Feature: A Englishman’s dreams of Great Wall


BEIJING, Nov. 6 — When William Lindesay completed two and half thousand kilometers unescorted on the Great Wall, he probably didn’t expect the rest of his life to be defined by its battlements nor spent in the nation which it evokes.
Twenty-seven years ago, when he was 30 years old, the Englishman spent 160 days tramping on the Great Wall from the west at Jiayu Pass in the Gobi till it disappeared into the Bohai Sea at Shanhaiguan Pass.
Lindesay’s Great Wall Dream began when he was 11, just as China was building a “Great Wall of Ideology” during the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous decade that ended in 1976.
His headmaster had told him that he should have three books on his bedside table: the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and an atlas.
“On the map of China, I saw the beautiful sawtooth wave of the Great Wall, and I thought that would be a great adventure for a few weeks or months on the wall — the longer, the better,” Lindesay recalled.
However, when little William said he wanted to go to China, the headmaster told him there was a revolution in China and he didn’t know anyone who had visited the country.
Most people abandon their dreams too early, but Lindesay was lucky enough to be reunited with his “China Dream” as he turned 20. His brother Nicolas suggested the two of them run on Hadrian’s Wall, a 118 km defense that once divided Scotland from England, built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian nearly 2,000 years ago.
“It was a good time to be reminded of my dream because politics in China had changed,” he said.
More than 2,200 years ago, Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang began connecting fortresses along the northern frontier to prevent invasion and protect his territory.
Three decades ago Chinese people started to tear down the other “wall” that separated them from the outside world.
When Deng Xiaoping, chief designer of China’s reform and opening up, decided to renovate the Great Wall in the 1980s, Lindesay was inspired. “For me, the year of 1987 was not only an outdoor exploration, but also a political adventure,” Lindesay said.
The idea of a foreigner in China’s inland rural areas sounded like a story from “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” to most Chinese people in 1987, even reform was into its ninth year by then.
Loneliness during the trip propelled Lindesay into local people’s homes, where he was touched by their hospitality.
“They gave me perhaps the best they had, and at least I gave them a view of the outside world,” he said.
Villagers were fascinated by his great height, his long feet and hairy legs and by his unshaven face, “with absolutely no hostility,” he added.
After the great undertaking, Lindesay agreed to an interview with the press. To his surprise, he was relentlessly asked, “how can you prove you did it?”
“I had to show them the village names local farmers wrote in my notebook and stamps I collected from post offices along the wall,” said Lindesay, who also collected a pile of receipts for “fines” issued by local public security bureaus. Written with brush pens, “illegal tourism” was the reason for the punishment, with fines from 50 to 500 yuan (8 to 80 U.S. dollars at today’s rate).
Lindesay’s love affair with the Great Wall did not end with the trip. He had noticed some sections of the wall were badly damaged and covered with litter. Modernization and development were making the situation even worse.
“I’m from Britain, and we British started the Industrial Revolution as well as the age of consumerism,” he said. “I think the important thing is to realize sometimes those who do things first made big mistakes, and those who follow should be able to avoid them. Some people say it will take generations to change, I say we don’t have generations of time. It’s got to be much quicker,” he said.
“We can’t just rush into the future and forget the past even more quickly.”
In 2001, Lindesay founded the International Friends of the Great Wall, which uses volunteers from across the planet to collect garbage and protect the wall
Thanks to his contribution to the protection of the Wall, Yulin city in Shaanxi Province, which had deported him twenty years before, made him an honorary citizen in 2007.
Now a permanent Chinese resident, Lindesay lives in Beijing with his Chinese wife and two sons. He believes children are the most influential members of society, especially in China, because the family orbits around its youngest member.
“Once we let children become environmental warriors, we will be living in a good environment,” he said.
Lindesay’s apartment is in the suburb of Beijing close to the airport, and of course, convenient for him to visit the wall.
In a room with a mahogany desk, antique lamps and traditional Chinese decorations, a painting of Deng Xiaoping at the Great Wall is the focal point of his study. He bought the painting on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong at the beginning of the century for the bargain price of 280 HK dollars.
“I would have paid 5,000 for it! I had never seen Deng and the Wall in the same painting before. They both changed my life,” Lindesay said.
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