As the hours ticked away and time marched closer and closer to my departure, my long-awaited trip to Beijing was ending, and it was starting to look like my visit would conclude with one bucket list item untouched. I had traveled halfway around the world, yet I was about to board a plane home without seeing the Great Wall of China.
Sitting in my hotel room, I went through my list of reasons why the Great Wall was beyond my reach. My 2010 visit was for business, not pleasure. Since my arrival, I had spent 12 hours each day shivering in a cold convention center, smiling until my cheeks hurt because smiling is part of most international languages, and my command over Mandarin left a lot of be desired. When the convention center closed each day, I boarded a subway car almost overflowing with commuters in suits; workers in reflective vests were paid to shove us into train cars, packing as many humans as possible into each before the train could depart. When I was finally ejected from the subway onto the city streets, I bought something for dinner—sometimes convenience store potato chips, sometimes plain steamed rice—and carried it to my hotel room, where I would eat in the very middle of the bed while watching TV. I was an inexperienced traveler. The sights, smells, and sounds outside of hotel room overwhelmed me. The thought of anything more than finding my way to the convention center, working, and making the trek back exhausted me.
A colleague mentioned there was a direct train that could take me from Beijing to Badaling, a popular section of the wall that was heavily touristed and a good choice for a solo visit. It was a simple trip: get on the train in Beijing, get off the train at the Great Wall. You won’t be able to miss it, my colleague told me. Everyone else will get getting off at that stop, too.
The day before my return to the USA, my eyes fluttered open before the sun rose. My heart was thumping against my ribs. I had fallen asleep convinced I would miss my chance to see the Great Wall, but while I slept, my subconscious had vetoed that plan. It was just one train ride. Millions of visitors before me had made the exact same trek. There was no reason to be afraid, and there would be too much to regret if I returned home without even trying to visit.
It was a Saturday morning, I took a much quieter subway ride to China North station, one of just a few passengers on a new, clean car. I knew how to pay my fare on the subway, but purchasing a commuter rail train ticket might not be the same. Inside the station, hundreds of people stood in clusters that moved a bit like lines, but they lacked order. I hovered, my eyes scanning the horizon for a free ticket agent as I edged closer to the desks. Finally, I locked eyes with a young woman. I hoped her English would be better than my Mandarin.
“Good morning!” I said. She shook her head, and her lips remained in a firm, thin line. I felt a sense of dread that was quickly replaced by a stronger sense of panic. I had taken two semesters of Mandarin in college and promptly forgot it all after my final exams. I willed some of it, any of it, to return to me.
“Wǒ xiǎng yào bēi chá.” I said to her, proud some of my language skills were coming back on command. Her brow furrowed; she looked perplexed, and she vigorously shook her head no. It occurred to me I may have asked her for a cup of tea. I smiled sheepishly and shook my head no, too. I paused and listened to the crowds around me. At the counter next to me, I heard a familiar phrase.
“Zhōngguó de chángchéng,” I said. Zhōngguó was China. I hoped chángchéng was Great Wall. The ticket agent nodded, then asked me a question in return. I stared blankly, but only for a moment; if we had reached a decision point, she had made one for me. I heard the printer whir to life under the desk, and then she held it up: the piece of paper that would connect me to one of the only items I had on my bucket list at the time. I took it from her, smiled in gratitude, and turned away, only to whip back around to her almost instantly to shout, “Xièxiè,” thank you, as one more phrase emerged from the depths of my memory.
The train was packed with people, most of them locals planning to spend a sunny Saturday with friends and family at the Great Wall. In my gratitude for both securing my own ticket and finding the right train, I didn’t mind that I didn’t have an assigned seat and had to spend the entire ride standing, my body pressed between a stroller and a window. It was from that spot that I caught my first glance of the Great Wall of China as it snaked around hills, its signal towers peeking out above the trees. My breath caught in my throat, and my fear slipped away. Forget the language barrier. Forget the embarrassment of ordering tea instead of asking for a ticket. Forget that just a day before, I had sat in the middle of my hotel bed and convinced myself I didn’t need to see this, because to try to see it would push me outside of my comfort zone even more than traveling halfway around the world for a business trip did in the first place. I was almost there.
Not long later—after I had extracted myself from the train, dodged a long line of people waiting at a nearby KFC, and purchased one final ticket, I set foot on the Great Wall of China. I gazed out to see that the wall stretched before me as far as my eyes could see it, and it stretched just as far behind me. For a moment, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the fact that I had made it there by myself, a feat for a novice solo traveler. I forgave myself for the tears I brushed away when my eyes opened, feeling overwhelmed yet again but this time mixed with pride. I checked my phone; it was 2:00 AM in the USA, but I knew my mom would answer. More importantly, I knew she would understand my joy.
24 hours later, my plane backed away from its gate and taxied to the runway, ready to take me back home. As the wheels lifted off the ground and the nose pointed toward the sky, I sneaked a quick look at my phone. I had taken only a few photos, enough to prove I had made it all the way to the Great Wall of China, but not one of them captured the immense pride I had in navigating my own way to making a dream come true. In my seat, I found I couldn’t quite stop smiling. Travel might be about the things we see and do, but it’s much more often about the things we learn about ourselves along the way.
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