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Up Against the Wall

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.

In a blink, we went from wall-to-wall commercialism to what Liu called "real countryside." Along the rutted, one-lane, rock-infested road we occasionally saw bedraggled men standing idly, some with the red Communist Party armbands worn by volunteers who look to report "anything suspicious." In our case, they just pointed at us and laughed.

China leads the universe in uniformed security per capita. Leaving our hotel, 11 men sprang to attention to inspect me just to get on a media bus. But at Shixia Pass only two unarmed, uninterested women supervised the seldom-used hiking trail. In the distance, we saw foothills to mountains. A few hikers straggled up the winding trail. In a mile, we saw the Great Wall.

After we conjugated all the locker room variations of "unbelievable," we agreed no military power could ever whip this defense. Yet within a few steps, we saw a sign: "Place of King Chuang's Breakthrough." And damned if, 500 years ago, some extremely tough guys (whose descendants really need to contact Jim Zorn immediately) knocked down a section of the wall -- almost close enough to touch -- and had the idea they could march straight up into the clouds over this crazy mountain in front of us.

"Bet I could get a good shot from up there," Newton said.

By "up there," did he mean the first, second or third castlelike defensive emplacement? "No," he said, pointing up crumbling stairs with intermittent railings and knee-high weeds that ascended so high they literally disappeared into the sky. "At the very top."

True, a thin trickle of hikers could be glimpsed snaking and switch-backing up the mountain. Somebody thought there was a top.

A Newton in motion tends to stay in motion. Even when carrying copious photo gear, plus some pounds he didn't have when he once free-climbed 11,000-foot Electric Peak in Yellowstone 30 years ago.

As Jonathan ascended, the plan was hatched. Fit young Barry, curse him, would join Newton step-for-step and, when appropriate, be in place to direct the medevac chopper to Jonathan. If they should somehow reach the top, perhaps Svrluga could also find a holy man who'd sell him a vowel.

Jill, who had a total hip replacement five months ago, would climb as high as she could with Liu and then set up base camp. As director of news administration, she's set up Post operations all over the world. My job was to split the distance between Barry and Jill, then yell down the mountain, "Barry says to tell them that Jonathan is still breathing."

Okay, okay, that was just our joke. But if you ain't laughin', you ain't climbing up the back of the Great Wall of China.

The air turned cool. The wind picked up. For the first time in China, we filled our lungs with oxygen. And then more clouds rolled over the mountains, making every vista as we rose even more spectacular and almost mystical.

Of course, the transcendental experience was periodically interrupted as families with crying children came back down the mountain, defeated.

You always hear those mountain-climber stories that end, "Because it's there." It's not just the moon that has lunar -- lunatic -- power. Mountains make you stupid, too. We kept vowing to stop, then started again and again. Jill, who's retiring after the Olympics, made it so close to the top that, if there'd been a sick relative up there, she'd have made it easy. But the last 1,000 yards had no steps, just former steps turned to rubble, and only a few knee-high stone walls beside the trail to prevent a fall into an extremely beautiful oblivion.

By the time I got to the top, Barry and Jonathan were already deep into life histories with a high school football coach from Atlanta and his relatives. Go halfway 'round the world, climb a mini-mountain, find yourself with zero visibility in the middle of a cloud in the land that gave us Zen and what's the subject of conversation?

Football.

Somewhere along the way, Jonathan got a clear shot of the Great Wall that he thinks meets his standards. Barry grinned all the way down the mountain. Jill thinks she may investigate a hip-replacement endorsement contract. And I'm pretty sure I have my Olympic memory.

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