Camping at the Great Wall (part 1)

I spend much of my day pushing paperwork and sitting in front of a computer.  Even if I’m not doing my official job, I’m still in front of the computer editing pictures and videos and writing blogs such as this one.  In this incredibly busy season I have to force myself to stop and take a walk outside, and maybe bring along a friend with me.

So when my friend Erica invited me to go camping with a group of people over China’s labor day holiday I decided to go.  She wanted a friend to go with her and I wanted to get away.  To get away from the computer.  To get away from the distractions and the to-do lists.  To simply get away.

Somebody else was doing all of the organizing.  I just had to show up.  When I spend much of my time running logistics, it is quite freeing when I can take a break and someone else does it for me.  :).

A few days before the trip I had a change of heart.  I really really didn’t want to go.  I just wanted to sleep, put a movie in, maybe hang out with friends at a coffeeshop.  I did NOT want to go camping.

I wrote the organizer of the trip, Chris, and asked him what he meant by a “hike.”  You see, Chris started his own backpacking company ( where he takes people into the mountain wilderness of western China for 8 days at a time.  Realizing his definition of a hike and my definition of a hike are probably entirely different definitions, I wanted to clarify.  The last time someone mentioned a hike to me I ended up trekking for seven miles uphill in the Thailand jungle.  And I don’t do hills.  Love the outdoors.  Love them!  Love to run.  Love it!  But, I don’t do hills or mountains or even stairs.

I was hoping Chris would convince me that it would be too hard for me so that I’d have a legitimate excuse to back out.  But, he assured me it wasn’t going to be too big of a deal.  Darn.  I mean, YAY!  Knowing I had promised Erica I would go with her I set out.  I thought to myself, “Hey, I ‘camped out’ for almost a year in Kashgar…at least that’s what it felt like most of the time…I can do this for two days.”  In fact, for the past three years my running motto has been, “After Kashgar I can pretty much do anything.” 🙂

I ended up meeting a really nice group of people.  Very different group of people than I normally hang out with.  Not better.  Not bad.  Just different.  It was refreshing to meet different types of people than the ones you see everyday.  Twenty of us formed this group.  Chinese students (as in foreigners studying Chinese), teachers, business people, a singer/songwriter, cross-cultural workers… twenty new friends.  And friends of friends.

We set out on our journey.  Packed everything in a van. I’d give anything to get out of this Beijing traffic right now.  Pretty soon highways turn into small roads which turn into weaving hills.  Sat next to my new buddy Tommy, a medical student starting his residency soon, and Jeanna, a fellow teacher, who together with me embarked on one of the best conversations I’ve had in a long time as we munched on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Pretty soon tall buildings give way to small towns and even smaller villages.

As our van with twenty people and a ton of tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks chugs up and around these mountain roads it felt like the “Little Engine That Could.”  You can do it, little buddy.  Wait, no, nope.  Everybody out!  Walk the remaining 200 yards because he can’t go any farther up this mountain.

Arriving at the mountain village that would be our base, we leave most of our bags and equipment at a farmer’s house.  And we begin our “little” hike up to the Great Wall.  I think a Snickers bar was waiting for us at the top.  After a little bit of walking Chris stops everybody and starts doing these stretching exercises before we begin the ascent, the “hard part”.  And I’m thinking, “oh no!”  If he’s doing stretching exercises (this great backpacker who traipses through mountain wildernesses), then what am I doing here!?  Remember, I do long, not up.

But do I say anything?  Nope.  Not me.   I go off the beaten path.  I step way out of my comfort zone.  You give me a challenge and I’ll meet it.  Or die trying.  I would always regret not trying.

Sure enough, the hike is steep.  Well, it’s steep for me.  I grasp at tree branches to give me a boost only to realize that said tree branch can’t hold my weight.  I slip on rocks that look sturdy but so obviously aren’t.  I’m lagging behind, barely able to keep up.  Oh, don’t get me wrong–I’m having the time of my life!  Except for the breathing part.  I wasn’t doing that very well.  Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.  Or sing a song in my head, I tell myself.  My dear friend Erica would wait for me to catch my breath and we took our time to enjoy the views.  At least that’s what we kept telling ourselves.  Finally made it to the Great Wall.  Cool- a wall!

I’ve been to the Great Wall quite a number of times before.  I almost lost a family of six on the Great Wall once as I was leading a group of vision tour donors last October.   Not my finest moment.  🙂  But, most of the time going to the Great Wall really just involves taking a cable car or a chair lift to get there with all the 14 million other tourists that also happened to pick the same day as you.  The hike actually on the wall can be a major hike by itself…but this one on this particular day was basically a hike to get to the hike. This section of the Great Wall was also an unrestored section.  One of those best-kept secrets.  Except for a few other Chinese people we passed, it really was just us.  I finally made it to the wall and pressed my face against its cool stone.

Determined to not let the heaviness in my legs get the better of me (and the fact that it felt like a camel was standing on my chest) I decided I was still having the time of my life.  I just up and decided that. Because I truly was.  Everybody asked if I was doing okay—“I’m great, guys!”  Then Chris pulls me aside and tells me that he knows we talked about this and apologizes saying that this particular group is pushing harder today.  Then he proceeds to tell me that we are going such and such a distance away.  Like three towers away.  Then he tells me (without making me feel bad at all- gold star to Chris) that I can stop at the first tower if I want and wait for them to come back.

Excellent idea!  I’ll wait here and hold down the fort, you guys come back later.

They were gone for at least half an hour.  When they went over the hill and around I couldn’t see anybody anymore.  In that half an hour I had a nice conversation speaking out loud with God.  And in those moments I was standing on top of the tower.  I was determined not to fall through with the tumbling rocks since this place was indeed unrestored and thus collapsing in places.  And as I was standing on top of the tower I looked around.  I looked north (at least I think it was north).  I looked south.  I looked east and I looked west.  As far as the eye could see, for miles, I could not see ONE SINGLE PERSON.

I live in a city of 19 million people.  Just a few months ago I was in India surrounded and overwhelmed by the sheer masses of humanity!  And in those moments, in this corner of the world, on top of a tower in an unrestored section of the Great Wall of China, I could not see a single soul.

It was glorious!

In those moments I spoke with God.  I spoke to Him what was on my heart.  I shared with him my fears about the future.  I was honest before him.  Then I simply listened.  And I felt His peace cover me in ways I’m not sure I can explain if I tried.

The Father knew I needed that.

(to be continued…)

photo by Nathan Chester

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