes and carrying your handbag (yup, I did see a woman like that), you do that.
If you wear running tights and move fast because that’s your thing, then you do that.
Oh, sure, if you look somehow out of the ordinary, you will be looked at and you may find yourself or your things be discussed. (A kid on the wall was amazed how much faster than he and his parents I was, and started on a little discussion of how that may have been due to my running tights and how much faster he might be if he had anything like that ;) ).
It may be a good lesson for everywhere, I find:
If you want to do something, but find yourself unsure about it, you can find excuses for not doing it only too easily.
So, even as good living takes some balance and compromise and responsibility to not go overboard or into outright stupid behaviors, as long as it’s not something outright stupid and irresponsible you want to do (and of course, definitions of that vary), it can be a very good idea to just not give a sh*t and do it.