Bronzed leaves parachute through the air before softly landing on bricks that form The Great Wall of China, a series of walls located along China’s historical northern borders.
Built by Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China during the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty, the walls acted as a menacing warning to Mongol nomads against an invasion. Collectively, the walls are now an overbearing sight of manual labour and sobering in scale.
Steps along a path leading to one of the walls are so steep my calf muscles stretch profusely. My path is jammed with people of all ages and agility levels. Those who exert themselves early can be later found leaning and gasping for oxygen, wishing that bricks will absorb their fatigue. A stark contrast is a chain of secured padlocks which are strung along the path on a rope, each lock symbolising the unbreakable love of a star-crossed couple.
Where soldiers and officials once stood their territorial ground is now packed with buses and cars, fleeting tourists to attempt the famous climb. I press on as my hands slap against my thighs and I wonder whether soldiers from centuries ago could even fathom the thought that curious and eager tourists travel here to simply climb their fortress.
I turn a corner and meet a flurry of vendors selling fans, flimsy t-shirts, Coca-Cola and Chairman Mao paraphenalia, all shouting at me for my Yuan. What shouts even louder is Mao himself, reincarnated as a bright red banner stretched high above my head: “He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall isn’t a true man!” Mao screams at me for my loyalty and refuses to listen to my petty excuses of cramped legs and shortness of breath. Here, I decide to rest against an over 2,000 year-old wall. Yet I’m shrugged off forcibly; the wall reminds me that it’s not a cradle for my exhaustion.
Beijing’s smoggy city skyline to my right contradicts the rolling mountain ranges to my left; The Great Wall scissors through the middle of these two unparalleled worlds. Directly in front of me I can imagine fierce nomads storming down the hillside with weapons raised erratically in the air to forge a mighty attack. I also imagine optimistic caravans rolling out a soft track heading east via the Silk Road route. While modern China bades me to admire corporate skyscrapers, the Great Wall commands me to march on and take my post on the spine of this ancient engineering feat.
I step over the threshold of a watchtower to spy on tourists below, hoping to be awarded with a drop of Mao’s respect. Maybe I’ll make it. Maybe I won’t. And just maybe, becoming a man doesn’t have to mean complete and utter failure. My shoes transport my ambition to keep going and ghosts of centuries past echo in unison to cheer me on my way. A breath of wind dissolves the sweat from my brow. I drink mouthfuls of air and concentrate on my journey ahead.