On the minibus from Beijing, I spotted The Great Wall of China, long and winding against a backdrop of greenery, miles before I stood at its base. Jumping out of the minibus with the tour guide, I noticed a decidedly American institution in front of me: Subway.

American companies have a giant footprint in China, and they can hardly afford not to with 1.4 billion consumers there to sell goods to. Yet of all the companies I thought I might see outside The Wall, Subway would not have been at the top of my list. 

No matter, I did not come The Wall for a submarine sandwich; I came to soak in the history of a construction project that took hundreds of years to make. From what the tour guide said, The Wall wove across China for more than 13,000 miles. Where I stood was only a sliver of it, although as I stared at what appeared in front of me, I felt as if I had a bigger glimpse of The Great Wall than I did.

As I headed toward the entrance – nothing is free, not even in China — I kept my eyes fixed on what I could see of The Wall. I lost sight of it for a while because the hills and the ski lift blocked my view.

I jumped inside the lift, my feet dangling over the front edge, and took the ride to what amounted to base camp. Any effort to walk The Wall from this section of it had to start here. Once the ski lift dropped me off, the guide told me and the other nine people on the tour about the various points along The Wall where we could see, touch and explore the history of the place.

Despite its length, The Wall did not prove overly daunting. I did take note of how uneven the steps where, which made it difficult, the guide told us, for marauding bands of warriors to easily scale it.

She was right. As I walked along the top of The Great Wall, I saw for myself the problem the uneven steps presented. I found the footing a challenge as I moved to higher and higher points along it. Stairwells were too narrow; the steps, too slippery. Trying to walk The Great Wall too quickly, in my mind, was a sprained ankle waiting to happen. 

So I stopped long before others on the tour did. Not that I was fearful of spraining anything, but I just wanted to see what surrounded The Wall. I doubt anything had changed much over the centuries, so what the Mongols and the nomadic raiders saw when they sought to conquer China in the 1100s and 1200s, I saw as well: lush, green lands rolling along the undulating hills. All of it produced a picture of beauty outside of man’s making. 

I am certain other places have similar beauty. None, however, have a history like The Great Wall, which is a testament to what innovative architecture can produce. 

Certain Americans talk about building a “wall” here. They may or may not. Should they do so, they will learn what the Chinese learned: In all its magnificence, The Great Wall did a pitiful job of keeping the wanted from crossing their borders.