Vicky Collins Online

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The Camel and the Cell Phone

Andres from Switzerland, his girlfriend, Paola from Brazil and I were riding on camels in the Thar Desert outside of the western Indian town of Jaisalmer. We were in a spot as remote as I’ve ever been, 21 hours by train from Delhi, just 60 kilometers from the border with Pakistan. It’s a flat, arid locale, punctuated by sand dunes and populated by only villagers, camel wallas and shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats. To me it was a place that time forgot, more like the Middle East than India. It probably hasn’t changed much at all in a thousand years. I felt like a silk or spice trader heading west into the desert. I was deep into my reverie on a camel named Michael when suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the Nokia ringtone. Dadadadadadadadadadadadada. It seemed our guide, Ali, was a very popular man. For the entire camel safari his cell phone rang. It rang on the sand dunes, it rang under the tree where we stopped to have our vegetables and chapati lunch, it rang at sundown while we were drinking our beer. It rang after we went to bed under the stars and it was the first sound I heard at sunrise. The Nokia ringtone, piercing the tranquility of the desert.


Ali and his cell phone


The Lonely Planet guide book said the power generating wind turbines that have sprouted around Jaisalmer were altering the historic and mystical qualities of the area, that they made it harder to transport yourself to another time and place. But I barely noticed them. I found it was Ali’s cell phone that kept me coming back to now. I had a similar experience while working at the Olympics in Beijing. Dean, Jim and I took a day trip to hike the Great Wall of China. We climbed in Hebei Province, in Inner Mongolia, about two and a half hours outside of Beijing. We took a 10 kilometer trek from Jinshanling to Sumatai. Up and down stairsteps in a place far out of the way. Yet there was cell service. No place this remote would be served by AT&T in the U.S.A. My colleague, Jim, who probably shouldn’t have been on the adventure because he was so busy with his Olympic assignment as the head technical supervisor of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, spent the entire trip talking on his cell phone. I have no idea how he managed to catch his breath as he scrambled up and down the mountainside. It was truly the most difficult physical challenge of my life, yet he yakked the whole way on his mobile.

We have gotten to a place where we are so interconnected that you can no longer escape, even in some of the most remote spots on earth. While in India I have stayed in touch with friends by Skype, email and Facebook. I tuned in to an computer chat on that my friend, Kerry Sanders, a correspondent for NBC News, was holding as he covered the rescue of the miners from Chile. There was really no update from family, friends and colleagues that was inaccessible to me from a half a world away. And even though I am grateful for all the technology and connectedness at my fingertips, and understand the need of the camel walla to stay in touch with his people when he travels through the desert too, I still wish the only sounds that day were my thoughts, the wind and the camels, and not Ali’s incessant Nokia ringtone.

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Ginger and the Great Wall

There were two places on my must see list on this journey to China and this past weekend in an Olympic sightseeing marathon I visited both.  On Saturday friends and I flew to Xian for a whirlwind day trip to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and on Sunday three of us visited the Great Wall of China.  The Terra Cotta Warriors are amazing to ponder.  What compelled some Chinese royal to create such an army in the first place?  Did he really believe the soldiers, generals, archers and horses could help him rule in the afterlife?  And what would drive an invading army to pillage and burn such a spectacular treasure?  Were they not in awe like I was?  Archaeologists have done a brilliant job restoring the ancient warriors, and continue their work to this day, but answers to these questions still escape me.



As incredible as they are I’m not writing about the Terra Cotta Warriors.  I’m writing about the Great Wall.  We chose to visit a fairly remote section between Jingshanling and Sumatai after it was recommended by intrepid colleagues.  They said it was the most spectacular section and far less crowded than the areas at Badaling and Mutainyu that are packed with tourists and closer to Beijing.  They warned us though that it was a difficult hike with lots of steep sections going up and many areas where the wall is crumbling and difficult to descend.  It was an understatement.



It’s a two hour drive from Beijing to the spot in Inner Mongolia where we would embark on our ten kilometer hike.  As we entered Hebei province and the wall started to reveal itself in the distance a hush fell over the car.  The wall snaked its way up and down high green mountains and we all were quietly thinking this might be more than we could handle.  I suppose there are hundreds of reasons to talk yourself out of making this trip but if you muster the courage it will be one of the most memorable things you do in China.  Our driver left for Sumatai.  We had no choice but to proceed.



As we set off on the rugged wall in Jingshanling, a group of Mongolian farm women fell in step with us.  They had tsotchkes for sale and as we hiked they engaged us in conversation.  “Where are you from?  How long have you been in China?  Are you family?  Do you have children?” We really didn’t want them along.  It was an uneasy arrangement.  You don’t come to a place this remote to be hustled but as I struggled with one of the most challenging physical feats I’ve ever attempted, Ginger was by my side.  She coached me, told me to watch my step and walk slowly.  After 103 huge steps straight up, when I could hear my heart pound in my head and could barely breathe, she offered me a hand to help me up.  When she sensed I needed a break she would wait, and when she thought I could go on she would move again.  When I finally got up to the tower she would fan me in the shade.  “You are almost at the top,” Ginger would say.  “Keep going.”


At the halfway point as we crossed back into Beijing province Ginger had to leave.  I bought a t-shirt, some bookmarks and a bottle of water.  Another woman picked up where Ginger left off and walked towards Sumatai with me.  “Where are you from?  How old are you?  Do you have children?  I have twins.”  Before she headed down a trail to her farm I bought some bracelets from her.  Somewhere on the border of Hebei and Beijing provinces I pushed through the pain and found myself in a state of grace.  It occurred to me that we are all walking alongside each other on this journey.  You support me, I support you and we both come away feeling whole.  A short while later I made the final push to the top in Sumatai and rode a zip line down to the parking lot.  I felt powerful like a warrior.            

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