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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 23, 2008 8:32 PM

The Great Wall

Posted by Steve Kelley

At mid-morning Saturday, I was sitting on The Great Wall talking on my cell, doing a radio show back to Seattle on KJR and thinking how absolutely trippy this was. I was talking about Brandon Morrow and LeBron James on one of the most famous sites in the world. It was one of those moments when I realized how lucky I am.

It was affirming. I did, after all, make the right decision to leave the world of washer repair (which I was lousy at) to pursue a life as a sportswriter. (Insert your own joke here.)

I would have kicked myself all the way back to Seattle if I hadn't come here, to the Wall.

Once again, it was getting late in the Olympics and there was so much of Beijing I hadn't seen. That's the nature of the Olympics. It is consuming. The morning events are followed by the evening events, which are followed by a brief sleep and then the process is repeated. It happens like that for most of three weeks.

Let me make it clear, I'm not complaining. During the Atlanta Olympics, I didn't feel a compelling need to get out and about and away from the Olympics. But this is China. Who knows if I'll be back? And there is so much to see. How could I leave Beijing without a trip to the Wall?

Here's the good news. I have a friend, Karen Howard, who has cut my hair for more than 20 years. (The job is getting easier, as the hairline continues its rapid recession). She has a nephew named John Tracy, who is living in Beijing, learning the investment banking world. Like so many late-20-year-olds living over here, he is adventurous and full of energy.

We met at the Kerry Center Hotel, hired a cab for the day and went to the Wall.

I don't know what to say about it that hasn't been written about or said a thousand times, but it truly is remarkable, snaking along the mountain ridges for as far as the eye can see.

It is one of those ancient sights that, as hard as you strain to figure how this was constructed, it is impossible to envision. It's like the pyramids, or the hanging gardens, or the Space Needle.

"They say that the Wall wasn't built with stone, but with the bones of the Chinese workers, because so many of them died up here," John tells me.

Hundreds of thousands of workers built the wall. Many of the workers were prisoners sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for their crimes. Building the wall must have felt like a death sentence. Beijing's weather is so severe, workers died from the searing heat. They died from the bitter cold. And they died from the grueling and dangerous work.

Construction began 2,000 years ago. Separate walls were built and connected to protect China from "mauauders." Standing on the wall and looking at the rugged, lush, green mountains on the other side, however, the Wall seems almost superfluous. Just getting through the mountains should have been daunting enough. I was thinking they could have built a few lookout posts and saved a lot of lives and stone.

But then they wouldn't have this great place for tourists to come, just a little more than a half hour from the heart of Beijing.

The fact is, the Wall didn't work. Guards could be bribed. They could change sides, like baseball free agents. The Wall's most effective purpose turned out to be as a highway above the mountains that transported people and goods smoothly. It was a better freeway than a fortress. Or at least that's what I've been told.

Now it just transports tourists. Thousands and thousands of tourists. It attracts vendors who hawk goods, food, drinks and trinkets at the base of the Wall.

Still, you can get a moment of space in the sea of people and stare in either direction at the roller-coastering ribbon of stone, and just appreciate the Wall for the scale of the project that it was and the spectacular piece of architecture that it is. We got lucky. The day was clear and sunny and we could see forever.

John and I went to the Mutianyu portion of the wall. It is made of granite and dates back to the Ming Dynasty. (I can read a guide book with the best of them). The views are especially good here, and the Ming Dynasty towers really make you feel like you're at the part of the wall that you've seen so many times in pictures.

A cable car can take you to the top, but John, being young and in shape, insisted we climb. And me, not wanting him to think I'm some kind of wuss, agreed. (I tried to use the excuse that I broke my ankle just three weeks ago, which I did, but John wasn't buying that.)

The trip up was easy and the trip down was a blast. There is a tobaggan ride that looks like the luge run at a Winter Olympics that takes you down the side of the wall. It actually is as tame as a water park slide, but still fun, although I doubt it has much to do with the Ming Dynasty.

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