Kind­ness of Strangers

The help she needed came from an un­likely source

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Cover -

BY JO­CE­LYN GARWOOD

Af­ter seven years in China and three years in Jor­dan, Jo­ce­lyn Garwood is now a ‘roam­ing re­tiree’. She has also spent time in North Africa and Europe. Her hob­bies in­clude pho­tog­ra­phy, writ­ing and travel.

UN­DER­STAND­ABLY, most first-time visi­tors to China want to visit the Great Wall, and the sec­tion of the Wall they typ­i­cally visit is Badal­ing. But dur­ing the seven years that I lived in Bei­jing, Badal­ing never par­tic­u­larly ap­pealed to me, as it was just too ‘touristy’.

The Mu­tianyu sec­tion of the Great Wall is about 70 km from Bei­jing, well re­stored and sur­rounded by lus­cious for­est. This was the part of the Great Wall I liked to visit.

How­ever, be­ing a keen hiker, one day in May 2000, I opted for some­thing wilder, more un­tamed, more chal­leng­ing: Si­matai. This sec­tion of the Great Wall is about 120 km from Bei­jing and has far fewer visi­tors than most other sec­tions of the wall. This is largely due to the fact that it is not very con­ve­nient to get to and is ex­tremely steep. It was also in a poor state of re­pair when I vis­ited.

At the en­trance to Si­matai was a group of per­sis­tent ven­dors try­ing to sell post­cards. One tiny old lady seemed to be shad­ow­ing me wher­ever I went, and I was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated. How many times does it take for ‘No!’ to sink in? I thought. I fi­nally ended up run­ning away just to es­cape this tiny wisp of a woman.

Once I caught sight of the Great Wall, ex­hil­a­ra­tion over­took me, and the tiny old lady with the post­cards

van­ished from my thoughts. I raced up the Great Wall, pow­ered not by com­mon sense, but by adrenalin.

Then, half­way up, I stopped and sud­denly re­alised I was rush­ing along a pre­cip­i­tous ‘path’ no wider than a me­tre and car­peted with loose gravel. There were no ‘walls’ and no rail­ings – only sheer drops on ei­ther side. I re­mem­bered then that tourists had fallen to their deaths in this sec­tion.

My aver­sion to heights kicked in and I stood there com­pletely im­mo­bilised. I was alone. A wind came up and ver­tigo set in. I was so paral­ysed with fear that I was un­able to move for­wards or back­wards. Sud­denly, I felt a small hand on my back and a soft fe­male voice telling me, in Chi­nese, not to be afraid, that she would slowly lead me to the top. And so she did – care­fully and gen­tly guid­ing me, from be­hind, up this nar­row, un­even, pre­cip­i­tous path­way, all the while re­as­sur­ing me that every­thing would be fine. Half an hour later, we reached a sec­tion that had a few wall rem­nants. They blocked the view of ver­ti­cal drops on ei­ther side, which gave me some re­lief. I was also able to turn around to see who had ex­tended such kind­ness to me in my hour of great­est fear. It was the tiny old lady who’d been pes­ter­ing me, the tiny old lady I’d told a dozen times – even­tu­ally shout­ing at her – that I didn’t want any post­cards. I felt ut­terly ashamed of my­self. I leaned down, gave her a big hug, then later bought ev­ery one of her post­cards. She broke out into a broad smile, re­veal­ing a sig­nif­i­cant lack of teeth, took my hands in hers and squeezed tightly. Even now, all th­ese years later, as I re­call that event, I am over­whelmed by feel­ings of grat­i­tude.

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