The Great Wall of China. How can you adequately capture the grandeur of such a place in words? I suppose you begin by describing the with feelings of anticipation. The Great Wall had been on number one on my travel bucket list for as long as I could remember. And now, that I was visiting my best friend in China during our two-week break from school in Korea, it was about to become a reality.
One of the first surprises was that you don’t just go to “the Wall” but to a certain part of it. We tend to think of the Wall as one place, forgetting that it stretches for thousands of miles all across China. The section of Badaling is the closest to Beijing but after looking at pictures of such a crush of humanity squeezed like sardines among its paths, we decided to skip this tourist’s hell and venture further out for a more authentic experience. Mutianyu, about 70 km outside of Beijing, was our destination.
The next surprise came upon our arrival. People always talk about “climbing” the Great Wall and I now saw that they meant that literally. I gazed upwards at the hills upon which the Wall was perched. My anticipation turned to fear when I saw that in order to “climb” the Wall, we’d have to take a chairlift to reach it. With my fear of heights, I had prepared myself for closing my eyes while in a cable car, but the chairlift was far more terrifying. There was a long, steep ramp that I was more than prepared to walk (we were on a private tour, after all), but my best friend and boyfriend vetoed me on that suggestion. Very little other than the Great Wall of China could make me get on that thing. The treetops were just several feet below us. I tried to imagine them as the ground. Finally, I just stared up as the Wall grew ever closer and counted the seconds until I could jump off to safety.
When we finally reached the top, and you stand upon those iconic bricks and peer down on the valley, it hits you: I’m on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA! You think about the history and sheer magnitude of this place.. the blood and sweat of the slaves who died building it….their bones supposedly buried in the Wall to add to its fortitude…this structure that is so massive it can be seen from space…how it has stood for thousands of years before you ever existed and will likely be here for centuries after your own death.
Everyone wants to climb and walk along the Wall for as long as they can. I just wanted to keep going and going, but it turns out this is easier said than done. The Wall at Mutianyu is crazy steep! When we got to the base of it, our guide informed us we could turn right or left, with the right turn being more difficult but a bit less crowded, and the left having more people but an easier climb. We opted for the left, which wasn’t particularly crowded that day.
In the spirit of China’s embrace of capitalism, there were old men sitting along the Wall selling everything from ice cream and drinks to little souvenirs. My boyfriend was able to haggle for a beautifully-carved wooden egg with an friendly old man who was just great fun to talk with. He claimed to love Americans and was an expert haggler. Mostly the experience was just taking in the sheer immensity of the Wall as well as the natural beauty of the surrounding hills and mountains. We were lucky that the crowds seemed to stay away that day and were even able to have parts of the Wall to ourselves.
Although I wanted to climb forever, eventually the tiny steps that sloped deeply along the Wall began to make me dizzy. So I stopped where I was and sat down, gazing at the mountains and people-watching. It was one of those rare and treasured travel experiences where the site that you were so anticipating seeing, for such a long time, manages to be even better than you could have imagined it.
And did I mention that to get off the Wall, you have to take an alpine slide? Just when you thought your the Great Wall couldn’t be any more perfect…