It was still dark outside. The sun refused to lift its head over the horizon. Most people in the city were still sleeping, or perhaps just waking up. And I had just catapulted across the Pacific, a long, direct flight from Houston to Beijing, which took around ten hours door to door. As usual with me, I slept fitfully on the plane, so when we arrived at the airport early in the morning, I functioned purely on excitement and adrenaline.
After passing through immigration, we donned our winter gear, which made me feel very fat and stuffy inside the airport. Only later would I wish for more clothes.
A colleague of Papa’s was kind enough to offer to be our guide around his hometown, and he met us at the airport with a driver. We piled in the van and zoomed off into the wild beyond.
I was very excited, since, though we frequently passed by China on the way to Vietnam, we had never had the opportunity to step foot into the country. This time, the twelve-hour layover was the perfect opportunity.
Micah promptly fell asleep, but I gazed around with drooping eyes, fighting hard to keep them open. I had heard about the infamous Beijing smog, but as daylight slowly began to break, I saw none of it.
Finally, hidden behind some trees, the sun appeared, a perfectly circular white disk around a splash of red and pink. It provided the otherwise ugly land with a sense of dignified beauty.
It was an entirely new world. All the buildings were square and uninteresting, with Chinese characters lining every billboard and not a letter of the Latin alphabet could be seen. Smoke billowed from the stacks of factories, but the sky was ordinarily clear and blue. Or, as Papa’s colleague told us, was very un-ordinarily clear.
The land was still and quiet, not many stirring in the small hours of the morning. My head kept nodding, and the quiet chatter of the adults slowly droned out as I drifted into a much-needed sleep.
I awoke some time later with an excited, “Are we going to the Great Wall?!”
Not yet, we were stopping by for breakfast first. That sounded good. After all, I was starving and loved Chinese food.
Only, I quickly found out I loved American Chinese food. Maybe I’m too picky. I tried a noodle soup with onions and tofu that was a typical breakfast there, and found it was…salty. Let’s leave it at that.
Next, I tasted the dumplings, which our host seemed to enjoy the most and which looked nothing like the crescent shaped ones I was used to and more like the ones Po ate in the movie Kunfu Panda. They were pretty good, but after the third one I felt like I had gained twenty pounds.
Finally, there was something that I didn’t quite catch the name of, but was the equivalent of Chinese donuts. Mhmm, sounded and looked delicious! One bite and I discovered there was zero percent sugar, eighty percent dough, and twenty percent fatty oil. Actually, that could describe the dumplings pretty well too.
So by the time we finished breakfast, my carbohydrate and fat stores were overflowing, and I was ready to see the Great Wall!
My head was glued to the window the whole way, but I saw no sign of the wall. However, there was a very impressive waterfall, frozen solid to a cliff, that stretched a wide length in a magnificent display of daintily carved icicles. It was as if an Ice Queen had struck the side of the cliff with a magic wand, freezing all the jagged rocks and stones instantly.
The thought of the cold briefly passed my mind, but I thought no more of it until I stepped out of the van some time later in the parking garage. Then I discovered how numbingly freezing it was, and hastily pulled on every scrap of winter gear I possessed. But when we emerged into the outdoors, my clothing turned out to not be nearly enough.
The air was raw ice. I felt the bitter wind crawl through the tiniest cracks in my clothing, to chill my core and numb my muscles. It’s a wonder my hands, feet, and nose didn’t fall off altogether, and even more so that Papa’s friend wore no hat or gloves.
Somehow, we managed to waddle to the gates and gain quick access inside, since no tourist in their right minds would visit willingly. I was able to thaw out a little in a bus that took us to the hill with the cable car station, and I sprinted up the steep steps to huddle inside a car as quickly as possible.
But as we slowly lifted up and ascended the cliffs, I gazed at the mountains in awe. Never had I seen such breath-taking heights, the ground blanketed with clumps of snow in some sections.
And then, I caught a glimpse of it.
Just a teensy tiny look, but it was enough to fuel my excitement. We hopped out of the cable car and hurried up the stairs to absorb the wonderful sight of the Great Wall of China, stretching along the mountaintops and disappearing beyond the horizon.
I climbed yet another staircase to finally step foot on top of the Wall. Can words describe the feeling of standing on such an ancient structure that has withstood the test and struggles of time? To gaze into the distance and see the similar tan stones composing this majestic wall? To know that this same wall has protected China from enemies of old?
Besides the thrill of walking along the Great Wall, I was elated that the temperature was actually warmer on top of it. The sun soaked through my skin, warming my chilled bones as I was able to pull off my hood and absorb the soft wind on my face.
We were, however, on a time schedule, so just when I was beginning to get warm again, we descended into the crispy, biting air of below.
But since the sun had risen higher, it wasn’t as cold as the way up, and I was able to enjoy the curious things that dotted the path back to the parking garage.
We drove back to the city for lunch, where I tried to force myself not to pass out due to jet lag. If not for the spoons of sugar that I dumped into my tea, I might not have made it.
After lunch, we had just enough time to visit the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding gardens before our flight.
The triple roofs are glazed in tiles of blue, yellow, and green, to symbolize Heaven, Earth, and the mortal world. I found it fascinating that the colors were different from what I would have assigned: gold, green, and brown.
With that, we piled into the car and headed off for the airport. Though I was a bit sad that our visit was quite short, I knew that I would likely have another opportunity to see the other beautiful temples some day. For the moment, I was excited to get into the airplane for some much needed sleep and warmth.