By Sam Sussman
White faces swirl before unmarked bus stops, checking numbers in a language they cannot read.
“Badaling?” one calls out, the frantic father of two small children.
Her face is sunburnt, the seat beside her empty. “I’m Howard,” I say, in the deep throated, gregarious tone reserved for strangers met abroad. Beyond the dirt speckled bus window we can see the road ahead, twisting through hills covered with elm and spruce trees.
Eli is from Copake, a solitary riverside town two hours north of mine. Familiarity suddenly shifts back into focus. My grandfather died in Copake, three years ago. In her smile is a dark flicker of the certainty of the train schedule from my station to hers; the large, doubtless trains on which Eli and I would never speak.
The bus jolts to a stop and I lose her in the reconvening white swirls, arms massaged in too much sun block pointing at the sharply rising brick of the Great Wall. Vendors demand business in memorized appeals. “Water, yes, you, water!” A dark-haired shopkeeper chases after a heavy white woman who objected to a quoted price, and I see why the guide book said not to make eye contact. “Less, OK, less? Good price for you, my friend, good price for you!”
In a large, fenced pit, small black bears roar to the delight of photo-happy tourists. Small boys from unseen nearby villages shift in and out of photograph frames, egging on the bears with the high, teasing toss of a fruit I cannot make out. To my left a makeshift photography shop hawks posters of Lebron James and Jesus Christ, side by side..
The climb is flat and steady at first, then steep. The wall clings to the mountains’ rise and fall, its brick exterior hot beneath the sun. Its edges are no place to rest tired hands. I do not envy men who trained for battle here, sweat smooth arms glistening amidst silver spears, under this same sun. That they and I have anything in common but exhaustion, I cannot imagine.
In the distance, Eli precariously meanders up a set of sloping steps, made for feet much smaller than our own. Carefully finding her footing on the thin, greying stone, she does not know the rain is coming. I am caught by surprise too, at the bottom of a valley between two ancient watch towers, shivering as the puddling water seeps into my leather shoes–– shoes I took from my grandfather’s closet two winters past, on my final voyage to the soaring ceilings of a home no longer lit by the crackling firelight he tended, when my father begged me to take something, and musty tweed jackets did not beckon. Those tweed jackets never made it this far East.
Sweat and rain mix on the same shirt I’ve been wearing for three days. You can only backpack this lightly in the summer, when everyone smells like sweat anyway. Legs that have not tired of Beijing’s winding back streets, its never-ending highways –a deceptive quarter-inch on a city map– march toward the guard tower to the north, through puddles that host floating Pepsi bottles, long since drank.
The crowd has reconvened at the guard tower, jostling for shelter. Once home to quiet watchmen on lonely nights, the tower teems with wet tourists used to quarters more comfortable than this. There is nobody to watch for, this time– we are already inside. What a Ming foot soldier would give for a night in a crappy Beijing hostel, and a ten quai bowl of fried rice and mixed vegetables.
Relentless rain pounds without patience for those who could think of nothing but sunblock half an hour ago. I try not to resent the umbrellas, or at least the families who thought to bring them, the fathers who googled the weather forecast in advance, at an ungodly morning hour when I was still pretending that choujiu was not so bad, on the moonlit balcony of some back street Beijing bar. Whether she was really interested in Adorno, or just sexed, I have yet to figure. Only with the sudden jolt that we had done this all before, over arak if not choujiu, did more sleep seem worth the trade-off.
A small fist nudges my stomach, probably just desperate for space. I dodge lightheartedly to avoid the umbrella spokes. The boy is scrawny and sun-tanned, with smiling eyes that invite me beneath the stretched synthetic plastic. It can clearly hold two. No mixed motives here.
Sheltered now, I can see clearly for the first time in twenty minutes. With drenched shirt sleeves I guide streaming water off my forehead. From the height of the guard tower, I can make out the snaking lines of the Great Wall, climbing over barely visible, faint blue mountains whose soft lines blur into the horizon.
My host giggles lightly as I come to. I speak but he does not answer. His smile stretches as wide as the umbrella’s synthetic plastic, covering us both. What a strange duo, he and I. Later, he will excitedly tell friends about the soaking American whom he offered an umbrella. He could be my brother.
Ten minutes later the rains relent. Three hours from now, I will slouch casually in the padded chair of a well-lit hotel dining hall, smiling over the sumptuous meats and rice spreads of a meticulously prepared buffet, shared with a teacher whose wisdom I have not heard in seven thousand miles. In several days, the thick dust of soaring smoke stacks, whirring by the windows of a high-speed train, will welcome me to China’s western provinces.
For now, I am the last visitor in a timeless shrine, letting the sun dry my black polo as I rest with chin on folded arms. The worn stone, turned dark blue by the sudden rain, morphs slowly back to its ancient gray as the sun reclaim its post above the Wall at Badaling.