Take something shrouded in history and crawling with tourists, dim the lights, let the sun sink low and you’ll find yourself alone with a historical monument staring you down. The Great Wall already feels a little bit like magic (I can’t help that my over active imagination equates it with the ragged backbone of a dragon, it’s body folded into hills beneath it) but when you throw in a misty sunset with warm tongues of sunlight flitting between wall/hills/clouds/tower, you’ll feel like your anywhere but earth and anything but human. So when given the chance to sleep on truly impressive monuments, please don’t let the prohibitive signs stop you!
Neil and I looked like fools and felt like beasts of burden, hiking along the wall with our backpacks full of weekend wears, camping gear, food and water (especially on the near vertical stretches of crumbling stairs where vertigo and a fear of falling made me use my hands more then my feet) but often the things that are difficult are also the most rewarding, right? Remember that camping on the Great Wall isn’t really allowed, but like most things in China, almost anything is possible with a little maneuvering. To hide our ‘oh so obvious intentions’ (my sleeping mat wouldn’t fit inside my backpack; it was strapped to the outside, along with liters of water) we adopted a clever, clever ruse. It involved not speaking any Chinese (an attempt to feign innocence) and if probed, acting out that we already slept on the wall and were instead on our way down. This worked rather well, but was difficult to keep up; who would have thought it would actually be strenuous to not use my limited Chinese? Word was that those who camped without permission could be kicked off, fined or coerced by the locals into paying for their permits. This gave the entire operation a slightly ‘bad-ass’ feel. Like bandits running from the law! Well, maybe not quite like bandits but close enough that we refrained from lighting candles or using a flashlight after sunset and whispered until sunrise. Also, close enough that Neil anxiously wouldn’t let me sleep past 5:00am. This wouldn’t have been so awful if I had slept at all, but a friendly nighttime creature (Mouse? Squirrel?) kept me awake with the perpetual fear it struck into my heart. As soon as the sky started to light at 4:00am I slept like a baby, of course.
Of all the many highlights, watching the sunset behind the Great Wall caught the edge of my memory and wound it around it’s little finger. I love how things hush and still when the sun starts to sink. And I hate that no matter how many pictures you take, it’s impossible to get some right! I find the more breathtaking the scene; the more blatantly it refuses to be transformed into a postcard memory. I’ve come to understand that it’s because breathtaking moments and places have little to do with the way they look but instead it’s all about how they feel; something that cannot sit still or be fully captured by the eyes alone.