Mutianyu, China – April 2016
When viewed from above, it doesn’t seem so intimidating. A ribbon draped over the landscape, as if carelessly tossed aside.
The young traveler peers out of the tower window. We have come to the end of the line for this section. The wall beyond is crumbling and overgrown. “It would be easy to just jump onto it.” He turns to me. “What do you think would happen?”
I motion towards the window. A police officer has appeared. “That might answer your question.”
We descend and retrace our steps, pausing to take photos. Other tourists appear, colorful dots in motion. We outran them to the far tower. Now, it’s careful steps down the steep stairways. This is the first hike of the year. My legs are rubbery. He scurries ahead, but I’m not far behind.
A sigh of dejection. “I was hoping there would be no tourists,” he says.
“Actually, I thought there’d be a lot more. Not as bad as the Badaling section, but I think we’ve been lucky. Anyway, they add some perspective to photos.” Post-adventure serenity has taken hold. I don’t have the motivation to muster up any disappointment. This hike on the Wall is a chillout session.
One day ago, we were in North Korea. It’s hard to come down from that kind of high when you’re young and famished. But I am nearly twice his age and weary. Satiated. His quest for adventure has just begun. He reminds me of myself at that age. “I like war zones,” he declared one evening at dinner. “I want my death to define my life.” There were no looks of shock or eyerolls from anyone. We were, after all, in North Korea.
I turned to him with a wistful smile. Remember the days when you searched for a place to mirror the turbulence inside? A familiar, comfortable place. “May you get the shit scared out of you and live to tell the tales, son.”
A few narrow escapes were enough to disperse my angst. It’s not so much death that scares me, but what I’d have to live with.
The voyage to North Korea required the demolition of the wall that I had constructed over a lifetime. Every sensation was crucial. My mind is blown, but my circuits are fried. Time to retreat. Not behind a barrier, but into a shelter. The bricks are replaced, one by one, until I become impervious to bombardment again.
“Look,” I point towards the mountains in the distance. Ancient watchtowers and torn threads of stone. Unrestored, lesser sections of the Great Wall.
“It would be so cool to go out there,” he says.
I smile. “Yes, it would.”
The stream of tourists thickens as we approach the cable car station. I point at one group’s selfie stick and make a thumbs up. “Selfie stick, yeah!” They ham it up for me.
Tower to tower. Ascend. Descend. Ascend. A man in costume appears. He sits on the steps. Immobile. Oblivious or indifferent to the sound of our cameras.
Over the bend and through the tower. Two familiar faces appear, moving in our direction. More members of our North Korea tour group. A father and son from Canada. Earlier, we ran into another member of our group on the shuttle bus from the main entrance. He had already bought his round trip cable car ticket and we had our ski lift/toboggan tickets. We would arrive at different parts of the wall. Besides, he had a taxi waiting and couldn’t linger. We marveled at the synchronicity of our meeting and then went our separate ways.
The father and son took an organized tour, something I would have done if I had been alone. The young traveler and I decided to meet up at six o’clock and take a local bus, so we could get out here before most of the other tourists. There is something comforting about being amongst local people. Crammed in, unable to fully communicate, but somehow more at peace than I would be with other foreign tourists.
We speak of North Korea. Faces flush. Eyes glow with the tranquil intensity that only adventure can bring. The Zen of discovery. We are all pleased with our tour company.
“They’re doing a tour to Afghanistan,” the son says.
“I saw that.” My heart leaps. “They keep the exact itinerary secret for security reasons.”
We agree how awesome it sounds. How cool it would be if a group of us went on the same tour. Then it hits me: at long last, I have found my tribe. But why does this realization fill me with such sadness?
Now, it’s my turn to sigh. “Afghanistan. I can’t do that to my husband.”
After a long moment, the men nod in understanding.
And now, there is nothing more to say. They must get back in time for lunch. We have a wall to climb. Handshakes and farewells. See you around. With our preference for offbeat travel, it’s possible our paths will cross again one day.
The young traveler and I march on. The wall rises before us in one dramatic ascent to the final watchtower. It is wild beyond. At your own risk.
I look at him and nod, “Go.” He leaps over the wall in one swift motion, bounds up the steps and vanishes.