* Aug 2:
Usually, I do not go to places of tourist interest. The entry ticket to these places is very expensive and I’m carrying the hard earned savings of my friends who have contributed for my journey. My Chinese friend Li Min asked me if I had been to the Great Wall of China. I said no. He replied, “If you come to Beijing and do not visit the Great Wall, then it is like committing a crime.”
Actually, I am low on money. I knew that it would be very expensive. The entry ticket was Rs 650 and bus travel was another Rs 350 plus expenses.
I told my Indian friends that I want to go to Great Wall of China and it is going to cost Rs 1,000. My friends said that I must go. Then, I went to another Chinese friend whom I fondly called Brother Ho. His beard looks like Ho Chi Minh – the father figure of Vietnam. He was my guide in China. He used to plan for me. He was perfect in making plans and noting all details like bus no, timing, name of stops and walking distances.
Next morning, I woke up at 5am and freshened up. Brother Ho was supposed to leave that day so I requested him for a photograph. He was still in bed. I felt terrible disturbing his sleep but did not want the life long regret of missing his photo or contact.
He woke up and freshened up. He took several photographs of me with his big camera. I clicked a few of his with my mobilephone camera. He walked along with me for breakfast. On the way, I made it clear that I would pay for breakfast because he had already paid my bill on more than two occasions. He did not say anything. However, when we bought the breakfast, he secretly paid the bill. I felt bad. He convinced me that I should pay for him when he comes to India and I agreed.
I was carrying food and a water bottle in a polythene bag like in India. He said that I should take a rucksack because the trek to the top of Great Wall was tough and was going to test my strength. He loaned me a rucksack.
I took the bus as directed by Brother Ho in his notes. But I got confused after sometime.
A pretty lady was waiting for the bus. I requested her to explain the directions. She explained in broken English but I could not understand as underground subways can be quite complicated. There were more than eight subways just like the one near Metro Cinema in South Mumbai.
While she was explaining, an electric bicycle hit her. I don’t know how badly was she hurt. But she said its okay and she walked with me. I was feeling very awkward to walk with a pretty lady on an unknown street in unknown city. She dropped me at the bus stop and forwarded her hand to shake. It was the most delicate hand I have ever shaken. I expressed my gratitude and she walked back to her bus stop.
From there, I went to Star bus stop which is like a major junction. I thought it was a weekday so there wouldn’t be a crowd. But I was wrong. There were loads of people and 10 buses were waiting in three lines. I was not in hurry so I preferred to go on a bus with a vacant front seat. I did not want a bumpy ride.
The bus was almost full but a seat next to me was empty. Eventually, a schoolgirl ran towards it and occupied it. She said ‘Hello’ and I waved ‘Hi’.
She got a mobilephone from her mother, typed something in Chinese and pasted it in a translation app. It read, “What is your name?” I said, ‘Vishnudas.’ She was blankly looking at my face. Then I showed her my name etched on my bracelet and said, “You can call me ‘Wish’ or ‘Pahuja’ which is my Chinese name.”
She said, “Can I call you ‘V’?” I replied, “Yes, you can”. But I didn’t want her to. My favourite character in the film, ‘V For Vendetta’ is ‘V’. I love that film besides Sholay, Crimson Tide and Seven Years In Tibet. I have seen these films more than seven times. I felt like I wasn’t worthy of the name ‘V.’ But she did not listen to me and after every sentence, she kept calling me ‘V’ with a strong Chinese accent.
After few minutes, another schoolgirl came to us. She could not speak English. But trust me, I did not need to know her language to communicate with her. I shared chocolates with them after taking permission from their mothers. They gave me some dry fruits. They told me their names but I cannot recollect them as they were very difficult to pronounce. Sometimes, a name is not very important. I taught them different ways to shake hands which left them in splits.
I have been entertaining my nieces, Kanchan (11) and Bhakti (7), in India for a long time. Both are sweet little terrorists. No one can make them happy at the same time. If I tell Kanchan that she is pretty, Bhakti will get something and hit me on my head saying, “You think she is beautiful and I am ugly?” If I tell Bhakti that she is pretty then Kanchan will get angry and throw things around the house. I am still learning how to deal with them.
Both the Chinese girls were making a lot of noise in the bus and I was feeling sorry for other passengers. Everyone was looking at me when the girls kept calling ‘V’, ‘V’. The younger girl could barely speak anything else. She pointed towards buildings, animals or trees from the window and said, ‘Oh V, see see’.
After half an hour, both girls got tired and slept with their heads in my lap. I could not move for an hour thereafter. I too was very tired and nodded off. The mother of one of the girls woke me up saying, “the Great Wall has come.”
I looked out of my window and saw that it was raining heavily. The rain had been chasing me from North East (India). I was running ahead of the monsoon in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. But the rain caught me unawares at the base of the Great Wall. I had no raincoat and was concerned about my mobilephone and passport.
I was reluctant to get down from the bus but the conductor pushed me out and I had to step into the rain. The mother of one of the girls took out her umbrella and told me to stand beneath it. Through gestures, she asked me to take care of her daughter and disappeared in the crowd.
I requested Chinese authorities at the base of the Great Wall if I could deposit my mobilephone and passport with them. But they refused. We were waiting for the girl’s mother to return. After 10 minutes, she came with raincoats for each of us. It cost Rs 100 and I offered her money. But she refused to accept it. She directed us to follow her and disappeared again.
It was raining heavily and roads were submerged under water. I held the hand of the Chinese girl and we started the climb. When we reached the entrance, her mother was waiting for us. She had bought tickets for each of us. I offered her money again but she said we would talk about it later.
We chose to climb on the North wall. They are gigantic and I wondered how long had the Chinese worked on it. It was raining heavily and we were walking slowly. The other littlegirl came towards me and held my hand. Now, both my hands were engaged. The three of us were walking in a row and were blocking half the path. As I was a foreigner and girls were very young, no one objected even when we happened to push each other.
It was a big green jungle divided into two parts by a barren wall.The young girl said, ‘V, ‘V’ and screamed as if she was in pain. I stopped. She pointed at the trees and asked if I could count them. I said there were several thousands of them.
After sometime, the young girl screamed ‘V’ ‘V’ again. She wanted to know where the trees had vanished. “Who stole them?” I laughed at her question and looked around. There were clouds everywhere and the trees were all hidden. We couldn’t even see people walking at a distance.
We were walking for two hours. I was hungry but I could not complain as two little girls were walking with me.There was a big pothole as big as those on the roads in Mumbai. I was pretending that I had enough energy to walk. After a few minutes, I suddenly felt inferior watching a woman climb the Great Wall in high heels and shorts. Somehow, I put all my energy together and continued walking.
Midway, there was an eatery. Another woman bought noodles for all of us. I offered her money but she said something in Chinese. Only the younger girl could understand English through the translation app on her phone. She typed and showed me what the woman had spoken: “You are our friend and guest so we will not let you pay. Enjoy!” I replied that it was a big amount (10 Yuan for the raincoat, 65 Yuan for the ticket and 12 Yuan for the food). The girl smiled and said, “Let’s continue walking.”
It was a five hour long trek and we only covered the North wall. From the north end, we came back to the central point. Both girls and I were eager to climb the South wall. But due to time restrictions, their mothers advised me to get back home early.
Once again on the bus, both the girls sat next to me. We did not chat much. We shared our food and after sometime, both the girls slept with their heads in my lap. I did not sleep this time. I was enjoying the satisfaction of watching innocent, young souls sleeping in my lap. I cannot put it in words. You would either have to be a mother yourself or have a similar experience of your own.
Both the girls and their mothers had come to drop me at my metro station which was far from where they lived. I high fived them in five steps__ right hands clap, then left hands clap, both hands vertical clap, both hands horizontal clap and finally a hug.
I realized that it isn’t an achievement to just climb the Great Wall of China. It is an achievement when as a senior you take the youngest members till the top of the wall, bring them safely back to base and at the end of journey, you make them smile even when they are tired.