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  Field Notes From
The Great Wall



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On Assignment
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From Author

Peter Hessler



On Assignment

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From Photographer

Michael Yamashita



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Michael Yamashita


 

On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
The Great Wall

Field Notes From Author
Peter Hessler
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I stopped in a little village near the Shaanxi-Ningxia border and asked an old man if he could tell me how to get to some nearby ruins. He proceeded to give me a complicated set of directions that got me so confused I had to ask if the young boy standing next to him could show me the way. The old man agreed, and as soon as I opened my door five more kids climbed in. So off we went, and this old man—who probably never encountered a foreigner before and was grandfather to a couple of these kids—waved goodbye to us.
Sure enough, the children guided me to a beautiful spot where sand dunes buried remnants of the Great Wall. After they showed me around for about an hour, we returned to their village. Their parents and the old man were sitting outside waiting very patiently. They greeted me, and no one seemed concerned about who I was or what I was doing. The people in northern China just have this friendliness and openness about them. Experiencing that over and over again was a real highlight for me.



During the first half of my trip, I drove from Beijing to Shaanxi Province to meet photographer Michael Yamashita in a little town called Yulin. I wasn't there for long before I ran into trouble. Yulin has a reputation as being difficult for foreign journalists, which police confirmed when they pretty much ran me out of the place. And the worst part was that they called ahead to police in other areas. So every time I tried to stop, someone was waiting for me. The longest I was able to elude them was for six hours at a hotel, but they eventually came knocking there too. I ended up driving all night on bad roads in the rain to get out of the province.



I was driving through a desert in Ningxia Province when I saw a man walking along the roadside. I asked him if he needed a ride, so he got in, and we started chatting. I found out that he served in the Chinese army five years before and periodically wandered out to isolated areas to remember the kind of solitude he experienced when he was stationed in the mountains.
I also asked about his interests, and he told me that he was learning to drive and close to getting his license. Then there was sort of a pause in the conversation, and he said, "Actually, I would really like to try driving your car." He drove very slowly and carefully for about 30 miles (50 kilometers) through the desert, passing maybe one or two cars. That was the only time I didn't drive during the whole trip and it was a nice little break.





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