Kindness of Strangers
The help she needed came from an unlikely source
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.