Everyone has a dream. My mother’s was to go see the Great Wall of China at least once in her life. It was a dream she had been nurturing for years but one that hadn’t come to fruition until I went to study in Tokyo and she and my father came to visit.
Japan was the closest to China she would ever be so we took our shot and booked tickets to Beijing. The dream was off to a rough start as my parents
landed first after a turbulent flight before they got to a car driven by the nastiest taxi driver they had ever met, who they assumed was cursing at them throughout the entire trip to their hotel. China on paper glass was quite different from real life China but that wasn’t enough to dampen their enthusiasm.
They were much more accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the capital city when, two days later, us three and a friend of mine from college tried to find our way to a local bus going to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Locals were yelling at each other all around us, buses were coming and going from every direction but that was a background we had grown immune to, although I for one wasn’t immune yet to the staring straight at my face.
No one lifted their head though when we got into the bus to the Great Wall. A local guide took the mic as we were leaving the bus station and she never stopped speaking for the length of the trip, although not a soul seemed to listen. Had I been speaking Chinese, I probably wouldn’t have listened either only to let the excitement build slowly, fostered by images of the iconic Wall I had seen many times before in movies and I had imagined countless times more.
The Wall came to us inconspicuously, looming over the road on a hill far remote. The further we drove, the closer it got and the bigger the impression. It felt familiar and astounding at the same time, exactly as I thought it would be and yet so mesmerizing.
My mother and I couldn’t take our eyes off the Wall until we got to the Badaling gates and that was probably for the better, considering we didn’t expect the entrance to look like a cheap wannabe theme park. Salesmen were running their businesses on each side, selling squids on a stick and other items such as a strangely paired photo of Jesus and Mao. Even more out of place were a couple of brown bears sitting idly in a cage, looking none too pleased to be there or just plainly bored.
Things got out of hands when we missed the cable car to the top and instead, found ourselves sitting in some sort of pulley cars straight out of a distant path. Visiting a world wonder sure was quirkier than ever! The pulley cars did their job right nonetheless and took us to the top of the hill, where the Wall only began to reveal itself in its magnitude.
My mother was ecstatic, taking pictures and videos for her future self to remember what it felt like to fulfil a dream she had held long before I was even born. Somehow, she had probably passed it on to me over the years as I felt equally euphoric. The Wall stretching for miles and miles like a dragon’s back brought back something from my childhood too, when I watched Mulan over and over again. It meant something different for the both of us, a mix of nostalgia, achievement and awe. To the many Chinese visitors walking up and down the Wall, it probably meant a sense of pride in their history and perhaps even a sense of common identity.
I was lost expanding on these abstract thoughts when reality came knocking some sense out of me. It took me a while to understand what was going on as an older woman had just popped out in front of me and was waving her hands in the air, trying to tell me something. That was, until she repeatedly uttered the word “photo”. I nodded not to seem rude and her friend took pictures to her heart’s content.
That set a trend for the remainder of the visit. If I was trying to get my friend to take a picture of me, someone would spring up right in front of the lens. If I was befriending a couple of stray cats, which was a bad idea to begin with anyway, a guy would come to me to get his friends to capture the moment. It was done in a matter-of-fact kind of way, which was a little disconcerting, but in such a good spirit that I could not take against them the awkwardness of the whole situation.
As we progressed further on the Wall, the crowds got thinner anyhow. The path had gotten much tougher too, with so many steep ups and downs that the casual walk it had started out to be turned into an epic hike. Fortunately, there was almost no one left to see me struggle to even go down, clenching tightly the handrails in the middle of path to try not to collapse all the way down.
The stairs got the last of us eventually as we reached ones that were so vertical we couldn’t even see the first steps leading down below, unless we got to the very edge of the platform we were standing on. That brought down the curtain on our visit for the day but we didn’t forget to store away all our bewilderment on the way back to the pulley cars.
We bid goodbye to the sad little bears in their cage, the salesmen and the tourists, all of whom seemed insignificant comparing to the Wall standing there for centuries. My mother and I took one last picture and hoped we’d be back again. Yet, even if we weren’t, we could proudly remember that we had lived the dream, seeing the Wall with our own eyes.
It was a wonder to feel such awe and fascination from bricks and stones. And it was proof, if need be, that it wasn’t mere bricks and stones but a place to keep moving and inspiring people the world over, like only such timeless buildings could.