Wall Walk kicks off Hopkins-Nanjing fall semester

By Tiantian Shi

NANJING, China — At the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a long-standing tradition known as the Wall Walk brings together students, staff and faculty for an all-day hike along Nanjing’s city wall.

The event, usually scheduled for early November but moved up to Orientation Week in favor of ideal weather presented the perfect opportunity for new students to get to know each other, familiarize themselves with the city and work up a good sweat. American Co-Director David Davies, a veteran “wall-walker” of seven years, explained that the way a person moves through a given place is intimately linked to his or her understanding of that location. HNC students, with the subway at their doorstep and delivery apps at their fingertips, might not otherwise explore Nanjing in the manner that the Wall Walk proposes.

Covering a distance of 42 kilometers and winding through a diverse array of neighborhoods, the walk takes participants from Gulou District to Xuanwu Lake and follows the city wall counterclockwise before finishing back at Xuanwu Lake. Construction of the wall dates back to the Ming dynasty and took place over the course of 21 years, making it one of the oldest and longest city walls ever built in China. Although only certain segments of the original wall remain, they serve as important reminders of Chinese history and tradition.While historical landmarks cover the Wall Walk, more modern establishments also dot the route. This juxtaposition of past and present makes for a unique experience for participants.

After walking along a portion of the wall, the group came across a fully automated convenience store — individuals enter the store by scanning a QR code, browse items under camera surveillance, and complete their purchase at a mobile-payment machine; the only human interaction they might have is with fellow shoppers. For many Chinese students this was nothing new, but for many international students it was the first time they had ever encountered such a system.

Technological advancements were not the only sources of discovery. Hou Jingyi, a newly elected member of the banwei, or class committee, expressed her surprise at what she learned from the Wall Walk. Despite living in Nanjing for the past seven years, Hou first learned during the Wall Walk about Nanjing senior citizens’ love of taking their birds out for a morning stroll. 

“I thought we would mostly be walking on the wall and observing from afar,” Hou said. “So I was delighted when the route actually took us through neighborhoods I’d never explored and let us interact directly with the city and its citizens.”

Students also discovered the camaraderie that a painful but exciting experience can form. During the Wall Walk introductory meeting, Co-Director Davies emphasized how the trek was a great way to get to know classmates through discussions and debates. Certificate student Barry Chen was initially skeptical.

“I thought I would be too tired to keep up conversation for very long,” Chen said. “But having meaningful conversations actually kept me from thinking about how tired I was and helped me walk as far as I did.”

By the end of his walk, Barry not only expanded his knowledge of Chinese history, but also deepened his understanding of China’s appeal to international students.

The event also helped dissipate some students’ assumptions about Chinese culture. Certificate student Ju Guodong revealed that he always thought of the Chinese people as being uniquely adept at enduring hardships; as a result, he expected that more Chinese students than international students would finish the Wall Walk. By the end of the day, however, he was surprised by how many participants, both Chinese and international students and faculty, persevered throughout the journey.

Despite a grueling 10-hour trek and especially hot and humid conditions, more than half of the starting group finished the Wall Walk. Certificate/SAIS MA student Alex Hardin was inspired in particular by his classmates’ resilience and saw the Wall Walk as a metaphor for the year ahead at the HNC.

“Going into this, we knew it was going to be difficult, but we chose to take on that challenge and to see it through to the end,” Hardin said.

Whether they walked all or part of the wall, all students left their Wall Walk experience with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Tiantian Shi is a HNC Certificate ’19/SAIS MA ’20 student hoping to concentrate in International Development or International Political Economy.

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A view from Yifengmen, a gate at the northwest corner of the Nanjing City Wall

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A group of Chinese and international students walking along a picturesque section of the wall

Photo Credit: Zhou Jie

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The starting group of sleepy but eager participants who are ready to start the Wall Walk

Photo Credit: Co-Director Davies

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The finishing group of triumphant wall-walkers posing at Xuanwumen

Photo Credit: Co-Director Davies