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Stepping outside of the 2022 Beijing Olympics bubble to see a part of 'real China'

The Juyongguan Pass, part of China's Great Wall stands just roughly 30 miles from central Beijing.
The Juyongguan Pass, part of China's Great Wall stands just roughly 30 miles from central Beijing.

BEIJING — I felt like I was seconds from throwing up. Lifting my leg to the next uneven step took just about all of the (diminished) lower body strength I had. I was warned the century-old steps of the Great Wall were steep. But I wasn't expecting this steep. My layers of clothing certainly didn't help. I felt the weight of my shirt, two sweaters, scarf, hat, fleece-lined leggings under my jeans, and winter coat. It was hovering around 25 degrees outside, but I was sweating like it was 80. Once I got to the first landing, the views of the snowy mountains from the highest parts of the wall took my breath away. I wasn't supposed to be here. In China? Yes. On this centuries-old fortress? No. I'm part of the four-person NPR team that traveled to Beijing to cover the 2022 Winter Olympics. Before arriving we were told there would be no "going out." No visiting tourist spots. No going for a famous Peking duck dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. Our experience of China would be limited to what we got to see inside our "closed loop."This strict quarantine bubble is meant to keep COVID-19 from spreading to the larger Chinese population. It's also meant to keep the Olympic athletes and tens of thousands of people working these Games safe. People are only allowed to shuttle from their hotels, the press center, and various Olympic venues on specially designated buses and trains. There is no mixing or mingling with the regular population.Locked fences and other barriers surround these venues and the hotels. Security officers stand guard, preventing anyone from coming into this bubble or going into the city at large.Covering these Games and witnessing history (like Nathan Chen's gold-medal-winning performance) has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (That is unless you are NPR's Tom Goldman and the 2022 Winter Games are your 14th time covering the competition).I knew not getting to experience "the real China" (a country I've never been to), Beijing's culture, or getting the time to talk to ordinary locals would be a loss. Not just for me, but others who were going to Beijing for these Games. But this was the Olympics. These restrictions were a price I was willing to pay. Imagine my surprise that after about three weeks into operating within this closed-loop, I found out that officials had been organizing a weekly outside-the-bubble getaway to the Great Wall. And no, it wasn't a special screening of the 2016 problematic flop starring Matt Damon. This was the actual Great Wall. Organizers kept knowledge of these small group trips quiet. Only through a random encounter with other reporters did I find out this even existed. I jumped at the opportunity to sign up. When was the next time I'd get to go to China and see the Great Wall?Unfortunately for the rest of the NPR Beijing team, I was the only one selected. Sorry guys. (Editor's note: she's not really sorry).Forty other reporters and personnel from the Olympics got the huge privilege to see about a mile and a half of the Juyongguan Pass of the Great Wall. The more than 2,000-year-old structure, along with its fortresses, is striking. And it stands just roughly 30 miles from central Beijing. We hopped off the buses and all anyone could really say was, "Wow."Those steps though. A day later and I'm still hobbling.But like much of the restricted world of these Winter Games, this also felt curated. Instead of getting to step outside of our bubble, this was just an expansion of it. The section of Juyongguan Pass open to us was completely closed off just for this visit. Police even halted traffic on the highway as we headed in two buses to our destination. Part of the tour group were also members of Chinese media. In between taking pictures, I was drilled by seemingly friendly reporters from government-run media outlets. A simple question of "What did you think of the Wall?" turned into what felt like an interrogation into what I was covering at the Olympics. Reporters from television stations pushed cameras in our faces in an attempt to get an interview.Having to see such a huge piece of history is something I'll carry for the rest of my life. But the way in which I got to experience it felt divorced from reality. Even the volunteer guiding us wouldn't give me her real name. "Just call me Audrey," she said. As we drove away from this ancient landmark, the "real China" was still miles away, lost behind social distancing, face masks and fences. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.