Time’s arrow points in one direction, unlike the “Great Wall” which snakes its way up the northern hills, twisting right then coiling left before doubling back on itself. In the manner of an acrobat’s cleverly writhing ribbon there always seems to be another segment of it after the next highest point. On either side of the wall vast stretches of a green-and-brown panorama disclose an abandoned landscape atypical to the skyscraper swarm of Beijing, China. I have entered the ancient barrier at its most popular point in Badaling (八達嶺) where the tour buses and souvenir shops attract selfie-stick touting crowds. My mission is to trek as far as I can upon this section of the fortification to gain an understanding of what countless soldiers and builders sacrificed upon this juggernaut.
I notice first the uneven steepness of the stairs, how they sag in the middle, bubble at the ends. Often they rise in quick gradated treads, other moments they leap in precipitous strides that cover the distance from toe to thigh. The architects, rather than subduing the terrain, had to contrive with it. They shimmied up the backbone of ridges, compensated for irregular contours, creating a barricade that folds and buckles atop bedrock. It belies the idea of impenetrability I had about the “Great Divider.” Walking up the rutted bulwark I sense it groaning under the weight of the ages, subsiding beneath my footfalls.
The second thing I notice is the wreckage wrought upon this partition. Broken parapets reveal windows through which the ghosts of marauders advance. Turret rooftops have been substituted by cloudy firmament. Entire rampart portions have disintegrated generating isthmuses that yawn below. Almost nothing remains of the original wall constructed during Qin Shi Huang’s (秦始皇) reign and even much of the Ming dynasty carriageway underwent major restoration in the 1950s. Over its long history this frontier fortress has been destroyed and rebuilt on innumerable occasions. Harboring from the shrill wind inside a damaged watchtower, I realize The Great Wall was neither immune to erosion nor impregnable to outsiders.
Turning the corner I find an enclosure blanketed by inscriptions, many recent scrawls, others aged and faded, barely discernible. Most of them are modern love proclamations and name tags etched into stone for eternity by unknowable visitors. In the era of social media celebrities I am surprised by the popularity of graffiti. Is it the human equivalent of marking territory or is it an innate need in us to achieve immortality even by mutilating residues of our past? I trace over the indecipherable scratches, attempting to read them by touch. I imagine a lonely guard huddled against the bone seeping chill passing the hours by hacking his moniker into the brick. I wonder if a conscripted laborer managed to scribble a message before bitter winter and endless exertion took his life.
I am not prone to disclosing phone numbers in bathroom stalls or jotting communiques on bridge posts. I rarely sign guest books, yet I too wish to write words that outlast time. This vein that runs within me shares the same root as the ruthless emperors who ordered this enclosure: ambition. Rulers with their decrees, youths with their knives, I with my borrowed hotel pen, we all crave the elixir of fame. This desire to be remembered, to establish ourselves beyond our ephemeral lives, to know that a part of us exists when we will have no knowledge of it combats nature’s law. To die in oblivion is the fate of multitudes — should it evoke horror, melancholy, or despair? Is a fulfilled existence incomplete if it is anonymous or if it is forgotten after a generation?
I once almost missed an art installation by Andy Goldsworthy; what I supposed was a crack running through the De Young Museum’s entrance in San Francisco was actually “Drawn Stone,” a sculpted piece evoking fault lines. It is also a prophecy about the fate of solid objects, an epistle to earth’s future. Goldsworthy specializes in arrangements fashioned out of organic materials, such as ice or foliage, that disappear after a given period into their landscape. I marvel at the bravery of architects similar to Goldsworthy who are willing to resist mortal inclination, to dissolve into the universal. The impermanence of their compositions strengthens them. In their transience they become elegiac tributes to entropy.
There is profound paradox in a barricade meant to thwart invaders now hosting legions of foreigners; there is irony in a partition designed to withhold change crumbling under the burden of its notoriety. A combination of tourism and weathering will continue to erode this 8,850 kilometer (5,500 mile) structure. Meanwhile the Great Wall represents a tug of war between our yearnings for perpetuity and the reality of thermodynamics. In its bucolic deterioration there is logical lyricism. In the juxtaposition of its archaic workmanship alongside modern vendors peddling tchotchkes abides bizarre realism. In the ebb and flow of humanity’s endeavors to take only memories but leave behind indestructible markers rides the never-ending fundamental song.
Extending from Dandong (丹東) in the Liaoning province (辽宁) to Lop Nur in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Great Wall of China contains three major mountain passes. Juyongguan (居庸关), fifty kilometers (31 miles) from Beijing, in the Changping district (昌平區) still boasts the remnants of a Buddhist temple erected in 1342. Referred to as the Cloud Platform (居庸關雲臺), this rectangular edifice’s interior marble walls and ceiling teem with stunning Bas-relief gargoyles, mythical beasts, heavenly kings, demons, and sacred Sanskrit mantras.
How do you feel about graffiti? Have you seen any that have fascinated you?