It may seem strange, but the travel experience that moved me the most happened not while I was doing my job – but while I was doing someone else’s. Let me explain….
I arrived in Xingang, China in late 1992, while working onboard the original Pacific Princess, the cruise ship you may remember as the original “Love Boat” from television. My position at the time was Food and Beverage Director, a role focused entirely on the galley and food preparation areas.
Our Asian cruise itineraries for China have changed a bit, but back then we would arrive in the port of Xingang midway through a cruise vacation and would escort passengers to Beijing for a two-day overland trip.
Hmm… here we were in one of the world’s most renowned destinations, and home to one of the most fascinating landmarks I could think of … so guess who was first in line to offer his services as an escort! On small cruise ships in those days, the captain held sway on whether I could leave my post for this adventure, and it was no easy task to convince him that my expertise was needed more in a city completely foreign to me than in the food and provision areas of the ship. Oh, the power of persuasion!
What followed was an adventure that literally immersed me in a world completely different from any to which I was accustomed.
Our trip started off with a bit of excitement. It had been a long time since such a large group of visitors had come to the area by sea, so the government chose to honor us with a police escort. The drive to Beijing took about two hours, and we arrived mid-morning.
The first stop was Tiananmen Square which stands adjacent to the world’s largest surviving palace complex, the Forbidden City. The largest public square in the world, Tiananmen serves as a massive meeting place, and was designed to hold one million people. It wasn’t always quite as big as it was during our visit, though. In fact the square was built in 1651 but quadrupled in size during the 1950s. As we stood taking it all in, the place bustled with throngs of local citizens, but also visiting tourists like us. With my “ping pong paddle” held high above my head to keep my charges from losing sight of me, I navigated the Square, passing vendors, performers and other local entertainers as I went. My irreverent mind couldn’t help but draw comparisons between that part of the square and Venice, California — though in place of Venice’s weightlifters, here we had a bevy of martial arts performers. But atmosphere grew more sober as we reached the Mao Mausoleum at the far end of the Square.
Nearby we entered the secretive-sounding Forbidden City, the imperial palace that served as home to emperors for nearly 500 years. Although it’s now a museum and hasn’t housed a royal family in nearly a century, we could easily feel the grandeur of this huge palace complex. Although certainly not forbidden anymore, the deep moat and 10-meter high wall surrounding the city may have given rise to its name.
Then we headed out – about 45 miles from the city – for the main event. The name really says it all – The Great Wall. It’s the single most iconic site in Asia, and just “great” doesn’t really do it justice. The Chinese actually call it the “Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li,” and it stretches an amazing 5,500 miles, with beginnings dating back more than 2,000 years. The wall was a unique linking of local fortifications all designed to keep out the barbarians from the north. But today the hordes come mostly from the south – tourists arriving from Beijing – drawn by its architectural grandeur and historic importance.
In pictures, the wall always looks like a single entity, snaking like a gigantic dragon over hills and through valleys in one long piece. But really it’s a collection of sections built during different eras, across several states, with various types of construction. In the 2nd century BC an emperor began to link up many of these sections, but it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the Great Wall fully earned its western name by becoming the world’s largest military structure. However, once China’s boarders extended beyond the wall it wasn’t needed for defense anymore, so construction and repair on the wall ceased.
Today some of these sections are in better shape than others, but the differences are considered important as they illustrate not only how defense techniques advanced over time but also how the Chinese adapted to changing political realities. The wall was recently chosen as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Much of this was explained to us on the drive out there, but my first reaction on seeing the formidable stone walls and imposing towers was less about the historic and architectural significance and more simply … “WOW!”
We climbed up to the main entry and arrived atop the wall. Do we go right or left? Well some people went both ways. I stood and admired the view and felt the wind whipping along the wall. You could see the wall twisting and turning up and down the hill. We turned to the left and walked along the ramparts, climbing higher and further from the hub of activity. The stones under our feet seemed to run on forever, without end in sight. We certainly didn’t walk anything close to the full 5,500 miles, but I felt we covered quite a bit of the wall.
At one point I bent down to collect a bit of stone that had become dislodged from the wall. I carried it carefully the rest of the day, and now it sits in my home as my most-treasured travel souvenir.
Later, as we were sitting, blissfully exhausted, high up where tourists were fewer, we noticed a collection of local children escorted by their teachers. They couldn’t hide their curiosity and eventually, after some lingering at the edges of our party and giggling amongst themselves, three of them came running to a young lady in our group. The kids were clearly intrigued by her blonde hair, and they hesitantly started running their fingers through her locks. They giggled louder and louder, and soon we were giggling too. I wondered how many in our group realized that most likely this was the first time in their lives these kids had ever seen a person with blonde hair.
My cruise to Beijing was before the age of digital cameras, so I don’t have pictures from this trip flashing on my computer screen throughout the day. But I can replay them in my mind. And my clearest pictures of this adventure are those that weren’t captured on film, but taken with just a beat of my eyelashes. In these memories the color never fades … I see a man on his rickety bicycle, carrying more cargo than a pick-up truck; a sunset behind the buildings of the Forbidden Palace; and a boy atop the greatest wall of all — with his hands full of blonde hair. … And it makes me giggle every time.