The Wall


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.


54 thoughts on “The Wall

  1. Fine images of the Wall Julie – the first one in particular gives a sense of scale I have not seen before. Magnificent journeys, magnificent adventures but don’t do Afghanistan.

    • Thanks, Robin. I’m actually somewhat disappointed in the photos. The light was not great and I just wasn’t into taking photos that day. As for Afghanistan, my husband’s tolerance for my adventures has its limits. I won’t be so selfish.

  2. I love your exploration of barriers and borders – those we cross, those we shore up, the boundaries we create within our minds, the limitations we set and sometimes, if we become wise or lucky, break through. Travelogue at its finest, Julie. And that shot of the imperial guard – well what can I say – how many stories could this evoke?

  3. Ah, you did North Korea insert sigh of jealousy

    You flirted with Afghanistan…

    Quite the floozy 😉

    Another lovely piece, I’ve long thought a jaunt to that north side of the 38th parallel is soon in coming for Sarah and I…

  4. “I want my death to define my life”. Such a youthful, idealistic fantasy. It takes me back 50 years when I wanted to stop the war in Vietnam. Now, I’d just like to go to Afghanistan and smoke opium (like Fowler in THE QUIET MAN – a book recently discussed in Sevierville’s CLASSICS BOOK CLUB). Julie, you have done it again! Your tapestry of brilliant prose, philosophy, and photos presents itself as a melancholy and wise work of art. Never stop.

    • Dear Chuck – I suppose our deaths do, in some way, define our lives. I have a fear of going in an undignified freak accident. I’m not sure there’s any opium left in Afghanistan, sir. 😉 Thanks for your always entertaining comments.

  5. It says a lot when the Great wall pales after the North Korean trip. Lovely photos and writing.

    You didn’t cross the barriers, but he did, perhaps for you. It sounds like you were with kindred spirits.

  6. First, when I read: “May you get the shit scared out of you and live to tell the tales, son,” I fell off my seat laughing. May I borrow that for my quote repertoire? Years from now when a whipper snapper deserves it, I shall bring this particular nugget out to say. Second, your photo of the man in costume is incredibly moving and eerie to me. Trekking along the Wall I pictured just such a scene from eons ago when the Wall was manned by weary soldiers. Thank you.

  7. I have climbed that section, but your photos give a perspective that seems fresh and new to me. I like the B&W versions, especially the second one with that hillside full of wall and rocks. Speaking of perspective, I think my mind would be blown simply going from North Korea to China, from truly offbeat to unintentionally super weird. (At least that’s how I found it.) I would LOVE to go to Afghanistan but, like you, am not sure I could do that to those who care about me.

  8. I am the 101th liker of your post, I sit at my desk, looking out the window, all the green outside. The new view in the new house will be different. There will be a full library. Much larger than the one I am in now. All the books will be in one place. Why do I think of books? Are they my walls? Smile. Your comment about your own wall(s) maybe. Why did you build such high walls wandering? You are an interesting person Julie (and please don’t do “Do Afghanistan” to Hubby!) (Or to us). Walls are fine. Practical. As long as they have many doors and windows. 🙂 We’ve opened a huge door at the back of the new house. Keep opening your walls my friend. A bientôt. B.

    • Hi Brian – Why build the walls? I’ve realized that it’s necessary for my survival. The doors are being sealed off as time goes by, and the windows have become mostly one-way, looking out. Maybe it’s not how I should be, but I’m not hurting anyone and I feel better. Enjoy your brand new wall of words, my friend. Sounds so cozy. 🙂

      • Hi Julie. Walls are fine. They were precisely invented for protection. And we all have walls, though most people don’t realize it. I only gathered bits and pieces about you, browsing a post or the other. Not enough to reach… conclusions (God forbid!) 🙂 butenough to think you would be interesting to talk with, at a café in Prague, Paris, or Angers. The important thing is that you feel better. That my friend is the only criterion. And the windows, well, there is so much to see in this desperate world we live in… Beauty manages to survive. 🙂 And thank you for the expression “wall of words”. C’est une jolie phrase. Très. I only wish I could put a chimney in the library. But the fireplace is downstairs. We’ll put large deep armchairs for reading. Bonne fin de semaine.

          • Now I am blushing. 🙂 There is no doubt in my mind ma chère Julie. You also might be a tad difficult at times? 🙂 But I’m sure it is part of the charm. 😉 To give you a clue, you are one of the few people who actually look at the world. Look intensely. Most people don’t see a thing. Not a thing in their entire life. Bonne semaine mon amie. Mes amitiés à ton mari.

  9. Love this writing ~ you handle the “Post-adventure serenity” so aptly, and I’ve been there too. It is always great to have another you’re with provide you with enough juice (and vice-versa) to create the unique adventures just when you think you have no more in you 🙂 Which is why I expected this post to end with “…and I am off to Afghanistan…” Wishing you many more safe travels and great stories (and photos) to share.

  10. Hi there Julie
    I really enjoyed this post, it seemed to me like watching a painting being made. Wide brushes to get the idea of the place, the setting if you will, then more layers to talk about your travel companions, your “tribe” as you said, and then some great looks at your inner self. Rarefied but really well made, it reminds me of one fo those Japanese sculptures made of bark, greens and flowers. How do you do it?

    Talking about Afghanistan, I recently read two books on it. One was from Robert Byron and, despite the praise and accolade from Bruce Chatwin, it felt to me like the moanings of a rich toff. The other one, though, is a lot better. It’s “The Places Inbetween” and I’d recommend, or not recommend it, to you, otherwise you might really go over to Afghanistan! It was driving me to do it….


    • Hi Fabrizio – Such a beautiful compliment. Thank you. I’m very much a minimalist, and most of the time when I sit down to write I have little idea what’s going to come out. I try to let it just be what it wants to be.

      I’ll try to avoid The Places Inbetween. No need for further aggravation. 😀 Anyway, I’m more drawn to Iran, which YOU, sir, have beat me to. And now you’re down in Peru…I’m heading off to that neighborhood soon. Have a fabulous voyage.

      • Thnka you Julie! As for Iran, I’m sure the husband will enjoy that. I’m aware of the fact that I’ve seen only a teeny tiny piece of the country, but even the little I’ve seen beats the rest of the Middle East hands down.

        I really like your approach to writing, isn’t it fascinating to see something sort of take a life of its own?

  11. In the distant future, once we’ve become a world government, there will be tours to the remains of the Great Trump Wall across the southern border of what once was the United States. Let’s hope not!

  12. The picture of the guard…excellent. If not read already try reading My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Lloyd for fascinating but grim insight into why people want to go to war zones and look for their their war, whether they be journalists, soldiers or aid workers. Great post as always.

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