A gweilo in 1980s China – Chapter 18

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Written by Tai Pan

If you haven’t had yet the chance to read the previous chapters, I suggest you do so by going to the ‘Story of my Life’ section and start from part 1.


Finally the awaited big day had came! Finally we would see the biggest “monument” in the world: the Great Wall!

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In those years, the roads were not as good, and for this reason, we had to leave the hotel around 7 am.

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Jianguo Hotel’s concierge explained to me that the journey to the Great Wall included a stopover before arriving to the destination; he said that we would have stopped at the Summer Palace.

I, young Gweilo, did not even know the Summer Palace existed and when we reached there, I realized that the name was “absolutely” reductive…

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As we were walking towards the emperors’s old summer residence, I thought to the visit at the Forbidden City, and so I imagined that the Summer Palace would also be a beautiful old style building, surrounded by pretty gardens. However, when we arrived there, I was absolutely astonished and speechless for what I was seeing!

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A total of about 3 square kilometers, as the guide explained us, consisting of 75 % of water, the Kunming Lake, and the remaining 25% was covered by lush vegetation and beautiful buildings.

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Even though I was quite far from the structures, I noticed a majestic Pagoda dominating the other buildings, and as we got closer, I could actually admire the beautiful ornamental details. I still remember that I felt like the other constructions were ‘bowing’ as a sign of respect to the wonderul pagoda!

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While we were walking through the Palace’s beautiful gardens, the guide told us that the imperial family liked to enjoy the cool weather, so during the entire summer season they would move to the Summer Residence.

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I remember thinking: “Wouldn’t they get bored of spending months without seeing anything else but the Palace’s gardens?” I imagined gossips and mysteries at court must have been, perhaps, a product of the royals’ boredom… but then I looked around and the magic of that beautiful place made me realise that I would have gladly been part of the imperial family and spend even years locked up in those buildings!

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After several tours of the site, the guide told us that it was time for us to be shown something very special…

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I was immediately overwheled by curiosity, so I followed the guide and listened to the story he was telling about that ‘special thing’. A really incredible story, on a real historical event…I was so interested to hear that that I probably looked like a child listening intensly to his mum telling a story before going to bed!

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There was a kind of boat, built entirely of wood and marble, it was resting on the water as if it was ready to sail. That, however was not a real boat, but a building faithfully reproducing a boat! For this reason it could not to float, but it was left resting on the bottom of the lake.
The story behind that incredible building was that one of the emperor’s wives loved boats so much, but she was terrified by the water, so her husband, to make her happy, ordered to build an unsinkable boat!

After that incredible tour we jumped back in the car and drove to the Great Wall. I felt as excited as a child choosing ice-cream flavours!!

There were the mountains in front of us and the guide advised me to pay attention to the landscape as soon I would have been able to see the magical stone snake extending up and down the peaks of the mountains.

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And there it was, that great construction that man managed to create. The unforgettable and unique show opening up in front of my eyes unleashed an explosion of feelings and thoughts that were suddenly crowding my mind: I felt privileged to be there, I was 27 years old, in mainland China in 1983, and I was going to see, WITH MY OWN EYES, the biggest “monument” ever built in the history of mankind! I had thought pne day I would have told my children about that incredible experience, and so I did some years later, to my only daughter.

When there I felt in peace with the world and with myself, and I was grateful for what life was offering me!

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The gigantic Great Wall completely caught my attention, and while the guide was talking explained the history of that wonderul monument… I just could not listen to a word of what he was saying as I was completely focused on the amazing building that had served to protect the Chinese Empire from the invasions of the barbarians coming from the north.

I tried to imagine how long it would have taken to build such a massive structure without the help of modern technology, I began to wonder about how many people had to work and sacrifice their lives to create such a beautiful and incredible wall.

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I can still remember every single detail about that magical day, and while I was choosing the photos to include in this page, I felt like the young gweilo that was so amazed by Great Wall over 25 years ago came back for few seconds.

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I felt like I travelled back in time on that day of autumn in 1983, the day during which I understood that life is a wonderful thing, and that every day it’s possible to learn something new, something important and fascinating, and that the world is so big that it’s just waiting for us discover new places!

Next week I will tell you about my journey to the Liaoning Province of northern China, and more precisely, I will tell you about the city of Dalian.

(All photos are from Google.com, and they all belong to their original owners)

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