Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tragedy at The Great Wall - Part 2


Olha o muro e edificio nunca crido,
Que entro um imperio e o outro se edfica
Certissimo sinal, e conhecido,
Da potencia real, soberba e rica;

Behold the Great Wall built beyond human imagination
against the uncivilized
Showing the impressive power and strength of King
full of pride and wealth

- from Os Lusiadas by Luis de Camoes (1524-1580) -

As is well known, China (Japan or Cipangu as an addition) was first introduced to Europe by Marco Polo (1254-1324), a Venetian merchant who made a Silk Road trek from 1271 to 1295 with his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo. On their return, the family settled in Venice where they became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners who had difficulty believing their reports of distant China. Since they did not believe him, Marco invited them all to dinner one night during which the three Polos dressed in the simple clothes of peasants in China. Shortly before the crowds ate, the Polos opened their pockets to reveal hundreds of rubies and other jewels which they had received in Asia. Though they were much impressed, the people of Venice still doubted the Polos. Marco Polo was later captured in a minor clash in the war between Venice and Genoa, or during the naval battle of Curzola, according to a dubious legend. He spent a few months of his imprisonment in 1298, dictating to a fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, a fortuitous meeting with a romance writer, who detailed accounts of his travels. This "travelog of Marco Polo", first appeared in French and then in many languages with illustrations by Italian artists, shocked all of Europe.

Did he mention the Great Wall? No, he did not. Absent were important cultural traditions of China such as tea drinking, calligraphy, binding of woman's feet, etc., and quite a few people today wonder if he had ever set foot in China.

Arguments regarding no mention of the Great Wall by Polo are that reinforcements to the structure came after the Yuan Dynasty since the Mongolians as invaders didn't take the Wall too seriously.

In any case, a Portuguese poet, Luis de Camoes, praised the wonders of the Great Wall in his Os Lusiadas, a Homeric epic of the Lusiadas quoted above; proof that the Great Wall was already widely known among Europeans by the 16th century.

Marco claimed he served Kublai Khan (1214-1294) for a decade, his detailed accounts of Xhandu, Khan's palace and celebration programs, paper currency, ocean expeditions to invade Japan, are very graphic, inspiring many Europeans to look toward Asia.


Was Temujin (meaning blacksmith), later Genghis Kahn (1214-1294), the first Mongol Emperor, the World Destroyer or the Green Savior? Following are the most famous GK quotes contrary to each other:

"My greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to drive them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathe in tears, to clasp your bosom their wives and daughters."

"Keep your grasslands and rivers always clean."

I read a theory that the cyclical climate change in Ural-Altaic forced Mongols, Huns, Uyghur's, to head south for food and survival. China had been invaded and threatened constantly for this reason. Grasslands in Mongolia helped raise and breed great horses that provided strength of speedy troopers with archery skills for the Mongolian Empire to reach Eastern Europe. Mongols hate harsh winters, especially the "Zud" condition, a Mongol term for an extremely snowy winter in which livestock are unable to find fodder through the snow cover and large numbers of animals die due to starvation and the cold. The term is used for other meteorological conditions, for instance, the desertification that makes livestock grazing impossible. "Keep your grasslands and rivers always clean" has been remembered and revered by Mongolians as Genghis Kahn's admonition.

Genghis Kahn's bloody conquests scrubbed 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere as depopulated land returned to forest. This is equivalent to the world’s total annual demand for gasoline today. So GK has been branded the greenest invader in history.


It is Qin Shi Huang (259BC-210BC), the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who first linked a number of smaller walls, built separately by six rival lords (Chu, Qi, Wei, Han, Zhao, Yan) after conquering them, and combined them into one wall, a first clear boundary of unified China. Initially, defensive fortresses were made of hardened dirt, but later when more sophisticated materials became available such as bricks, mortar adobe, etc., the walls gradually shaped into the Great Wall that we see today. It took over 2000 years, spanning from the Qin Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), excluding the Yuan Dynasty period when work on the wall was totally ceased. When the Yuan Dynasty collapsed, the Chinese Han once again took control under the command of rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. China flourished during the Ming Dynasty and its military might swelled. The GREAT WALL was rebuilt in a 100 year project to prevent further northern invasions. The walls close to Beijing, like the Bataling and Mutianyu sections, were built during the Ming Dynasty.

The manpower mostly came from frontier guards, peasants, disgraced noblemen, convicts and war prisoners. During the construction, Great Wall was called the longest cemetery on earth because so many people died. Reportedly it cost the lives of more than one million people.

There are two popular legends about the Great Wall.

One is the story of Meng Jiang Nu, a wife of a farmer who was forced to work on the wall during the Qin Dynasty. When she heard her husband had died while working the wall, she wept until the wall collapsed, revealing his bones so she could bury them.

Another is a story of a tall monster (maoren in Chinese, thick-haired man), haunting the Great Wall villages in Fangshan (known as cave mountain) in Hubei Province. The villagers were often annoyed with his appearances to look for food and hunt chicken and dogs. The monster ran away when they shouted, "Here come the drafters (meaning Qin's guard to draft GW workers).” Apparently he was a deserter and had hidden in a cave. (Source: from the "Zibuyu" written by Yuan Mei).


I read "Joint China/Japan Academic Investigators Reports of the Great Wall", written by Hiroko Uchiumi (Kusanone Publishing 2001) in two volumes, a most labored work. The group trekked an accumulative 6000 kilometers from Yumenguan, the western frontier near Dunhuang, to Shanhaiguan, Hebei, close to Qinhuan Island, a famous summer resort, from 1992 to 2001. The author was secretary of the group keeping records and facilitating communications between group members of Japan and China. It was reported that, in most of the areas, weathering progressed where little or no attention was paid for upkeep. I'm still in the middle of reading the book.

Researching the Academic Investigation group on the Internet, I found the comment of the Japanese group leader, Hisakatsu Fukuda, on a recent tragedy at the Great Wall. The average temperature in Beijing from October to November goes down sharply. The average low of October is 8 degrees C. Snow may come at 3 or 4 degrees. Now most of the Great Wall north of Beijing is 1000 meters tall, the difference of temperature could be plus or minus 5 degrees C. You have to consider the difference in temperature as you ascend the mountain. The tour must be guided by a veteran. Amateur trekkers should not go unless accompanied by a veteran. The site of the accident was far away from the village. Even veterans try to make it in a day, even in the summer, at 3PM at the mountain. Besides, he said he was sorry that none of them thought of snow caves or snow shelters in that situation.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tragedy at The Great Wall - Part 1


In mid-October, 2012, my American friend from Ohio emailed me that he had arrived in Jinan, Shandong, China, to teach English at the Shandong University of Science and Technology. He wrote that he took a trip to Beijing, taking his days off in early October and extended his visit to the Jinshanling. It was a typical Beijing clear sky of autumn to visit a relatively uncrowded section of the Great Wall. He sent a couple of excellent photos from Jinshanling, including German visitors he met on the bus. The Jinshanling Great Wall where my Ohio American visited is located northeast of Beijing, beyond the Miyun Reservoir, and further away than the Badaling section of the Great Wall which is always crowded with tourists.


My personal trip to the Great Wall was in the summer of 1996. It was on my way back from Yunnan Province, where I joined the Vermont University Summer Program of China Studies for Teachers. The State of Vermont has sister state relations with Yunnan Province as both have mountainous geography. The summer program was specifically set up for Vermont High School teachers but accepted a few applicants from other states. I applied from California when I was still a resident. There were 18 participants including myself - 14 women and four men. I was paired with a male teacher from Connecticut. The program ran for one month, hosted by Yunnan Normal College (now Yunnan Normal University) in Kunming. We spent mornings in class taking lessons ranging from Beginning Chinese and History to Calligraphy and more. In the afternoon we visited local schools of children, temples, scenic parks, etc. Three weekends were for long distance travels to Shilin, Dali, etc. We all flew back to Beijing after Yunnan and the Chinese International Exchange Bureau gave us a trip to the Great Wall while we were there.

We went to Badaling, due north of Beijing, the most popular and most visited site of the Great Wall. Xiao Song, an interpreter/guide from the Bureau accompanied us. She was a wonderful woman with whom I corresponded for a number of years afterwards. We took a cable to the North Eighth Tower (just about 1000 meters tall) and walked down. Xiao Song emphasized that Badaling was the most heavily guarded military outpost, reflecting the location's (Juyongguan Pass) strategic importance. Back then, Badalin was less crowded, even in summer.


The morning of November 6 brought devastating news: four elderly Japanese tourists became trapped in a snowstorm on the Great Wall of China. Then around noontime, sad news followed. Two women had died of hypothermia. One woman survived and was rescued followed by another. A missing man had been found, but was pronounced dead. The president of the travel agency was on his way to Beijing. Amuse Travel was the same agent that lost 7 elderly trekkers and a guide in a central Hokkaido mountain called Tomrausi (2.141m) in 2009. News media wondered if the "punitive 50 day business closure" didn't give enough of a message for the agency to improve safety precautions.

We learned that the tour was for nine days -- 100 kilometer trek of the Great Wall in a particular area reinforced by the Ming Dynasty, and the first trial project for Amuse Travel Agency. The Japanese trekkers were accompanied by a Chinese guide named Ming Pingming, 25 years old.

On Nov. 11, the remains of three seniors were flown back. One was flown to Fukuoka and transported to Kitakyushu, where I live. I learned he was 76 years old and an ex-city official, who served as Chief Librarian, financial manager as well as auditor. Upon his retirement in 2008, he took up mountain trekking as his hobby, often accompanied by his wife. I might have been on that excursion if I had known about it.

I had to dig deep to find out what happened in Huailai County, in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province. My Google search led to the Huiali County website where the Chinese Guide Pingming spoke in Chinese, which was translated into Japanese.

"On Nov. 3, we started climbing at 8 AM and at noon we were at the Great Wall near Mt. Hengling. Snow started falling fast and heavily at about 1 p.m. and soon we were snowed in, white everywhere. We knew about the snow forecast, but thought we could finish our trek before the snow came. Falling snow deepened and we had no shelter around as the temperature quickly went down. Everyone had worn special winter clothes but not enough to protect ourselves from mountain chills. Especially, Mr. Y, 76 years old, was unable to bear it and his condition gradually deteriorated. In view of the crisis, I asked a young Chinese named Gong, who voluntarily joined the trek group through the Internet, to go down and get immediate help. While waiting for help, we shouldered together to warm up. While so doing, we saw that Mr. Y's breath became stifled. Women encouraged him by rubbing his face and hands. I gave him semi-AED treatment without a machine but to no avail. As night approached, he closed his eyes. I couldn't tell the exact time he passed away. Snow continued without mercy. Three women were also getting weaker. We shared the last piece of chocolate we carried. Since there was no sign of rescue, I myself decided to seek help. Mountain roads which usually took one hour, took more than 4 hours. It was around noon when l finally climbed down, falling and tumbling as I approached a village and saw a group of rescuers. I was near exhaustion and taken to a hospital. Rescuers, however, searched for a long time for the three women left behind. I'm sorry that I was unable to assist in locating those left behind."