You approached me already talking, with a smile I will never forget and a language I couldn’t understand. Perhaps you were ranting against tourists, but in a very friendly way. Then you took my arms in a warm grasp and continued with your words and that smile, lighting up the entire smog-wrapped mountain.
I remember your face: my age, with wrinkles from a smile you must carry with you always, and tanned from outdoors, kindhearted and full of humor. I laughed as you spoke, enjoying the moment, wishing I could understand your words, but not really needing them.
We had been in Beijing less than 24 hours, but in this moment, atop your Great Wall, my visit became complete. Perhaps you were telling me of your family, or a special way to prepare a traditional dish, or a secret of life for our gender, something women share worldwide. Although I could not understand what you spoke, I laughed all day at the way you spoke it, the strong grip of your arms, and the laughter in your voice. You gave me the only history lesson I will ever need of China.
I will spend some wonderful moments remembering the coincidence of you and me in the same spot at the same time. I thank you from the equally-wrinkled skin of my face to the travel-worn soles of my shoes. I don’t know you, Woman of the Great Wall, but I love you.
Beijing. Twenty-two million people and counting. The entire time we spent there, that multitude was flung at us: riding bikes down the streets, maneuvering vehicles down the road, walking the Great Wall. People in droves were everywhere, happy and welcoming.
I knew it would be a huge city, and I knew it would be smoggy. I intended to keep time in Beijing, waiting for the more pleasant part of our journey to begin. Stanley had written up his list for crossing-off, so I booked a hotel, reserved a couple tours, and figured I would hold my breath (smog) until his list was depleted and we could go. I never gave a thought about the mood of the city or the spirit of the people.
Or the sight of county-fair-like booths offering street food delicacies in huge raw piles waiting for the enormous fire-encrusted wok. Or modern and expansive avenues with modern and expensive retailers luring all those residents to come and buy. Late model cars by the tens of thousands surprised me, as did ancient waterways in the heart of downtown. And outright affection. Hand-holding and arm clasps all day long. We did the tourist things, and for once, it seemed like a fun vacation thing to do. I was happy to go to the tea ceremony and the traditional lunch and the jade factory simply for the spectacle of all those people pressing into all those locations and doing it with grace and welcome.
I was especially glad to climb a section of the Great Wall with many, many Chinese people. For one part of one morning, they shared their treasured icon with me. Old, old stonework, and my new first impression brought me to respect the invitation that China is giving the world.