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November 19, 2009

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Wall-top meditation on sweep of history

US President Barack Obama absorbed history's expanse yesterday from atop the Great Wall of China, a man-made wonder of such enormity that Obama found himself putting daily life in perspective.

"It's magical," Obama said, walking down a ramp alone, his hands in his pockets. "It reminds you of the sweep of history and our time here on Earth is not that long. We better make the best of it."

A must-see for presidents from US President Richard Nixon on, the Great Wall was one of Obama's major sightseeing stops during his diplomatic tour of Asia.

Dressed in a winter jacket against a biting wind, Obama led a knot of people for a half-hour jaunt up the crenelated wall toward a watchtower, a restored section originally built 500 years ago.

Obama walked down the last ramp by himself in a choreographed moment for photographers.

The earliest sections of the wall were built more than 2,000 years ago. From the portion where Obama stood, the mountainside vistas were majestic.

Obama's tourism breaks at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City's former imperial palaces on Tuesday were the only diversions on an eight-day Asia trip meant to show US re-engagement with the region.

History matters to the Chinese, who take pride in being heirs to a civilization of 4,000-plus years and believe the past offers insights into their present.

The chairman of China's legislature, Wu Bangguo, told Obama on Monday, "In China, there is a saying that if you want to appreciate the history of China in the past 100 years, go to Shanghai; in the past 1,000 years, come to Beijing; and for the past 2,000 years, go to Xi'an" -- the imperial capital of China's first emperor and later dynasties.

Obama replied that he was impressed with the dynamism of Shanghai, where he held a town hall-style meeting with Chinese youth on Monday and which, he said, is "a sign of China's emergence as a great economic power."

His rapid 30-minute run through the vast Forbidden City on Tuesday was "a reminder of the incredible traditions and heritage of the Chinese people."

After the Wall, Obama headed for South Korea, the last stop on his Asian swing that also included visits to Japan and Singapore.


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