Where the 'dragon' dives headfirst into the sea

16:47, March 18, 2010      

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Old Dragon Head, the easternmost end of the Great Wall, plunges into the Bohai Sea in Shanhaiguan. Cui Lisheng / For China Daily

"He who has never climbed the Great Wall is not a true man" - the saying by late chairman Mao Zedong might sound clich until you've been to my hometown Shanhaiguan.

Founded in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shanhaiguan is a town located in northwest Qinhuangdao, Hebei province. The name, which literally means "The Pass of Mountains and the Sea", says it all.

The Great Wall's easternmost end dips into Bohai Sea to the southeast and traces Yanshan Mountains' peaks to the northwest.

Shanhaiguan defined the country's AD 1381 borders and protected the narrow passage between North and Northeast China from foreign invasions.

A typical Shanhaiguan tour starts with a visit to its two-story eastern tower, called the First Pass Under Heaven (Tianxia Diyi Guan).

Views from the tower offer a panoramic view of the town. Visitors can see the vast expanse of the sea to the south, the imposing Great Wall crowning the mountains to the north and the renovated old town, filled with gray-brick buildings.

I like climbing up to the tower and trekking the Great Wall on a clear winter day. The ancient artillery and fluttering flags along the wall evoke a sense of heroic solemnity. Sometimes, I imagine hearing the booms of the weapons and watching smoke rise from the beacon towers.

If the Great Wall were to be compared to a dragon, then the 20-odd-meter bulwark plunging into the sea is its head - hence the name Old Dragon Head (Lao Long Tou).

It was built to ward off invading navies under the leadership of Ming Dynasty military general Qi Jiguang (1528-1588). It's difficult to imagine how they managed to construct the wall on loose sand, amid the roaring waves.

Standing on the wall surrounded by the immense waters throws me into the sober realization that mankind and its efforts are puny in the context of the universe. It's an uplifting feeling that exorcises all melancholy and self-pity.

The two rocks standing side by side in the southeast of the sea are believed to be the tomb of Mengjiangnu, the chaste heroine of a Chinese folktale.

She arrived at the foot of the Great Wall to give winter clothes to her husband, a laborer, only to find him dead from hunger and exhaustion. She wailed so intensely for three days and nights that a section of the wall collapsed. In the end, she drowned herself in the sea.

It's said that no matter how high the waves are, her tomb is never submerged. A temple honoring her was built on Phoenix Hill, in eastern Shanhaiguan, in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Because I lived in a coastal town until age 18, my memory of seaside merrymaking is different than that of a vacationer, who might recall pretty girls sunbathing in bikinis and wild youths rollicking to boisterous music.

I remember beachcombing. And I recall being woken up in the wee hours and taken to the shore on a bicycle while still half asleep. Surely, I'll never forget chasing the little crabs that would scuttle toward the surf as the tides ebbed, with a small spade and bucket in hand.

I remember roaming the beach, trying to collect strange seashells, pebbles and, especially, sea glass - beer bottle shards ground smooth by waves and sand.

A seaside vacation is never a bummer, no matter where you go, and the same is true of the Great Wall. Shanhaiguan is the ideal fusion of these two splendors.

Source: China Daily

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