Hitting the Great Wall

Classes are finished for me now, and we’ve been able to do more sightseeing in the Beijing area. I have always wanted to see the Great Wall of China, so I was pretty excited a couple of days ago when we arrived there to begin a tour. There are only three sections of the wall open to the public in this area, and we picked the steepest section on the hottest day for our first visit.

My wife warned me in advance that she was not committed to reaching the top of the Jyangguang section of the wall; but my attitude was something like, “Why do it if you aren’t going to the top?” We started out with our tour guide, and the first half hour or so seemed good. Evelyn reached her stopping point, and she and the guide agreed to wait for me while I made my way to the top.

The Great Wall is an amazing engineering feat because it runs along mountain ridges in incredibly steep country. Just walking it requires great effort, and building it is beyond my imagination. I have been running steadily for the past few months and have run nearly every day while in China. I thought I was in great condition until I reached a point a few hundred meters from the summit. The temperature was about 93°, and I’m sure the humidity was over 90 as well, when I realized my balance seemed to be off. I felt pretty normal while talking to another guy who turned back when he reached the point where I was standing; but after ascending a few more stairs, I decided I need to rest and cool down a little. I squatted down and poured some water over my head and then fell onto my hands and knees.

My short fall caused me to lose my hat and water bottle while also banging my knee on the stairs. I managed to stand up when some fellow hikers from Africa came over and offered a hand. I was clearly overheated and suffering from both heatstroke and pride, but I accepted their generous offer to help me walk down to the next guard station. Thanks to their help, I made it and stayed in the shade long enough to recover at least some portion of my wits. I didn’t learn the names of my helpers, and I doubt I will see them again. Their kindness won’t be forgotten and should always be there to remind me that good people are the rule, not the exception.

After recovering, I made it down to Evelyn and was still feeling a little dizzy when I reached her. She and the guide put a cold water bottle on my neck and poured more water over my head until I felt good enough to make my way to the bottom of the wall. We learned the next day that a Danish tourist died from heatstroke on the same day and near the same location where I hit the wall.

I was fortunate enough to recover quickly and visit the Ding Ling Tombs the same afternoon before moving on to the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace the next day. I don’t know how close I came to visiting the spiritual heavenly temple the previous day on the Great Wall. I do know I will be more careful about heatstroke in the future and hope my experience will serve as a warning to others.

We returned to another section of the Wall this morning and had a great hike after taking a cable car to the top. We rode in the same car that took Michelle Obama to the Wall in 2014 and, like her, had a great toboggan ride to the bottom to end the tour.

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From top: Hiking up the Great Wall; standing next to a quotation from Chairman Mao claiming that a man is not really a man until he has climbed the Great Wall; and a man standing on the wall.


Teaching in China

China no longer seems like an exotic destination to me, given all the goods and services we exchange with this country every day. Many of my friends have traveled extensively in China, and I have visited Hong Kong on a couple of occasions. The opportunity to teach a 36-hour class on local government at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing has, however, given me a better view of an amazing place and some great young people.

I have 13 students in my class, ranging from a post-doctoral student to second-year undergraduates. Despite the differences in age and education, they work well together and are unfailingly attentive and polite. I’m not sure I would be willing to listen to me drone on about local government for 36 hours over 9 days, but these students seem to be intent on getting as much out of the class as possible.

I really don’t talk for four hours every class, as I assign projects that require the students to work on group projects a fair percentage of the time. They have produced staff memos, developed a code of ethics, and created a draft strategic plan so far. The students are learning new concepts and vocabulary in a relatively unfamiliar language, yet they clearly understand most of what’s being taught. I wonder how many of us could handle a college-level course on Chinese local government taught in Mandarin.

My two course assistants, Yong and Alice (some students use English names for class), are eager to please and fun to be around. They like to practice their English and don’t seem to mind hanging out with old people to do it. We have made good use of the translator app on our smart phones to help make conversations work.

We haven’t spent all of our time in the classroom, although the schedule and the weather haven’t allowed too many opportunities for outdoor activities. We visited the nearby Ming Tombs our first day here and have had the chance to ride in a rickshaw, shop in a mall, and listen to traditional Chinese music at Chiangping Park. I’ve been running every morning and discovered a great natural area near our hotel today.

China may not be exotic anymore, but it remains an interesting place with remarkable people. I’m looking forward to our remaining two weeks here and the chance to visit historic sites like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Mostly, I’m enjoying the interaction with a great group of young people who are at least pretending to be interested in what I have to say.


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Pictures from top: At the Ming Tombs; standing on the library steps at the University; a Ming Dynasty Emperor; and children playing in plastic floats at a park.