The Great Wall

SMUS-Views-Bob
The Great Wall in the snow, March, 2012

I did get a new iPad, by the way, for those who read my blog of a number of weeks ago; I mentioned it this morning in Chapel, as I talked about the Great Wall, north of Beijing.

Every March I travel to Asia for about two thirds of the break, visiting families and alumni. This year we went to Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen, in Guangdong province in China. We do this because we want to build longstanding relationships with families in these countries where longstanding relationships are valued. We also think it’s important in this small way to visit families and alumni in their home cities, to make the point that our school doesn’t just sit back in Victoria and expect the world to come to us.

Normally we also visit Tokyo and Taipei, but not this time. The first Asian student at SMUS came from Hong Kong, graduating in 1970; his son is currently a boarder in Grade 12. In Seoul we had a wonderful Korean dinner with parents and students in an old, authentic Korean building half way up the rugged hills behind Seoul; our Korean families host such a dinner every year. In Beijing we stayed at the Fairmont Hotel, where an alum of the school is the Director of Marketing – the school family crops up everywhere, and makes our travel both easier and less expensive.

On the Sunday before we left Beijing, our plan was to visit the Great Wall. It had snowed about three inches overnight, and Beijing – which is already a relatively attractive city – never looked prettier. If you have been to Beijing, or have read about it, you know that heavy traffic fills the roads around the clock, so the question was, “how long will it take us to get to the Great Wall – one hour or two?” The first 45 minutes of the drive were surprisingly clear sailing. The snow had scared people off the roads, and the snow plows that the driver feared would impede us had already done their work. As we approached the Wall, at Badaling, which is the busiest part of it, the city thinned out until it was mere countryside: quite a juxtaposition to the relentless concrete and steel that is Beijing itself. Out here, trees cover the rugged and forbidding hills, these hills explaining why the Wall was built here in the first place: to add some human obstruction to the challenging terrain that would slow down barbarian attackers from Mongolia and other points north.

Arriving at the site itself, I observed it was not as busy as the last time I had been here; again, the snow put people off. We took a cable car up to the top. This is one of the highest points on the wall, and at the top you can see for miles as the wall zigzags in an erratic path that delineates the ridges and hilltops that defend the rest of China. There is a cut-stone walkway about fifteen feet wide all along the top of the wall, where soldiers could shift as needed. Some of the sections are sloped at about forty-five degrees, making the climb difficult in the snow, especially for those ill-equipped souls who thought it was appropriate to wear dress shoes and heels. Many onlookers, holding onto the stone parapets at the side, were entertained by too-well-dressed tourists who had lost their footing and were tobogganing down the slope, but without a toboggan.

If you search the Great Wall on Wikipedia, you will find an excellent map of the various versions of it that were constructed starting in the fifth century, BC. The structure that we were negotiating was constructed at the start of the Ming Dynasty in 1505. The question is: does it make sense to create sturdy and elaborate walls to keep others out and keep yourselves in? It is the opposite of what we do at SMUS, where we want our students to have the courage, curiosity and character to explore. We want them to be on a footing equal to any students anywhere when they step onto the world stage. During the March break, while I was in Asia, our students went on service trips to India, Kenya and Buenos Aires, and rugby trips to Argentina and Uruguay. I take satisfaction in seeing and believing that this courage, curiosity and character are alive and well at SMUS.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.

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