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The Great Wall and Ramadan

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By Talibeh Hydara
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It is fieldtrip again. That means excitement. This time, it is to the Great Wall, the largest man-made structure thousands of years old. The fascinating edifice stretches from the east to the west desert in northern China, cradling mountains like a dragon. The wall, which includes beacon towers, barriers, garrison stations, and fortresses, is an impenetrable integrated defense system; a feast of engineering. I was thrilled to climb the wall but I almost broke my fast.   

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I have been keeping fast in China since Thursday. It’s been easier than I originally thought. Our schedules have momentarily eased up a little, so that helps. Since we attended the international forum on democracy on Thursday, where I sat in awe of speakers from Spain, Zambia, Pakistan, America and, of course, George Galloway, one of my favourite speakers of all time, Chinese calligraphy was the only activity we had. Even that was brief but very relaxing and amusing. The international forum discussed how each country can adopt its own democracy based on the unique values of its people like China does. Athenian democracy started around 6th century BC in the Greece. Since then, democracy has been bastardised and some countries think they have the best version but what I learned from the forum is that the best democracy is one that suits to the values and traditions of a people, not other countries’ perverted concepts.

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Back to Ramadan. My colleague and I would occasionally go to Wumart supermarket to buy stuff, mostly rice, Irish potato, onion, beef, chicken, and other consumables. We would then take turns to cook our iftar. We initially struggled to make our food taste ‘Gambian’ chiefly because we are amateur cooks and, sometimes, we don’t have the exact spices. So far, it’s been great. It’s always great for me when there is rice and I was delighted to find out that as far as rice is concerned, there is no difference between Chinese and Gambians. This is a rice country. I can eat rice every day for the rest of my life and each time it would feel like the first. I might have been made of rice. 

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We stroll between Wumart and SevenEleven, a minimarket near the DRC. We frequent it so much that one of the staff has now recognised us because we always buy “jīròu” which is chicken in Chinese, and not “zhūròu” which is pork. It’s been an interesting adjustment. We say jīròu and zhūròu more times than any other Chinese word.   

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The most difficult thing I ever did in Ramadan is fishing when I was at the village. That might sound a bit of a stretch but when you’re fasting, you don’t eat or drink until sunset. It’s the basic requirement and the most difficult to fulfil. But while fishing, away from the accusatory eyes of people, I would have enough water around to drink and fish to eat, without anyone seeing me. But not once have I ever thought about it. That is tough, no? The rest of the things I do regularly in Ramadan are just…regular. Back when I used to play football, I would go for a run sometimes three hours before sunset. That is usually when it is so hard and you’re just hanging on. But it felt so effortless for me. What I am trying to say is that I never really faced any significant challenge in Ramadan. Maybe because I never spent it anywhere else beyond the comfort of family. This is the first time and it is a tough one.

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Welcome to the Great Wall, a genius defensive architecture that has been impregnable for more than 2,000 years. The Great Wall proved to be a tactical defensive masterstroke for Chinese soldiers as it prevented the invaders from entering and provided them with strategic offensive positions from the inside. The first astonishing structure inside the Wall is the rectangular Cloud Platform which dates back to the Yuan dynasty. Built from white marble, the Cloud Platform was once base of three dagoba towers. On the walls of the doorway, statues of four heavenly gods and sutra scriptures were carved. In numbers and groups, we took to the steps and climbed. One step at a time. The first steep is difficult to climb but that’s when I was energetic. I moved through the rest of the steps like I was carrying a bag of cement. Staggering like a drunkard and panting like a marathoner. There is no excuse, however, because up and down the steps, there are kids as young as five years or elders as old as 70 with walking sticks, smiling and relishing the challenge. You just have to keep going and I kept going. My pulse was pounding. My throat was drying. My stomach was heaving. But I could not give up and drinking water was not an option. If you climb the Great Wall, you’re a hero, so said Chairman Mao. I am a hero; a battered hero.

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Chángchéng connotes the indomitable spirit of the Chinese people; a nation and people who endured decades of brutality and then built a legacy that stood the test of time. It tells you everything you need to know about the Chinese; hard-work, grit and unity. The Wall is the Chinese people. The Chinese people are the Wall and that is why it has been an undiminished source of inspiration for the nation from its physical structure to being mentioned in the National Anthem. The Great Wall is a marvel; it has been for thousands of years. Not even angels could have built that defense system and stayed symbolic this long. Some made it up and down in a jiffy. I took hours just to descend while others spent 5 years to reach down. We almost called emergency air ambulance to pick them atop the wall.

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Reaching back at the residence, I dropped into the bathtub. You never know how small the bathtub is until you’re exhausted and want to just roll over. The warm water briefly massaged the tedium away. I nearly slept in it. My back. My waist. My knees. My ankles. My thighs. I felt like I was hit by a truck. I was static like a dead horse and went to bed by 9pm—the earliest since I have been here—and slept 11 hours straight. A tired body is a sleepy body and I slept like a corpse. Greatness, and fitness, can be attained at the Great Wall. It was a lifetime experience but Ramadan and the Great Wall cannot go together. I found that out the hard way; the hungry and thirsty way.

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The visit to the Great Wall was both touristic and didactic. The fun part involved chatting up, laughing, quiz on the bus, etc., while the didactic part involves unity and perseverance. We had it all and that is why we made it to the Red Tower. Cheers to our Chinese colleagues; Hu Jiliang, Chen Xinqi, Xie Weidong, Chen Xinyi, and, of course, the bus driver for a wonderful trip to a wonderful place. Next stop: Hunan! I will see you later, Beijing.    

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