History is history, facts are facts. No one can change can change history and facts.
– Xi Jinping, Head of the Chinese Communist Party, President of China, in remarks directed at Japan on the 77th anniversary of its invasion of China.
The rebuilt Wall is better than the old one. If we did not rebuild it, this section of the wall would no longer exist.
– Bricklayer along the Great Wall in Beijing, 1984
We were preparing to go camp at the Western terminus of the Great Wall. We had bought oats, cookies and dates, food that would be good for munching on in a tent. Wandering through the aisles of the supermarket, I stumbled on something I had never seen before: Fishing Islands Beer.
Some of yall may have heard of Fishing Islands, or in Chinese, Diaoyu Islands. They are a set of islands controlled by the Japanese but claimed by the Chinese. Recently, the Chinese military has been threatening the islands, and President Obama assured the Japanese that America would fight to defend the islands. There is a slight possibility that the Fishing Islands will be where World War III starts.
The Japanese controlled the Fishing Islands from 1895 to 1945. The Americans took them over in 1945, without any complaint from the Chinese. In 1969, an independent group claimed the islands might have oil, and since then, the Chinese have been pushing their claim on the islands, fabricating a history for the islands. This Fishing Island Beer was a part of that fabrication, an attempt to force the islands into the Chinese consciousness at every turn.
Tickled at the fake history beer, I snatched several cans and we headed off to camp at the Great Wall.
We walked along a dirt road that ran in between the two sections of the Great Wall, avoiding having to repay for what we had already seen the day before. This final section of the Great Wall was underwhelming, more of an “Alright Wall of China.”
Originally, the Great Wall that was built here at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, in the early 1370’s. It was constructed in order to keep most of the barbarians farther to the west out of China and control the entrance of those few who were allowed in.
But that wall had long ago disappeared and become a line of dirt cutting across the desert. This wall, the bricks that we were walking on, which may have been in approximately the same place as the original Wall, were placed there in the last decade, in good repair and smooth, with no sign of six centuries of erosion. The Wall we were climbing on was, in other words, a fake.
Furthermore, this new Wall was divided into two sections, a wide gap of several hundred yards between them. Apparently, when the new, fake Wall was being rebuilt, two companies wanted in on the action. They could not work it out, so they simply built two separate walls, two walls that do not connect. This way, each company could charge for a separate ticket and each tourist could decide which fake Wall they wanted to visit. This made the Wall pretty ineffective as a defensive barrier, since Galen and I, two Western barbarians, were walking right through it.
This fakeness did not end with the Wall itself. About thirty cheesy statues of Silk Road traders and their camels stood beside the Wall, just to add to the sense of Disney fakeness.
We hiked beyond that area, past where workers on the Wall could see us, pitching our tent in a grove of trees where the ground was dry after the rain from the day before. From our tent, we could still see the Wall’s towers on top of the mountain peaks. It soon began to rain and there was little we could do other than eat dates inside the tent.
In the valley surrounding us, the sun began to set across the deep red mountains reminiscent of Death Valley’s canyons. I opened a Fishing Island Beer, but it exploded on me, spewing across the tent. This nationalistic beer was dangerous, I made a note. We fell asleep to the sound of rain thudding against our tent and a herd of sheep enveloping us, nibbling on the grass and pooping on my shoes.
We woke up at five a.m. Leaving our tent behind, we climbed the steep ridgeline leading to the top of the Wall. The whole world was still asleep. Beams of sunlight tickled at the horizon. It would be another three hours before tourists began arriving at the ticket gates. We climbed on top of the tower and looked around at the blood red mountains behind us and the desert stretching outwards.
I climbed atop one of the parapets and opened another one of the Fishing Island beers. Again, it spewed fizz on me. Drinking it, off in the distance, past the ticket office of the other rebuilt Wall, we were able to glimpse, off in the distance, the real wall, little more than a five foot tall pile of dirt, snaking through the desert.
Over the centuries, the Wall had fallen out of use. Poor folks had stripped the Wall of its bricks. The real Wall was not nearly as majestic as the fake, rebuilt version, but there was something beautiful in its honesty.
I finished off the Fishing Island Beer. Fishing Islands were specks of rock that the Chinese were reimagining as a part of a grand scheme to glorify their history. As we headed out of the tower and back to camp, I decided I preferred the honesty to the grandeur.