We had been in China for less than 24 hours, the moment we found ourselves high atop the Great Wall of China, giddy with happiness.
At somewhere between 3,800 and 5,500 miles in total, depending how you measure its parts, the Great Wall of China stretches longer than the entire border between the United States and Canada.
This fact not only boggles the mind, but it also makes it tough for a tourist to choose which part of the Wall to hike!
Nearly every hostel, hotel, and tour company here offers day hikes to different parts of the Great Wall that you can book just a day in advance.
Oh, how we debated which Wall section to select!
Badaling is a close drive from Beijing and is amply dramatic, but word is that it’s dense with tourists.
Mutianyu is also relatively near Beijing, and friends who recently visited got wonderful photos… but a French tourist in our dorm reported that this section was “boring” compared to the others. (A part of the Great Wall, “boring”?!)
Jinshanling is around three hours from Beijing by tour bus (which would leave from our hostel at 6:15am and get back past dinner!) and is a notoriously difficult and long hike… but it is rumored to be the best of all the popular Great Wall sections because of its visual drama. The tour blurb on the wall of the hostel read: “This is extremely tiring day, but you will never be disappointed!”
Which to pick? Which to pick?
At last, Gareth and I asked Colin for his clear-eyed male opinion. Clarity was instant when Colin responded: “Which part of the Great Wall do I want to hike? I want to do the most awesome part, of course.”
Clear: Jinshanling! We paid the hostel tour booker and set our alarms for 5:45am.
At dawn, a tour bus scooped us up, along with tourists from hostels across the city. Trying to make us Westerners feel at home, the Chinese tour group fed us a breakfast of… (I kid you not) McDonald’s hamburgers and Coke.
(Colin gasped: “I thought I was weaning myself off vegetarianism all the months before this trip so that I could eat authentic Chinese food!”)
Despite the misguided and borderline repulsive breakfast, everyone on our bus was in a jolly mood. Not only were we headed to encounter one of the most phenomenal sights of our life, but also, our tour bus was blessedly air conditioned, and China in summer is HOT.
On the bus, Gareth and I caught up on all that had passed in her year with the Peace Corps in China and in my year back in America after a year of travel. Colin diligently did graduate school work for his Master’s in Teaching using a downloaded document on his Kindle e-Reader.
Partway through the three hour drive, a petite and spunky Chinese woman stood up in the aisle and introduced herself as our tour guide. We wouldn’t stay together as a group during the hike, she told us, because one had to be ridiculously fit to make it to the end and back in time (and she was sure few of us were, given our Western McDonalds-eating habits). Our guide would, however, give us some Great Wall facts to mull over before we touched it with our own feet.
Here are some Great Wall facts:
- The Wall was first made of rammed earth, stones, and wood, but in later periods, bricks and tiles were used, too, providing stronger defense.
- The Chinese began building walls to guard against invaders as early as the 8th century B.C. and each subsequent ruler added to, built, or neglected different parts of walls depending on the characteristics of his enemies of that particular era.
- When Qin Shi Huang unified China in 221 B.C. he ordered the unification of all the little protective walls into one Great Wall. Some historians estimate that up to a million people died in the construction of this unified wall, and many a ghost story exists about the spirits that remain.
- The Wall was extended and expanded during the Ming dynasty of the 1300s to keep out the raiding Mongolian tribes to the north. As Gareth explains, “the Mongol tribes were nomadic and didn’t plant crops or practice farming, so they kept popping over the border, stealing food and other goodies from the Chinese, then sprinting back over to their home territory. The Wall helped stop that.”
- Despite being held off for years by the Wall, the Manchu tribes finally surmounted the Wall in 1644, then promptly took over Beijing, then all of China, and established their Qing dynasty which ended the Ming era.
I’ve always pictured the folks who worked on the Wall shaking their fists in agony as the invaders entered, screaming, “All that work for nothing!!!”
Well, all that work on the Wall over thousands of years was NOT for nothing, it now turns out. Though the Wall was wanted to repel invaders, it now serves to attract outsiders… thus earning China countless tourist dollars. And tourists do NOT leave disappointed.
We arrived at the Great Wall and spilled out of the bus into the sweaty heat. Now, if YOU go, don’t forget to bring your sunscreen, hat, water (lots of water!) and, if you’re into fashionable Chinese lady style like Gareth, your sun umbrella. Preferably purple if you want to be as cool as Gareth.
Oh, and bring your own toilet paper if you’re hitting the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. The toilets are the classic China hole-in-the-ground squat toilets, and there was no TP except what we wisely packed in.
Our guide gathered us around a map at the base of a mountain which showed the Jinshaling section of the wall where we were.
“To go up the mountain to the Wall,” our guide said, “you can hike one hour, or you can take the cable car up in a few minutes and save your energy for the good part: the Wall.”
“Yes, cable car!” Gareth, Colin, and I said immediately.
“When you arrive at the top,” the guide continued, “turn left. To the right is nothing special.”
I giggled profusely at this pronouncement of a part of the Great Wall of China as “nothing special.”
“We meet back here in four and a half hours for lunch,” said the guide. “If you are extremely fit, you can make it to the tower which is engraved with the names of Chinese soldiers and return in time to eat and get on the bus.”
We eyed each other suspiciously, wondering which of us was extremely fit, or not.
And then we were off to the cable car and up the mountain to the Wall!
What a thrill! What wonder! What a workout!
You can see from these photos that the hiking at Jinshanling starts out smooth and restored… but then gets steeper and steeper and rougher and rougher as it nears Simatai. The Simatai section is so wild and unkempt, in fact, that a number of tourists recently perished by tumbling off its crumbling ramparts. Luckily, we knew we’d never make it to that risk zone, as one would need to be a superpowered robot to cover that amount of distance in the time we had.
The minutes flew by as we strode, then climbed, then grappled along the wall. Tourists thinned out, chunks of rock slipped under our feet, and Gareth thanked me for forcing her to change from her flip flops to more sensible hardcore hiking shoes.
The regularly-spaced guard towers along the Wall provided blessed shade from the steamy heat and sun. What cracked us up (and then ended up keeping us from passing out from dehydration) was that each tower illegally housed local people who had snuck up the mountain to hawk beverages and T-shirts! What a career! Imagine, every day: “Have a nice day at work today, honey, climbing the Great Wall and selling Coke to dehydrated tourists!” Stuffed in the corner of some Great Wall towers we went through, we also noticed some grubby, balled-up sleeping bags and blankets. How often, we wondered, did the hawkers spend the night up here? Wow.
Colin had calculated our time before setting off along the Wall: we had to reach the Chinese soldier tower within two hours if we were going to make it back to the bus in time.
As we hiked on, the Wall became so crumbled that we were forced into a detour off the Wall and into thick green bushes that swirled sage and flower scents in with our heavy panting. We got back up onto the Wall after the detour and were awestruck by the mountains suddenly in view.
“Those are some Mongol mountains!” said Gareth. “You can tell they formed a border.”
I felt my first lust for a mountain range at that moment.
“You’d have thought those mountains would have been enough to keep out the invaders,” said Colin.
“Is this wall even tall enough to be effective?” I asked, sunstroke getting into my cerebrum. “I mean, like, if you had a horse, couldn’t you just hop over it?” Colin and Gareth yelled some sense into me, forced me to drink water, and we continued hiking.
The three of us spent a while muttering in awe about the sheer accomplishment of the millions of people who had created this wall that was so exhausting to walk for four hours, let alone build for centuries on end to the tune of 5,000-something miles. And the hubris of the emperors who ordered it done! And the honor of touching it ourselves, in the year 2011!
Ten more towers to reach… then five… then two… (We collapsed in the shade of each tower and gulped at our water, pouring sweat…) then we reached the soldier name tower!
Victorious, we chatted with the few tourists who had made the full trek, photographed the names in Chinese characters etched on the walls, and gazed longingly at the thousands of miles of Great Wall still in front of us.
“Just one more tower?” asked Colin.
“NO!” I gasped, clutching the wall for support and my rumbling tummy in hunger.
“Okay, fine,” Colin laughed, and our triumphant trio started the trek back the glorious two hour stretch from whence we’d come.
As our hike drew to a close and we neared the cable car to head back down the mountain, I looked at Colin and said: “Remember how we were worried it wouldn’t be worth it for you to come to China for just a week?”
“Well,” I said, smiling, “I think the entire cost of the flight, and all the stress of getting the China Tourist Visa and packing are officially worth it, just for this one day.”
“Absolutely,” said Colin, grinning.
And suddenly I re-remembered the power of travel to make twenty-four hours of our lives richer and more life-changing than three months of home routine.
Colin, Gareth, and I high-fived, blew the Great Wall a giant kiss, and climbed into the cable car to head away from the most astounding construction in human history.