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BEIJING, China -- Sometimes you look around you and no matter how long you think about it, you cannot believe you are really in that moment of your life.
That happened to me today on a 4,000-mile structure that was built starting around 210 BC to keep invaders out of what today is the People's Republic of China.
I was on the Great Wall. I was there to run it, but for almost one hour I sat on one of the hundreds of thousands of stone steps, looking out over a gorgeous vista with a wall snaking for many miles, and I just gazed in wonder.
Sometimes I would look next to me at the earthen stones rounded by time and the one-inch crumbly mortar and try to get my arms around it. Dynasty after dynasty worked on this. Humans would live and then they would die, knowing they would pass this capability to be right here on to future generations, that one day their work would have lasting meaning and significance.
I love the Great Wall. I had such a hard time leaving it today. I knew that the last time I looked back at it, it would probably be the last time in my lifetime I would see it. This is my story of the Great Wall Run, 8/17/08.
5:15 -- Wakeup call from the front desk at the Jingmin Hotel.
5:45 -- In the back of a taxi (20 yuan) to take me to Desheng Men station, where I catch the 919 bus (12 yuan) to BaDaLing at 6:00 (first bus out) to Great Wall an hour away up in the mountains.
6:30 -- Bus is packed, I have window seat, and I notice that everything has just spilled out of my upside-down sport backpack. Hundreds of yuan, camera, taxi cards, notebook, blackberryi, ipod, hotel room key, driver's license, two bottles of water...let's see, what else. Could I possibly dump anything more on the floor of a bus and wonder if it would roll all the way to the back and I get none of it back. I can barely bend over in the tight seating with three on each side, and I am laughing while I bend down to gather everything. I think I got it all.
7:15 -- Deboard at BaDaLing. This is where Matt Lauer broadcast from on Today Show right before the Olympics. There is a two-hump camel being pulled along near the main gate. The BaDaLing stretch of the wall is supposedly not as crowded as one that is closer. I am glad I am here for when the gates open. Later in the day, the wall will be as crowded as the Verazzano Narrows Bridge at the start of the NYC Marathon. I walked through a little village that includes a Beijing 2008 Olympics archway. It is auspicious to walk under arches; you see them everywhere in Beijing. I stop in to buy extra batteries and water.
7:30 -- I see it all unfold before my eyes for the first time as I walk through the first archway entrance of stone.
7:45 -- Hill repeats. "Great Steps!" mutters a woman passing me, having to sit down. Let's be clear about this right away. This is all about steps. It is up and it is down. It is basically traversing mountains, as the wall is not all that tall, basically 20 feet or so the whole way, just following the landscape. There is no way I am going to actually run much here. I am going to try to do stairs as best I can until the crowds get thick. My right knee is not going to allow that for very long, either. Mainly this is going to be sightseeing and contemplation. I had envisioned the climbs and descents, but I also envisioned long and level straightaways where soldiers had stood watch for Mongols. There's no level except for five or 10 yards here and there around the 12 Watchtowers.
7:55 -- Having said that, my heart rate is anerobic and I am always sweating profusely. Glad I wore my running gear. This will count as some kind of crosstraining. Marveling at the panorama, the junipers, the fragrant pines, the oaks, everything that reminds you we are all connected as coinhabitants on earth with the same kind of flora and fauna. Also the graffiti. It is mesmerizing seeing Mandarin characters carved artistically by visitors over decades and maybe centuries. I am told that one person's engraving said "1940".
8:15 - Pause for notes, including some of this. I strip off my long sleeve, as I assumed being up in the mountains it might be chilly. Wasn't really, but it was good for the bus ride. I change batteries. I realize that the woman who sold me batteries for 30 yuan gave me dead batteries, repackaged. Xie-xie.
8:45 - I climb up to the Eighth Watchtower. It is the highest point in the BaDaLink section of the wall. Up at the top, I have my picture taken like everyone else, touching the stone arch design that signals a finishing point. I meet a guy named Patrick from California, a web designer here with his wife. We are sitting down and shooting the breeze about Olympic events. Here's us in a pic:
He had been to the men's 100 meter dash the night before and was telling me about the world record. I filled him in on baseball. Some people wanted their picture taken with me. This happens a lot here. It would happen all day on the wall. I apparently am fun to get your picture taken with. One man asked me to sign his arm.
9:14 -- Judgment call. See my profile pic? It is taken from close to the Eighth Watchtower. Behind me the steps go down a mile or two, and it is mostly steps, sometimes just kind of a slickish 45-degree angle and you have to hold onto the rail. I look out the battlements at what soldiers once saw. I am trying to imagine how they could spot Mongols. Nothing but trees and brush out there. Anyway, I have to decide whether to march down and then follow it as far as you can go, to the 12th Watchtower. After the 12th Watchtower, the wall is largely disintegrated with centuries, weeds growing up through the middle of it. Some parts of 4,000 miles are decayed or simply gone, turned to sand. This section is all beautifully restored where necessary. So I start going down the steps.
9:30 -- Ah, that's about far enough. I go down about 200 or 300 steps, you have to remember that however far you go at this point, you are going to have to come right back and do some serious climbing. I see a U.S. couple coming up my way from the long haul, and the man has a knee brace on, and he and her both tell me to be smart after I mention the right patella tendinitis. I listened to my body. Sat there a long time and thought about life and this creation.
9:42 -- I hear strains of Chinese music, a type of flute, played over a loudspeaker and echoing way out in the distance. It is beautiful. Silence and that music.
10:55 -- View the "Fortress".
11:30 -- "Lounge." That's what the sign says. I follow it, and there is a cold beer and stale corn chips in this skanky, pitted out area with gunk on tables and cashiers to harass you into buying things. Could have done without "Lounge." But my Yan Jing Beer was OK in that moment, because it was bing pee jo. (cold beer...bing is cold/iced)
12:00 -- Judgment call again. Back at the main BaDaLing entrance area on the wall, you can climb down to get back to the village, or you can follow the passage through and then climb another long stretch of wall. I decided to keep working out. The sun was beating down at noon, so the sweat was more profuse. I was hydrating. Now is when some really amazing things started to happen. First, these steps were unbelievable, about a 65-percent incline grade. You are basically lifting your quads straight up and pulling yourself up, one 2-foot-high step at a time. You get way, way, way up there at the top, and then suddenly you are introducing yourself to a man who has a RUSSIA warmup on. (We are pictured here.) We chatted for a while. He was here for "Track and Field" (now called "Athletics"). He said he is a former Olympic competitor, he was my age or older now. I asked him if he ever competed against the USA, and he started rattling off places in the USA he had visited. So our communication wasn't that great, but we were doing the best we could, and we shook hands, and I realized then that we both grew up in a Cold War and he was certainly a key piece of that during their athlete-building machine days. Now here we were, friends -- ONE WORLD ONE DREAM. Then I met a trio from the Estonia contingent. Then Libya. Then a quartet from Central Africa. A big man from there, older, said they were here for Boxing and Athletics. We shook hands and wished each other's countries good luck. I met some people from Brasil, with "Official" on their yellow IDs like mine. Then I met Caitlyn. She is from Dallas. She is here with her "Chinese family". She first came here on a college exchange program. We shot the breeze while we walked, and she said it was great to speak English with someone because her brain hurt from trying to speak Mandarin all the time. We had a pic taken by her Chinese family. I saw a fan with a New York Yankees shirt. He was going crazy over meeting an American, and he is the one who wanted me to sign his arm.
1:00 -- My eyes can't get enough but my knee has had enough of this. I have traversed long stretches, gotten in some crosstraining, met a lot of cool people, posed for countless pictures requested by strangers because I look different, and because I have one of those familiar yellow Olympic IDs around my neck. There is a restaurant/shop, and I stop in and sit down and have another bing pee jo, this time a good one in a bottle. I am looking up at this beautiful hand-drawn wall hanging of tigers. The waitress is trying to sell it to me, we're bartering, and then I realize I had only yuan bills, not U.S., thus not all that much $ with me. Didn't think I'd need it. Would have loved this. I got a T-shirt that a woman there hand-painted, a summer scene of the wall. She signed my name and hers, in Mandarin characters.
1:25 -- Back to the 919 bus stop. On the way, I run into a group from the Philippines. I have a Filipino-bred colleague who told me to be sure to get pics of that country at the Games, and although these are just spectators, it will do. They were a lot of fun. The girl kept flirting with me and I think one of the guys was getting jealous. They were fun. Then I boarded the 919, and it was a long trip back home and I thought about what an incredible day it was on the Great Wall of China.
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