Field Notes

 

What's it like to travel with National Geographic? Take a look at these reports from the field.

By Sarah Erdman
April 2008

We break out of Beijing's lively maze early in the morning and head to a remote section of the Great Wall that our local expert knows well. He is David Spindler--the foremost wall scholar--an American in Beijing who has logged more than 1250 days trekking the wall. As the road winds into the hills past homesteads and farmers on bicycles David debunks wall mythology. You can't really see it from the moon. It's not one great wall but a series of segments built over the span of several empires. But then it comes into view, majestic and unending, and it's clear how those myths were born.

We climb up to the main tower and disperse; the wall stretches as far as the eye can see on either side. For a country teeming with 1.3 billion people this infinite landscape is empty but for us. Amazingly we have the Great Wall of China all to ourselves. Three of us hike beyond the restored section to the farthest tower just to find that the wall wriggles on, tracing the hillcrest over the next horizon.

From the tower we spot three groups of young Chinese adults in uniform jackets bearing flags and half running toward us along the rubble of the ramparts. They cram into the tower where we have stopped lock their arms and do a series of knee bends chanting all the while. One of their leaders explains in Americanized English that they're on an office retreat competing in a team-building scavenger hunt. And then in a smiling bluster they're off to the next tower.

On the way back to the city we are still exhilarated. One of our travelers tells about the fried scorpion she ate at the night market. We compare photos of the elderly women we found dancing in the gardens of the Temple of Heaven. We pass the much-hyped Bird's Nest stadium, its smooth silver straps rising from the bustle of the evolving Olympic Park. This is the China we find during two weeks in April—burgeoning with newness and purpose and yet so vast and old.

Note: Sarah Erdman, a program director for National Geographic Expeditions, accompanied this trip.