Travel 

Grading the Great Wall of China

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In my view, walls are seldom great. They’re actually pretty boring, more useful than awesome. Sometimes, you can hang cool stuff on walls, but then it’s more like a great Van Gogh or Bela Lugosi portrait, and the wall is actually a vehicle for greatness, sort of like an English chauffeur who won’t buy CDs and listens to Anthrax tapes in his Lincoln while taking you to an awards ceremony with midgets and dragons and there’s a staircase made of ice that ascends to heaven, where everyone sings “O Fortuna” while watching American Psycho , and there’s always sushi and no such thing as politics or, paradoxically, religion. That would be a great ceremony, and an even greater heaven. You’d have to tip the driver with more than a smile and some blasé cool because, after all, he got you there. Thanks, dude. Go buy yourself something nice.

You don’t have to tip anyone in China. Which seems weird. Like, here you come, all North American with suddenly enormous spending power, luggage hanging off your fattened frame and Blackberries and watches and knee-jerk apologies that stand in utter opposition to how you really feel, just buying beer for two cents and food for three and whatever else you want for no more than $10, and you don’t even drop a tip. Not once. You just callously plunge your soiled body into the pool of another culture. And then you splash around a bit.

You can make mad waves on the Great Wall, tell you what. First off, you could hang a Van Gogh on the thing and it would only be mildly interesting. Like, go chop your ear off, buddy — you tire me. Why? Because I’m standing on something that’s longer than Canada. How about that? And it’s older than Canada, too, but that’s no big deal. So was Van Gogh and his ear on that fateful December day, when he got to thinking, “You know what? I think I love this chick. Yeah, I do. I’m cutting off my ear to prove it. Maybe she’ll make it into a pretty broach and we can go be lugubrious under some stars together.”

I guess my point is that The Great Wall is pretty hardcore great. Greater still is exploring it with Jim Barnum and Paul Morgan. They’re great dudes, fantastic even. Indeed, we’ll get there — but first, a little history lesson.

The whole thing started 700 years before Jesus was even a glint in the big guy’s eye. It was a dynastic time, code for patriarchal types roaming around in violent conflict. There were seven of these types, all powerful, and so they built walls here and there to better fight for supremacy. Along came Emperor Qin with cool hair and robes, and he swallowed up those states like most people drink water. Refreshed from victory but concerned over the southerly expansion of the Huns, Qin had ordered all those walls connected.

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