ON THE Great Wall, China - China is the kind of country where you can camp on the Great Wall without a permit, but if you sit down in Tiananmen Square you might get a kick in the head.
Earlier this summer I went strolling through the square with my college roommates, Dan and Dave, who were visiting from California. As we walked around the vast expanse of concrete, the nation's political epicenter, police descended on clumps of simply dressed Chinese. They were members of the banned spiritual meditation group, Falun Gong, quietly demonstrating against a government crackdown in which tens of thousands of their comrades have been detained.
Police stuffed them into blue and white minibuses until no more could fit and then drove them around the corner to headquarters for questioning. The treatment was comparatively mild. Sometimes police punch, beat and kick the demonstrators, many of whom are middle-aged women and among the more polite and well-mannered people you'll come across in Beijing.
When the three of us walked up to the portrait of Mao Tse-tung that overlooks the square, police cordoned off the area. "What's going on?" I asked one of the soldiers who stood in a line blocking tourists.
"Nothing is going on," he replied, looking straight ahead. Behind him, police escorted another demonstrator into a minibus.
A couple of days later Dan, Dave, my wife, Julie, and I threw on backpacks and drove a couple of hours northeast of Beijing to the Great Wall, where we hiked across the mountains until we reached a 16th-century signal tower where we camped for the night.
Other than several vendors who accompanied us along the overgrown mountain paths, no one bothered us. The only government employee we encountered was a wall "ranger," who said his job was to protect hikers from overzealous, unregistered peddlers.
Sitting atop the tower, we ate Doritos and extra-crispy Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. After dark, we drank Erguotou, Chinese grain alcohol, while playing poker by flickering candlelight. We fell asleep beneath the stars. No one asked us what we were doing. No one seemed to care.
These experiences at two of the nation's most famous landmarks capture the paradox of life in China today, where there are unprecedented stretches of personal freedom, punctuated by rounds of mean-spirited repression. Depending on the place and circumstances, China can be a merciless, authoritarian state or a free-wheeling - often chaotic - developing country. The chaos sometimes induces headaches, but not, at least, from blows to the head.
The sort of repression we saw on Tiananmen Square seldom touches the daily lives of most Chinese. The Communist Party usually reserves its wrath for those with the courage to publicly challenge it. Given the mismatch - the government has the People's Liberation Army - most people don't dare.
In fact, most of those in the square don't even notice the arrest of Falun Gong members. Part of China's emerging middle class, they are tourists from the provinces too busy posing for photos in front of the portrait of Mao to pay much attention.
If political repression is among China's worst qualities, ad hoc style is among its most exhilarating. China is still relatively poor, and the government has neither the resources nor the will to thoroughly regulate a population of some 1.3 billion in a land mass larger than the United States.
While authorities continue to police Tiananmen Square like a prison yard, they leave most places - people's homes, offices and even the Great Wall - largely alone. Some places along the wall offer near-carnival amusements, with chairlifts, an alpine slide and vendors selling panda quilts. Most of the wall remains untouched, a dilapidated, picturesque version of the one an army of laborers built centuries ago.
For our camping trip, we headed to one of the more rugged sections, near the village of Simatai. Stocked with chips, bagels, orange juice, peanuts, raisins and M&Ms;, we made our way past the forest of apartment blocks with pollution-streaked windows that radiate out from Beijing.
Once off the airport expressway, we rolled past farm fields along a four-lane road filled with the traffic of a transitional economy: black Audi sedans, Toyota 4Runners, tractors puffing clouds of exhaust, horse-drawn vegetable carts. In the parking lot at the foot of the wall we bought bottles of water and 20 packets of toothpicks to use as poker chips.
Backpacking on the wall
The pleasant climb began with gentle switchbacks, then ran down a steep section of the wall where hikers have to grasp a hand railing to keep from tumbling. The journey continued across a suspension bridge where a man collected a grossly inflated toll of 60 cents. From there, backpackers mostly stick to wooded trails because the remains of the wall are so steep and crumbling that you have to climb hand over hand.
Two female vendors and one of their sons escorted us along the two-hour climb, pointing out the trails and even offering to carry our packs. When we finally reached the signal tower, they produced several Great Wall photo books from cloth bags.
"We don't want to buy books," I said.
"But we climbed all the way up here with you and showed you how to go," said one of the women. "It's a really long hike."
"We didn't ask you to come with us," I said.
"We did it anyway," she answered, smiling.
We had no choice. If we bought the books, they would leave. If not, they would stay. For a long time. In 15 minutes of bargaining I got them down to $10 a book - we bought three. It was more than I wanted to pay, but I had to admire anyone who would climb a mountain for two hours to make a sale.
Once our self-appointed guides left, we had the Great Wall to ourselves. It is lovely in the late afternoon light. Weeds, shrubs, even trees sprout from between the rocks, turning crumbling signal towers into giant planters. The wall follows the ridge lines of the mountains like a ribbon of stone. As the sun sinks, the shadows lengthen along the many turns and dips, accentuating the wall's snake-like curves.
For Dan and Dave, it was their first glimpse of China as it had been. Uninspired modern architecture has robbed the capital of most of its ancient charm. Earlier in the week, as we rode cloverleaf ramps surrounded by pillars of glass and steel, Dan kept saying over and over again: "It looks just like L.A."
From Mongols to McDonald's
But our campsite looks about as it did in 1550 when Mongol invaders blew through Chinese defenses and marched all the way to the Anding gate of Beijing's city wall. They were hungry after months of drought, and wanted, according to Arthur Waldron, author of "The Great Wall of China From History to Myth," to trade cattle for millet and beans.
The Chinese refused. They decided instead to reinforce and expand the Great Wall, building the part where we were encamped all these years later.
The strategy failed. By the late 16th century, the Ming emperors had lost control of their rural bureaucracy and tax system. Financially stretched by border attacks in the north, the government laid off employees in the west. One was a postal worker named Li Zicheng. The Mings were still building sections of the Great Wall in 1644 when Li and an army marched through the open gates of the city wall and took Peking.
That city wall is long gone, replaced by a dusty traffic circle with a KFC and a McDonald's to the north. But another wall stands in the center of the capital. Painted vermilion and lined with locust trees, it wraps around Zhongnanhai, the central government's leadership compound. Last year, 10,000 Falun Gong members stunned the party by staging a silent demonstration there, demanding freedom to practice their beliefs. The protest was the largest in China since a million people filled Tiananmen Square a decade earlier.
Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, a canny and thoughtful politician, met representatives of the group. Then, like the Ming leaders who refused to negotiate with the Mongols, the party gave in to its authoritarian instincts. It outlawed Falun Gong and sent its leaders away for lengthy prison terms.
A year later, the group's ranks have thinned, but it shows no sign of surrender. Nobody here thinks Falun Gong will topple the regime. Like the Mongols, though, the group has exposed fissures in a brittle political system riddled with contradictions.
Crushing common folk for criticizing the government is out of step in a land where people enjoy more freedom than ever to live, work and travel where they want. In an increasingly open society, walls are of little use.
Frank Langfitt is a member of The Sun's foreign staff.