DAY 10: The big race, the big climb, the big difference.
BEIJING – “Fruits? Almonds?” he says in Chinese.
His “store” is a table. He sits on it, offering plastic bags to visitors. The sun is hot and the mountains loom overhead, and there are half a dozen vendors trying to sell us the same stuff, and besides, on the way into this village we passed a donkey sitting in the middle of the street, so to be honest, business is slow.
“Can you take us up to the Wall?” we ask.
He thinks for a second. His face is bony and his smile is missing a few teeth. When he stands, he’s maybe 5-feet-5, and his stringy black hair is covered by a Nike cap. You’d guess him to be in his 50s (we will later learn, to our amazement, that he is 67), with a thin frame draped in cotton pants and a long-sleeved, button-down shirt.
“I find someone for my shop,” he says.
Moments later he returns with a woman. She sits on his table. And he motions us to follow him and he walks down the road.
You would never know you are looking at the Fastest Man On Earth.
Well. OK. I should qualify that. Later this day I am scheduled to attend the 100-meter track finals at the massive Bird’s Nest, formally known as the National Stadium, where the title of Fastest Man On Earth will be bestowed on the winner. But that is night and this is day and right here, far from Beijing and all its traffic and crowds, the rules for stardom have changed.
On our drive into this village of Xishuiyu, in the rural Huang Hua Cheng region, we passed tin roofs, barrels, bicycles, burrows, a rusting red motor scooter, and a man with a white beard who was nearly bent in half. We have been told there is no way to climb to the Great Wall from here. It is too dangerous.
But our man in the Nike cap, the smiling fruit-and-nut vendor named Xie Shang Quan, is willing to guide us up on his own.
So at the moment, he’s a star.
“His price,” says my pal, Alex, a.k.a. Beijing Bubba, from China via Atlanta, “is 30 yuan.”
Or about four bucks.
I gaze up at the mountain.
Seems fair to me.
An ancient marvel
Now, you don’t go to China without seeing the Great Wall. I know that. But I always pictured the pilgrimage to one of the Seven Wonders of the World as a respectful encounter, maybe with some chanting and incense. Instead, I discover you can chair-lift up the Great Wall and luge your way down. You can tour-bus in. You can rope-slide out. You can do a marathon or even host a dinner there. This amazing edifice, 4,000 miles long and dating to around 600 B.C., is apparently a Chinese theme park.
The Great Wall-y World.
At least in the tourist spots. Which is why we have come here instead, to discover The Wall the way people would have centuries ago, by walking up to it through nature. I am joined by my wife, by Alex and by a few workers from my hotel, The Opposite House, the greatest hotel in Beijing, partly because the staff will get stuff like this together for you, and find a guy like Shang Quan, whom I would have left at his table with his dried apricots.
And – ta-da! – here we are, climbing through brush and dirt, heading to a quiet, lonely section of the Great Wall.
And 20 minutes later, we’re still climbing.
And 40 minutes later, we’re still climbing.
And 60 minutes later, we’re still climbing.
And soon we are soaked in sweat, and there are bugs the size of Volkswagens, and they buzz so loudly, it sounds as if you are in the middle of some major city’s electrical grid, and branches are slapping in our faces, and we’re tripping through mud and streams, climbing on shaky rocks, and I’m thinking this has all the makings of a Chinese “Deliverance.”
And up ahead, steady as clockwork, Shang Quan walks on, hands behind his back, deep in thought, as if trying to decide if God exists.
Behind him, we are praying he does.
A modern superstar
Even as we’re walking, hours away, a tall Jamaican named Usain Bolt has gotten up at the eye-popping hour of 11 a.m. and has gone, as he will later explain, “to eat some nuggets.” I am thinking McDonald’s.
Then he watches TV.
Bolt is a 6-foot-5 phenomenon, a sprinter who only took up the 100 meters a little over a year ago and who is supposedly too tall to be fast in it, but has been blowing peoples’ doors off. He is 21, a kid really, and as he sits before a TV screen, he contemplates a nap.
This, by the way, is before the biggest race of his life.
Meanwhile, our race to the Great Wall has become a question of which comes first: reaching our goal or bleeding to death from branches, thickets, pickers and falling down. And, of course, I’m wearing shorts because, well, there is no because; I’m just an idiot.
And there’s 67-year-old Shang Quan, marching on, brisk and easy, turning now and then to smile and yell “zhixing!” (“straight on!”) as he steps lightly through the muck.
“How often do you climb up here?” I ask him, through Alex’s translation.
“Every day,” Alex says.
Every day? Up a mountain to the Great Wall?
“Since he was a little boy.”
His skin is brown from the sun. He has the straggly hairs of a mustache. His father was a farmer and he was too, until his crop dried out. He asks where I am from. I tell him.
Then I fall into a hole.
“Walnut tree,” he points out, when passing it.
“Pear tree,” he points out.
Walnuts, pears. We find some mayonnaise, we got a Waldorf salad.
The final destination
The Great Wall is actually many stretches of fortification built at different times over 2,000 years, going back beyond the First Emperor, who employed more than a million slaves to build the thing. There are strong, healthy parts and decaying, crumbling parts. But the concept in all parts was the same: Keep the enemy out.
As I smack my face from bugs and slip on crunching gravel and enter a patch of weedy growth so high it envelops us over our heads, I wonder why those emperors didn’t just build a moat, buy a few alligators and call it a day. I mean, honestly, who would tramp through this jungle to attack? It’s like “The Blair Witch Project” in here.
“How much longer?” someone asks. I don’t know. Maybe it was me. I couldn’t see myself.
“To the Wall?” Shang Quan says.
No, to Macy’s, I want to answer.
“Yes, to the Wall.”
He says something, matter-of-factly.
“We’re on the wall,” Alex translates.
And, by gosh, we are. Weeds and small trees have grown through it, but there is stone on both sides of us, and as we come through a clearing, suddenly we are near a ridge that overlooks the most spectacular valley, unfurling green mountains that stretch across the horizon.
And there, stretching to our left and to our right, is a magnificent, winding, stone and earthen wall, sky to sky, as if God dropped a ribbon down from heaven.
Who needs the big city?
At the same time we are gasping for words, Usain Bolt has risen from his nap, “had some more nuggets” and then headed over to the stadium for his semifinal and final.
In the semis, Tyson Gay, one of Bolt’s chief rivals – and America’s top sprinter – finishes fifth and fails to make the final. One less obstacle for Bolt, who will wear golden shoes in the Big Race.
Meanwhile, Shang Quan, who wears sneakers made by 7Chun, a Chinese manufacturer, is walking the wall as if it’s an old friend. He says he treks up sometimes by himself, because it’s “peaceful.”
Nothing but cicadas and the wind.
He says he hasn’t been to Beijing in 16 years. I ask if he’d ever want to see America.
“What would I do in America?” he says.
Wow. What must his world be like, so cut off in his village that he can’t even imagine a trip to the States? I feel sorry for him.
“Does he know about the Olympics?” I ask.
Over his shoulder, he answers.
“We watch every day. On satellite.”
OK, maybe I shouldn’t feel sorry for him.
Life in the fast lane
Later, when the sun has set and the hour has grown late, Usain Bolt and his golden shoes line up in the starting blocks. And when his name is called, he makes a pose as if about to shoot an arrow.
The gun goes off, eight men dash forward, and the crowd rises. Midway through, Bolt separates from the pack, taking those long, big-man strides, and with about 20 meters to go, he starts looking to the side, making a face as if to say, “How could you doubt me?” He even pounds his chest once and nearly tiptoes into the finish line.
Despite all these theatrics, he breaks his own world record with an amazing time of 9.69 seconds. Had he actually focused on the race, he might have threatened 9.6.
“I didn’t come here to set world records,” he will say. “I came here to win.”
He takes his victory lap, blow kisses to the crowd, does a hip-shaking dance, and later meets with the press, while slouching in his chair, giving halfhearted answers. Some reporter asks whether he were paying homage to God with his look to the stands and Bolt quickly says yes, that was it.
Sorry, but unless God is sitting with the photographers, I’m not buying that one.
Earlier, after a 90-minute trek down from the Wall – making it three hours in total – we had come to a parting with Shang Quan. I rolled up 500 yuan (about $70) and handed it to him, thanking him. He was so appreciative, he invited us to his home. It was just past the donkey and down the road.
The last we saw of him, he was waving good-bye, flashing his half-toothless smile, the mountains in the background, one of man’s great marvels part of his backyard. He will scale it again today, perhaps about the time Usain Bolt receives his gold medal.
So you tell me. That medal is significant. But it seems the Fastest Man On Earth is one who knows where he’s going every day, gets there safely and comes back.
If so, Bolt will have his gold, but I’ve already met the gold standard. He’s selling almonds.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Missed a day of Olympic columns? Go to www.freep.com/mitch.