Saturday, May 9, 2009

Professor at sea

We parked near the public beach, and Driver led me down along the water. I could see the Dragon's Head off to the right — shrouded in mist in this photo. I wanted to walk there, but Driver steered me to the left, toward a small card table with an old woman selling something for 30 rmb. I resisted for a moment, because I hadn't a clue what I was paying for, and I didn't see anything I thought was worth paying five dollars for. But eventually I gave in and paid. My options seemed to be either that or nothing.

Driver motioned for me to take off my backpack and leave it with him. The woman selling tickets saw me hesitate, pondering whether I trusted him with everything I had brought with me. She laughed and made a little "don't do it!" hand gesture. Driver seemed nice, and I trusted him pretty far... but not THAT far.

A smiling man took me over toward a sort of algae peninsula, at the end of which was a rickety gangplank and a line of little powerboats. I finally realized that I had bought a ticket to walk out this:

To this: 

I handed my backpack to the guy in the waders, waited a moment to make sure he actually put it on the boat before I got six feet out over water on a thin, rickety bridge, then hobbled uncertainly down the plank to the boat. I think my awkwardness was a cause of some mirth among the workers and the other passengers, a young Chinese couple. I sat at the bow and took a good little while trying to wrestle myself into the Chinese life preserver which was designed for... well, let's just say a non-Western physique.

The day was grey and presaged rain, and the wind had blown the sea to a modest chop. The other passengers seemed a little nervous, but I loved it. Since I was a kid visiting my dad's friends in Florida, I've always loved high speed and sea air and, yes, a little chop to shake things up. Blame Joe Lettelleir. As the pilot brought the boat up to speed and we banged over the first wave, I let out a little "Whoop!" and a laugh.

I think the pilot took that as a challenge. He poured on extra power and cut hard into the waves. He adjusted course to hit them at different angles, making sure we got a workout from every direction. I banged around like a pinball, and I'm pretty sure the pilot was testing me. He didn't slam me around hard enough to kill me, but it definitely made me stronger. The girl in the seat behind me was squealing in fear and pain, while laughing at the crazy American on the bow.

Then suddenly we turned around and cut power, and there it was, Laolongtou: the Dragon's Head, where the Great Wall of China meets the Bohai Sea. We sat for several minutes looking at the impressive beast, taking pictures and thinking what it must have seemed like in its early days. I don't know much of the history, so I can only guess at what the area was like — fairly lawless, from what I've read — and the peace of mind it must have brought to the people of the area. 

I've read that the Wall's actual military function was very limited, even in its early days. But the symbol of Chinese military defense must have been priceless!

We banged our way back across the waves, crossed the little gangplank, and picked our way over the algae-covered rocks to land. Driver was there, smiling at me and waiting to take me to the next adventure.


  1. As I understand it, the Great Wall was not meant to be impenetrable. It was meant to slow and divert invading forces long enough for the emperor's armies to mobilize and maneuver into defensive position on the China side.

  2. Yes, it has to have been something like that.

    I remember, even when I first heard about the Wall, as a very young kid, thinking there's no way that one army could defend an entire wall that ran more than 1800 miles. It was only much later that I learned the real purpose.