THE MIRACLE OF LIFE, LEGS, AND LOVE.
Entering a small village with a remote train station was risky; being arrested was constantly on my mind. Each time I left the security of The Wall ---in search of water and food--I was publically- exposed and so was my location.
Even stoppinng to rest-- for more than a few minutes-- was a dangerous luxury. I was constantly on-the-run. In the eyes of the Chinese Government---I was a fugitive.
All day, I'd been following railroad tracks to this location. Trains are the most popular way to travel in China and their train stations are always well-maintained. Here--I could expect a stove with boiling water, a bench as a place to rest, and—just maybe-- a less-obnoxious outdoor toilet. I was so-very tired.
My mileage meter showed I had completed 23 miles since 6 AM. Judging from the sun and my watch, it was 2:30 PM. I had been on-the-move, non-stop, for more than eight hours.
Pulling the camera from the safety of my backpack--- attracted the usual attention. Each day I took as many photos as possible to document this first-ever journey. It’s highly- unlikely I’ll pass this way again.
The spaciousness of the station was impressive. I needed to take pictures quickly as more and more Chinese crowded through the doorway to see the strange woman. The curious were both young and old. I couldn’t help but notice their very thin, shabby, and multi-patched garments. They grouped around me to stare as I aimed my camera at the large-framed paintings on the station’s back wall.
Suddenly a door opened and the station manager ran toward me shouting excitedly-- in Chinese--while waving his arms in front of me. I gathered from his agitation that cameras weren’t allowed to photograph the ancient paintings. Remember, I spoke very-little Chinese and, apparently, he didn’t speak English. Our verbal tug-of-war began then ended-abruptly as a young male voice--- on my right--spoke out:
“I will help you Missy Lady. I not speak it much but I write English.” The crowds parted as a young man with only one leg and leaning on a crutch-like stick---hobbled toward me. In what I describe as “hop-scotch” English, the young Chinese—looking to be in his young twenties-- introduced himself as Zhao Li Gong and apologized for his limited vocabulary. I assured him that, at this moment, he was my hero and his English words were like manna from heaven.
Grasping a small rock in his right hand (I later learned that Chinese are not allowed to be left-handed) he transformed one of the station’s plaster walls into a blackboard. He scratched-out beautiful English in cursive, as he answered my many questions.
Li Gong wrote about studying long hours in high school so he could graduate with honors, attend college, and be an English teacher. But, China’s Ministry of Education rejected his many applications. In spite of having the highest grade in his high school, the Ministry of Education issued a letter, stating, “Chinese Colleges and Universities are institutes for physically-perfect students who are also highly-intelligent. Chinese students with disabilities and handicaps are not permitted to attend Chinese Colleges and Universities.”
Touched by the story, I yearned to hug this tall, baby-faced man who, at the age of eight, had lost his leg in a bicycle accident. Because public hugging or touching is forbidden in Chinese Culture (even between husbands and wives)--- I knew such a gesture would be shockingly-inappropriate. So I stood, quiet and still, knowing I was in the presence of a remarkable human being.
Remembering that most Chinese enjoy posing for photos, I gathered everyone around for a picture, including train station personnel and my new friend Li Gong. Craftily, I positioned everyone under the station’s large paintings. An enthusiastic onlooker was thrilled to hold my camera as I gave him a quick lesson in focus and how/when to click. The station manager, eager to stand beside me for the photos, seemed to forget about the station’s valuable paintings in the background. As my many new friends gathered on either side, waiting for the flash, I smiled through happy tears.
Soon, after refueling my water bottles and resting for a short while, it was time to go. The cold wind and threat of rain meant I must hurry; the tent had to be up before dark. Li Gong insisted on leading me to the next section of the Wall, which was more than two miles away. My cautious words could not discourage my amazing one-legged friend so, together, we began moving in a northeasterly direction toward the Wall.
By the time we reached our destination, there was very-little light remaining. Saying our final good-byes, my courageous friend handed me a small piece of paper with his name and address written in Chinese. Tucking the note into my vest pocket, I promised to send him a letter. Then, on instinct, I hugged my new friend. I wanted to reassure this overlooked-talent that someday soon, goodness would find him.
Beginning my long climb, I glanced back---one last time. Smiling bravely, Li Gong waved as he began limping home in the darkness.
Postscript: In 1994, Four years after completely my journey of ALL THE WALL, I accept the Chinese Government’s invitation to return to China. The Government wanted me to serve as their first Communication Specialist at China’s only Broadcasting Institute...located in the suburbs... outside Beijing.
One afternoon, walking down Beijing’s crowded Chong an Street, I spotted a young man with only one leg, walking toward me. Memories from the past… from a remote train station with ancient paintings… remembrances of a young, one-legged Chinese man who wrote English on the station’s wall….quickly merged-together. Noting the man’s hand-carved crutch-like stick I wondered---could it be him?!?!? Then, face to face, we looked at each other….and we both---stopped.
Yes, it was my friend. At the very same time, we reached out to grasp hands with each other. Regaining his composure, Li Gong told me about his new teaching job near Beijing. There, on the streets of Beijing, surrounded by curious strangers, I hugged my most unforgettable friend…again. It was wonderful to learn the Ministry of Education had reconsidered Li Gong's request to attend college; to realize his dream. At long-last-- Li Gong was now--- an English Teacher.
Let me back-track for a moment: In 1990, after completing my Great Wall Journey, I insisted on meeting with China’s Ministry of Education. I told him my story about meeting Li Gong during my Great Wall Journey and urged the Education Director to let the brilliant young man fulfill his dream of becoming a teacher. The Director, obviously interested, listened but--- remained noncommittal. Before leaving his office, I stressed the importance of my request-- thanked him for our meeting-- then left.
Shortly after the meeting, I returned to America...but I never stopped praying the Director would have a change of heart. Today, I knew my prayers had been answered.
Once again, I’d connected with someone from my past--- someone I’d met on my lengthy journey of China's Great Wall. Was it simply a chance meeting or was it another valuable part of a much-greater plan?
By now you know---I don’t believe in coincidences.