You know that feeling, when you dream about something for a long time, imagine it, see pictures, envision it in your mind? And then you finally see it for the first time and it is just impossible to wrap your head around it, make it real?
The Great Wall of China. Such an iconic idea and image. Everyone knows about it, but so few people ever make it all the way there.
Was I really one of those people? I know I rode three hours in a cramped and sweaty van, cracking jokes with random Australians, to reach Jinghshalin- an unrestored, less touristy swath of the Great Wall. Our guide handed us a bottle of water, a Snickers bar and a map, pointed us in the general direction of the pick up point and let us loose. I know all of that happened for sure, but the rest of it?
Did I really walk on the great wall itself? Observe the dizzying outline as it twisted up and down among the hills? Did I climb the rugged stairs, curving like the back of some huge beast? The stairs of Kyoto have nothing on the Great Wall.
The air was crisp and clean- decidely un-chinalike. No smog, not a cloud in the sky, I could see the wall winding for miles ahead and behind me. What luck for me, and for my photos. It was all so perfect, so unreal.
My companions chatted amiably but would dissipate often for moments of solitude. I stood on the watchtower and gazed out in the vastness in the direction of Mongolia, trying to imagine the fear and strategy that went into building such an enormous structure. Not to mention the manpower, blood, sweat and bones.
Even there, sitting ON the wall, it was awful hard to believe where I was.
And on the way home, with the packed dirt of the unrestored wall fresh under my fingernails I still wasn’t sure. Had I really been there?
And now here I am, in Australia. I flew out the day after my Great Wall Climb, knees still aching slightly. Sitting here, in my friend Mattie’s house in Melbourne, the whole experience seems even more remote and improbable.
Maybe that’s why we need to take pictures of ourselves posed in fron to iconic landmarks. It’s proof. Proof that we were really there, really saw the things we saw and did the things we did. Proof to others yes, but also proof to ourselves.