Saturday

Barefoot on the Great Wall

The next morning brought no sign of my happily travelling suitcase so I had to face the idea of visiting
the Great Wall in the same clothes in which I had travelled. At least the weather was warm as my only option was a summer dress and wrap.

It was a long journey by what seemed to me to be an antiquated - 1960s style - car through miles and miles of flat land and cabbages punctuated by real Chinese people working and even the odd buffalo ploughing. In this modern world where we can see pretty much every nook and cranny of the planet on TV or the Internet it's hard to imagine the profound effect of seeing a reality that you have only been able to imagine.


When we got there, it was all that was beautiful and interesting. I hope that those who have visited the Great Wall in later years still know what a glorious place it is - and how steep and rocky the climbing can be. Chen was determined that I should get the maximum amount of benefit from the trip and in those days there was no cable car - and, although I was eager for exercise and fit enough to enjoy the climb. However, I had one great problem: my only shoes were strappy, slightly fragile sandals. Soon they began both to hurt and to threaten to break. This was no problem; my feet have always been strong and hard. I realised that it was rather important to save the one pair of shoes I possessed and happily took them off to go barefoot.
'What are you doing?' cried Chen in horror. 'You must wear your shoes. Only poor people walk without shoes.'
In an attempt to lighten him up I did a little dance and said I was happy to go barefoot in the sunlight and that I often walked without shoes at home. He was even more horrified and, when I proved to be impossible to dissuade, he sat down on the stone wall, hung his head and refused to go on.
He was so ashamed, he said. China had humiliated me, an honoured guest by forcing me to walk like a peasant on their Great Wall. They had lost my clothing so that I did not have the right equipment and he and his country were disgraced.
Once Mr Lu and Miss Wu had realised what was going on, they joined him in sitting on the stone and shaking their heads in deep embarrassment Their unhappiness and their shame were so profound that something simply had to be done. I wracked my brains for an answer. Whether it was Divine Inspiration or an instinct for self-survival I shall never know ...
I sat down next to the three abjectly miserable Chinese. Convincingly I began to tell them that it was a custom for rich pilgrims in the West to walk barefoot to show their humility and to honour the holy ground they were on. I said that I was walking without shoes as a mark of respect for the beautiful place where they had brought me and that it was important for me to be allowed to express this honour in my own way.
'Is that true?' said Chen, leaping up. 'Is that really true?'
I assured him that it was (maybe I was a few hundred years out of date in my facts, but it was worth it). I showed Chen the gold chain I wore around my neck and the gold ring I wore on my finger and emphasised that no one could think I was reduced to poverty because I was barefoot. Anyway, I was quite obviously in possession of an expensive pair of shoes but I was carrying them. Reassured, this strange, crusty little man was transformed. He followed me up the stone slopes telling everyone we met that his foreign guest was so impressed by the Great Wall that she had insisted (after the custom of her race) on honouring it by walking barefoot. We attracted quite a crowd.
Three years after this, a group of Chinese from the Railway Publishing House came to stay in Birmingham. They bought me a gift, painted by Mr Lu, the photographer. It showed the Great Wall itself, beautifully drawn and coloured and, at the base were painted two large, bare, white footprints. 'We were moved by the respect that you showed to our great history,' the said. 'We have never been so honoured.'

Two days later, after a crash course in Chinese culture, and holding on tightly to my recalcitrant and deeply-tanned suitcase, I waved a slightly uncertain goodby to PBW on the platform of Beijing's main station and clambered up into the huge green monster which was to be home for the next fifteen hours. This was the beginning of the official part of my trip and I was pathetically grateful to have some clothes to face it in.
From the labels on it, my suitcase seemed to have had an interesting time and several casual relationships about which it should have known better. Someone had, also, been through it with a fine toothcomb. At first I was seriously affronted to see every one of my possessions rearranged and then, in the clasp of a little pearl necklace, I found a single, long black hair. Hastily I examined my clothes, every one of which had been re-folded and here and there was the slightest evidence that someone - or several people - had been so intrigued by the foreign styles and fabrics that they had tried them all on. I had brought a simple strand of pearls which had once belonged to my grandmother. In the days before bling it was obviously quite a precious thing and, as the evidence of the short black hair trapped in the clasp, it had obviously been tried on as well. That melted my heart. Instead of being outraged I was touched that things which seemed so run-of-the-mill to me were so strange and special to others, even if they were Chinese customs officials. I felt closer to China for that moment of realisation that they were all too human and that, for the women at least, there was very little beauty in their lives. 

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