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In the Land of Confucian -- Foreigners in China

Man and the Great Wall Series by Scott Urban

Week 5 (September 26, 1997) -- Midnight, Part 3

"He who has not been to the Great Wall, is not a great man." -- Chinese Proverb

Introduction: Scott Urban went to China in 1994 to work at the China Daily newspaper in Beijing, where he stayed until 1997. While in China, Scott contracted a severe form of bicycling mania, which manifested itself in his 6,000-kilometer bicycle journey to Xinjiang in 1995 with friend Brice Minnigh. Scott and his bike

In the Fall of 1996, Scott Urban and another friend William Lindesay spent every weekend possible cycling to the Great Wall of China to find lost sections of the Wall, with nothing more than curiosity, bicycles, and a map of the greater Beijing area. The trips involved comparatively big distances and tough conditions, but the payoffs were rich: in store could be anything from a swath of rubble to a grand section of Ming Dynasty ramparts with intact towers and inscribed tablets. This fall we invite you to join the ride and see the China that's not usually seen.

Scott currently resides in Denver, Colorado, USA, and is involved in a number of China-related projects. He can be reached at rrurban@ aol.com.


Continuing from last week:

I found it and set up camp. There was just enough time left in the day to prop the tent up adequately, lay out the air mattress in it and unfurl the bag, then take the food and can of beer over to an opening to watch the sun set rapidly behind the horizon. The view from up here was extraordinary. I could see clear across the region to the reservoir bordering Hebei Province to the west.

With the sun gone, the wind kicked up steadily and the cool air set in. No problem. I felt fine under my thick wool hat and in my wool socks. But it was only 6:30 PM. What to do with all this time? In fact, the only choice was to get in the tent and the sleeping bag to keep warm. I wrote a short poem, but then ran out of light to do more of that.

I went to sleep for a brief moment at that point, exhausted from the day's effort. I woke up probably just 30 minutes later in a sweat -- the equipment was working great, working too well. I made some adjustments. One thing I continually took note of was the way the long underwear felt on my torn-up legs. I could feel the material pressing into each of my wounds, and the combined effect was like some kind of low-intensity burning. I reassured myself that the legs would be better in the morning.

I don't know what first tipped me to the noises, but I soon felt petrified by them. I was in a place that no one goes to. It was clear there hadn't been a visitor to these parts in a long time. The wind was blowing the autumn decay around the forest, stirring up a symphony of sounds my attention drew increasingly closer to. Was that an animal? Or just the leaves? What was I thinking coming up here all alone? I hadn't thought about the primal instincts that overcome one in the forest. My heart couldn't put itself off of alert, and I could do nothing to slow its fast beat.

I tried as hard as I could to rationalize with myself. To argue my way into sleep and ease. There are no human-eating animals anywhere near here, that's for sure. So what's the worry? If anything smaller wants to come bother me, let it. It'll have to suffer the consequences. But the arguments weren't working.

What if there are people up here? What if there are mountain lions up here? I've tracked my scent all over the place. Finding me would be no problem for whatever animal might be interested. I was so uncomfortable, I imagined what my response would be if some kind of old mountain geezer came ambling by. Would I be happy to see him, and invite him in? Yes! Would I let an innocent possum share quarters with me, just for the sake of having a bunk mate? Yes.

Then, clear as a bell -- distinct from all the other sounds I'd wondered about -- was the sound of an animal moving outside. Oh hell! Damn, that's the real thing. I couldn't ignore it. I fished for my flashlight, then opened the tent fly. I turned on the flashlight and sent its beam around the place, catching two green eyes looking back at me from about 15 feet. Damn! Without any voluntary, conscious effort, I yelled in a primeval kind of voice at the creature. It ran away.

I stayed up most of the night waiting for it to come back. I opened my Swiss Army knife blade and stuck it in the ground just outside the tent. I put my backpack between my head and the door. I tried to again coax myself to sleep with reason. No chance. I looked at my watch: it was only 12:30.

By the final hours of the night, the winds calmed down, and I learned to tell what noises it made. I learned to stop reacting to those noises. I eventually nodded off, with an hour or more to go before sun up. When that came, I felt immensely relieved. I could comfortably sleep for another hour in the light.

Having packed everything in the bag, I put it on my back and headed downhill with my trusty bashing stick. It was a champion branch smasher. I swung that thing wildly to make my thoroughfare a little easier. On a steep point I lost my footing. I threw my hands out to brace the fall, and my hand drove into a broken tree branch beneath it, opening a hole in the middle of my palm. I brought the descent to a halt and covered the wound, hearing the same noise that led to my animal encounter the night before. "You're not out of the woods yet," I thought.

Soon thereafter I ran across the arrow I'd left for myself the day before. A pleasant discovery. I took the correct route, searching for the big X that marked the 90-degree turn up to the saddle and back to the first ravine. I found that, too, and headed for the next ravine.

When I got there, I quickly found myself in a different part of the ravine then I'd taken before. This led to a series of overgrown terraces. I followed these downhill until they led to a cultivated patch. I stepped into it to see which way the farmers entered and left. That of course yielded a trail, and it led back to the house where I'd left Track.

As it had done on my last appearance, the goose in the pen by the house raised a raucous at my arrival. I called out, "Wei!" (Hello!) and found the old man working on his tractor in his courtyard. I was eager to tell him how foolish I'd been to set off for that goal. I told him I guessed I took the wrong way, that I should have stayed in the first ravine the whole time to get to the Wall. He confirmed. I said the animals freaked me out, and he assured me there was no cause for concern, and invited me in for a rest.

"Should find yourself a bar to do this with," his wife aptly suggested as I drank some tea and chatted with them. "I've usually got a bar," I replied. "But this time, he couldn't make it. Gotta work today." Scott and the couple

Bar, of course, means "partner."

I posed for a picture with he and his wife, and they brought Track out of the shed. It was in perfect shape. As I got the bike ready for the trip home, I asked the old man a few things about the place. "That probably isn't Ming Dynasty Wall up there -- its too old and deteriorated," I suggested.

"That's hard to say," he responded.

I asked him if he was originally from this place. "Yes." And his father? "Yes -- four generations have lived in this house." He was proud that it was mentioned on a map.

"How did you spend the national day?" I asked him.

"Well, for us rural people, we don't particularly pay attention to it." And the Mid-Autumn Festival? "Stayed at home together, had some mooncakes."

Can you set off fireworks at Spring Festival?

"Sure, we can do that here," he said. "Much more festive than in the city." Beijing forbids them.

I had Track all prepared to go and bid adieu to the couple. Bumping down their road, I looked down and saw all the scratches and scars covering my legs.

My knees lost feeling, and by the time I encountered other cyclists while passing through the Ming Tombs area, I was able to step on the gas and apply power to the cranks, moving Track at a good clip.

The day ended at Dunkin Donuts.

Arriving home, I swore the trip was not only my last solo overnighter, but a good reason not to plan any solo long-distance bicycle trips in the future, as I had thought I might want to. What's the point of a trip without a bar to share it with?

It's been four days since I finished that trip, and tomorrow I meet Will at the Asian Games flyover at 5:45 am. Weather forecast: clear turning to cloudy and rain on Sunday, with high winds. Should be good.

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