• Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

VISITING CHINA is one of those unexpected opportunities my wife Alexandra and I look out for: an invitation out of the blue from an old university friend who does a lot of work in Beijing. She won’t be there, but her contacts will host us. We scramble to renew passports and secure visas, do the barest of research - where to eat and shop, where best to hike the Great Wall - then hop on an Air China flight out of Vancouver. Twelve hours later, we arrive.

When I visited Moscow in 1987 during the dying days of Communism, I stepped into an alternate universe. Drably dressed people trudged through sinister streets like vanquished humanity. Few cars, empty shops, no neon. China may still be a Communist society, but Beijing is nothing like Moscow was then. It is abustle with ATMs and malls and cellphones. As long as they don’t rock the boat politically, people in China are free to try to make as much money as possible. Capitalism - the economic wing of democracy - has the official stamp of approval. In mercantile matters, they is us.

Alexandra can tote a 30-kilogram pack and face down polar bears, but she also has a city woman side. She loves buying shoes and can happily wander through stores for hours, touching things. Joining her on these expeditions in Beijing is my chance to earn some marital points, since according to her, we never take beach vacations. Apparently, Arctic beaches don’t count.

I can muddle by in a few languages, and before now, I’ve never visited a place where I can’t read the street signs and the only word I know is thank you - hsieh-hsieh - which Alexandra and I dutifully repeat 500 times a day, an all-inclusive mantra. To ancient Greeks, anyone who did not speak Greek was simply idiotically babbling “bar-bar” - hence the term barbarian. In Beijing, we are barbarians.

Thankfully, our interpreter, Rhianna Huang, bridges the gulf between us and the world’s oldest civilization. Twenty-three-year-old Rhianna has been seconded to us from her job of translating documents. You can get by without an interpreter, at least in Beijing, but Rhianna does more than bridge the language gap. She speaks English fluently, interprets what we see, answers our million questions and invites us into her life a little. This assignment is exciting for her too, because we are the first Westerners she has ever met.

Rhianna is part of a new generation in China. Her favourite entertainer is Céline Dion, and her favourite food is pizza. Addicted to text messaging and the internet, Rhianna is currently struggling with boyfriend issues. Her boyfriend and his traditional family disapprove of her work. It’s too independent a profession. She is torn between following the example of her half-sister, a dynamic, successful businesswoman, or teaming up with her boyfriend in his modest gem shop.

For four days of our 10-day visit, Beijing is conducting traffic tests in preparation for the Olympics, to see whether halving the number of vehicles will improve air quality. Cars with even- or odd-numbered licence plates are allowed to drive in the city on alternating days. If I were an athlete, I wouldn’t mind competing in Beijing if my event were swimming or pole-vaulting. But better air or not, I wouldn’t want to run a marathon on a typical 35°C August day. Even walking from store to store with Alexandra and Rhianna is dehydrating, not to mention insanity-inducing. After several hours of tailing two women in shop-till-you-drop mode, I have accumulated enough daily marital points to slip away and ogle the latest electronic gadgets.

Eventually, the three of us meet up at Tiananmen Square, the plaza across the street from the famous photo of Chairman Mao. The square, of course, became a tragic symbol in the West when soldiers fired on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. Trying to picture the scene, I ask Rhianna, with my usual lack of tact, whether she knows exactly where the tanks were positioned. She becomes angry.

“Foreigners are only interested in the bad parts of China - the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square,“ she snaps, repeating something she read online. “I prefer to focus on the positive steps China has made to develop.“

Later, after some harmless conversation defuses the tension, we watch what most Chinese come to Tiananmen Square to see - the ceremonial lowering of the flag at dusk. As Mao’s portrait watches beneficently, a troop of soldiers, chosen for their good looks and minimum six-foot stature, march to the flag at the north end of the square. Before hundreds of spectators, the Five Stars is lowered and crisply folded. Then the soldiers withdraw, moving in unison, like wheeling birds. The sombre pageantry brings a tear to Rhianna’s eye.

FOR THE NEXT THREE DAYS, we graze on Beijing’s tourist attractions, including the Summer Palace, with its delicate gardens and lake fringed with bath-mat-sized lotus leaves, and Tiantan Park, at whose temples the emperor used to pray for a good harvest. At the indoor Silk Market, which sells more than silk, aggressive vendors hawk their wares, many of which sport ersatz logos like Samsonite and Calvin Klein. When Rhianna counsels us on a fair price, the vendors try to intimidate her: “You’re not being Chinese. Help us, not the foreigners,“ says one retailer. “Don’t say anything.“ But Rhianna has an independent streak that resists this sort of pressure.

Our chopsticks skills improve every day, although oily noodles continue to squirt from my grip like live trout. Our most unusual dish is donkey meat, which has a dark, nutty flavour, surprisingly good. But stalls in a tourist hútòng, or alley, off Wangfujing Street proffer much wilder fare: scorpion kebabs - the scorpions still wriggling on the stick before they are fried - grubs, locusts, starfish, sea horses. Rhianna pulls a face at this exotica. She likes pizza, remember. So one night we treat her to Annie’s, an Italian restaurant popular with English-speaking expatriates. After our travails with chopsticks, it is fun to watch Rhianna puzzle over how to spear a slice of tomato with a fork.

One afternoon, I wander an upscale mall at the foot of Wangfujing Street. Rhianna’s grandmother in the country may still live on $60 a month, but here in the capital, enough people have hit the jackpot to support the most exorbitant display of luxe I have ever seen: an $800 pair of jeans; a diamond-encrusted Vertu cellphone for $100,000; watches of indescribable elegance, not just familiar über-brands like Rolex and Omega but masterpieces of Swiss engineering with double-barrelled names like Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Girard-Perregaux. In my limited experience, only the airport mall in Dubai, awash with diamonds and Lamborghinis, compares to it. Yet you could buy a Lamborghini for the cost of some of the timepieces in these Beijing boutiques.

In sticker shock, I exit onto Wangfujing Street. China really has changed since those two traumatic events that Westerners focus on so much, the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square. Still, I wouldn’t want to be an environmental crusader or a champion of Tibetan culture in today’s China. But if I were a billionaire, I could now live here in a style befitting my means. That, too, is a revolution, of sorts.

RHIANNA HAS TO GO back to her day job, so Alexandra and I visit the Great Wall by ourselves. Visible even from the highway, it snakes along precipitous ridgelines atop the lovely rumpled mountains outside Beijing. Would-be invaders faced not just the Wall itself. Some of those ridges challenge even serious climbers. Over the centuries, thousands of workers died in its construction, and their bones lie interred within the brick.

The Great Wall near Beijing has three faces: Badaling, the Simatai-Jinshanling section and what some call the “wild wall.” On a summer weekend, 20,000 people a day visit the reconstructed strip at Badaling. Even mid-week, walking the Wall is like filing through the turnstiles after a Stanley Cup final. People shuffling in small steps, with the pace of the crowd. Graffiti on every brick. A gauntlet of souvenir kitsch. At the base of the Wall, for a few yuan (a couple of dollars), you can feed a live chicken to a lion or dress up in faux imperial robes and climb aboard a Bactrian camel. By contrast, the “wild wall” is totally undeveloped and sometimes hazardous and can be reached only by bushwhacking or trudging through farmers’ fields.

The 10-kilometre-long Simatai-Jinshanling section falls between these two extremes. A mere 200 people a day hike this fabulous stretch. From the village of Simatai, just over 100 kilometres from Beijing, we take a cable car partway up the mountain. A switchback trail leads the final 150 vertical metres up to the Wall.

The Great Wall of China is as much myth as mural. A National Geographic article from 1923, before magazines checked their facts, boldly proclaimed that it would be the only human object visible from the moon. This became one of those “too good to be false” tidbits that entrenched itself in the popular imagination. In fact, the Great Wall can barely be seen from a low-Earth orbit. If it were visible from the moon, then Trans-Canada Highway, which is wider, would be also.

Various guesses about its length - 6,200, 7,200, even 50,000 kilometres - assume that the Wall is a single entity. It is actually a series of walls, built and rebuilt over 2,000 years, sometimes with secondary walls in parallel. The mortar-andbrick sections near Beijing date back to the Ming Dynasty of 1368-1644. Elsewhere, the Wall is often tamped earth.

The Great Wall is the largest man-made structure in the world. I thought it would feel like the Eiffel Tower: a postcard icon that you admire for an hour. It has more staying power than that. At Simatai, the Wall sits astride a steep ridge, rising six metres or higher from the surrounding forest. At one spot, it ascends such a dizzying slope - it looks nearly vertical - that authorities have roped it off for safety. On hills, narrow stairs replace the cobbled walkway. The watchtowers that rise every 150 metres or so once lodged troops and were used to store grain and weapons. Now their vaulted ceilings give shade to tourists, and their crenellated roofs serve as bases for cellphone towers.

Most hikers walk from Jinshanling to Simatai, the opposite way from us, because it’s slightly more downhill. But I had heard that you can sleep on the Great Wall at Jinshanling, an alluring prospect. The well-paved sections around Simatai soon yield to broken bricks. Plants grow through cracks where mortar used to be. Often, we have the Wall to ourselves. Now and then, a small party trudges past us from the other direction.

Each guardhouse hides a local woman who has trekked up at dawn with a back-breaking load of ice-cold water bottles - a boon in the withering heat. The empties have value, so a natural recycling program takes place from one tower to another.

With her usual eagle eye, Alexandra catches the subtle wildlife of the Great Wall: a green praying mantis, almost invisible on its bush; a scorpion in the deep gloom of a cracked rock; a spider above an arrow slit unsuccessfully attempting to creep up on a lizard.

With picture taking and frequent sabbaticals in the cool towers, it takes us a little over four hours to reach a guardhouse above Jinshanling. Here, a local woman presides over a small souvenir stand. Through gestures, I indicate to her that we’re interested in sleeping on the Wall. She phones her husband, who speaks a little English. This local outfitter is the only one permitted to host sleepovers. If arranged through a Western intermediary, it costs $300 per person, but for barely one-tenth of that, we get our own guardhouse, sleeping bags and cots, a 12-course dinner in nearby Jinshanling and a muesli and tea breakfast on the Wall itself the following morning.

A soft dusk deepens into night on the Great Wall of China. Shunning the guardhouse, we drag our bamboo cots outside and climb into our sleeping bags. As many stars shine above as there are bricks in the Great Wall. Alone amid a billion people, we fall asleep, content.