Up Against the Wall

Boswell, Newton and Svrluga are headed straight to the top.
Boswell, Newton and Svrluga are headed straight to the top. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BEIJING

Our translator, Liu Liu, spoke to the phalanx of guards blocking our entrance to the Great Wall of China. "They say the wall is closed today," she told us sadly, "because of Olympic bicycle practice."

Barry Svrluga, Jonathan Newton, Jill Grisco and I sat in disbelieving silence. Ever since we landed, our Post Olympic brigade has planned its assault on the Great Wall. You can't just hang on the Olympic Green all day chatting up badminton players. So assignments were coordinated. We four were the first wave headed off for the experience of a lifetime.

"Do they close the Great Wall of China very often?" I asked.

"Oh, no," young Liu said sweetly. "Never."

So, let's see, Great Wall: Open every day, weekends and Ming holidays for 2,500 years. But the day we go, they close it for the Kyrgyzstan tricycle team. Or, as our Liz Clarke said after she stopped laughing at us: "You've got to be kidding. They didn't even close it to the Mongols."

The Great Wall has many well-known points of access, but only one is within a six-hour trip of Beijing. However, that site at Ba Da Ling is a beauty -- less than an hour from the Olympics with a bunch of Ming tombs and a Starbucks, too. Those NBC panoramas you see: Ba Da Ling.

Yeah, well, Ba Da Ling, Ba Da Loom. Every tourist who ever hit Beijing has taken the comfy cable-car ride up the Yan Shan mountain range to the famous dragon-toothed parapets at the top, with the redoubts interspersed along the sky-scraping ridges. No one misses a 4,000-mile-long monolith, the foremost man-made wonder on earth. And we weren't going to miss it either. Journalists live to get around "No." You just have to figure out how. And hope you don't regret it.

However, we had an extra motive. "I gotta get a wall shot," Newton said. When they send you 7,000 miles, you don't text back: "Sorry, boss, no photos. Wall closed."

With the help of Liu and some incredulous guards, we learned that there is a semi-abandoned, overgrown approach to the wall at Shixia Pass. "But they say it is 'a little bit dangerous,' " Liu said.

In Beijing, "a little bit dangerous" is hard to define. Breathing would qualify. So would crossing any street, squeezing into the subway or riding on the high-speed ring roads as the maniacal Chinese, yelling and blowing horns, ignore all known road rules. One of our lost taxi drivers simply stopped in the right lane of a highway.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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