I once was under the impression that seeing something in a picture was the same thing as being in that place. As a result, I never saw the need to travel to discover anything. I was happy at home with my books and internet connection. The world was mine to discover through the text of a Wikipedia page.
I pictured the Great Wall in my mind’s eye. The rough cobblestone, worn away by thousands of years of attack and tourism. It was huge in my imagination’s setting, as big as a barn at every angle but not nearly as straight. It wove like a cobra through the mountaintops, each outpost standing like the rearing of the snake’s head. It stood proud, protruding from the earth, the contrast of its tan stones demanding to be seen against the plush evergreen background. In this flight of fantasy, the surrounding mountain peaks were covered in snow and the sky was the beautiful autumn overcast that I knew so well from back home.
As we neared the tour site, it became apparent to me just how wrong my preconceptions were. First, the Great Wall only dotted the landscape in short increments, and cell towers stuck up out of it like frizzy hair on a sleeping giant. The slope of the wall must have been somewhere around 65 degrees. I literally felt like I was climbing the mountain the whole darn thing was built on.
In addition to the wall being especially steep, it was also incredibly hot outside. 105 degrees Fahrenheit sun beat down on us. I was so glad to have my water bottle and thankful that I had thought to apply sunscreen liberally like the packing list had suggested.
As we continued the climb, we passed graffiti in Chinese characters. Carvings in all colors coated the cobblestone so heavily that barely any of the original grey emerged. I passed my hands over some of the engravings. It was so sad to think that this building, this beautiful monument that is the mark of China should be defaced in such a selfish way. I could read a few of the characters and most of the things written were names and years of when people had been there.
On an especially steep bit of the wall, my dad and I found ourselves beholding a Chinese woman in a pencil skirt and heels attempting to move a baby carriage down the wall while her husband one-armed their infant child. Our reaction to this was not unlike any regular American tourist’s – we took pictures. Needless to say, everyone in the area gave the couple a wide berth as they attempted to work themselves out of the mess they found themselves in. As some people passed by without even giving the scene a second look, I realized my new reality again: it must be a regular day on the Great Wall.
My preconceived notion of China can be found crumpled up on the steps of the Great Wall. I learned that imagination cannot tell a story to its completion. The mind will only let one generate that which one has seen, heard, felt, or experienced in the past. But, just because things aren’t all that they’re made out to be, doesn’t mean they can’t be amazing in other ways. In fact, my imagination set me up for opportunity. Taking the chance to travel to China and see The Great Wall of China live and in person made me a believer in my dreams.
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