Back in 2013, I stood on Jiayuguan fort, the end of the Great Wall in Gansu Province that was called “the Beginning of Nowhere.” The crenelations faced a vast and brutal desert that sentries used to guard, often watching merchants slip into the packed sand to continue along the Silk Road.
I think about this now in 2017, having just stood atop a fort on the Great Wall again, this time at the other end in Hebei Province’s Shanhaiguan — the Great Wall that enters the Bohai Sea. My hiking boots have been worn down, rips and seams gaping open and beyond repair. It wasn’t gritty sand caking my skin, but seasalt and the crashing sound of the waves below.
I wanted to end my trip at Shanhaiguan, because it’s more than the end of this trip, but the end of many trips that have taken me all over China’s diverse soil. My tattered boots and I have trekked sand dunes, mountain paths, seashores, and snow. We’ve gone all over China together for the past five years. And now, we’ve been to every single Chinese province.
Back when I first got these boots in 2013, I had no intention of traveling so much. In fact, before I came to China, I had never traveled alone, period. My first stay in an international youth hostel was in Shanghai in 2012, and it was thrilling because it was so new. When people recommended a place to visit, I searched for it on my then-clean map of China thinking “maybe someday.” China on that map was like a distant star then: something I could look at but perhaps never touch.
Since then, my map has been filled not only with ink, but with memories of where I was and even who I was in the moment I visited a place. At times, I was the lost foreigner. At others, the dusty hitch-hiker. I’ve had conversations with people that stayed with me for years. I’ve had conversations that I didn’t understand.
The road my boots and I have walked through China has greatly shaped the person I am today. Where once I was a terrified girl playing at being an adult, now I’m standing tall and walking strong. Though the world can be scary, I’m not scared to be a part of it anymore am ready for new things. So, it is with bittersweet satisfaction that I write this, knowing that I’ll have to replace those boots someday (soon, probably), and that all roads come to an end.
But as a friend in Changchun told me, the fort at Shanhaiguan is NOT the end of the Great Wall. It’s actually the beginning. The name “Laolongtou” (老龙头) means “dragon’s head,” which is the starting point.
And what better place to end, than at a beginning of something new?