The Great Wall

Simatai Travel Blog

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Yesterday I tackled the Great Wall.  (Or rather, it tackled me.)  There are three different sections of the wall you can visit from Beijing: one is the closest and the most "touristy," as it is the most visited by foreign travelers, one is also pretty close and is basically a mob of Chinese on any day of the year, as this particular section is treated as a birthright/requirement to visit, and the farthest is considered the "best" to visit, as while it gets its fair share of visitors and then some, it is far less crowded (comparatively speaking) and involves a substantial hike along its length.  I've heard from pretty much everyone I've met that the third one is the way to go.
  It's a three hour drive to/from the wall, so it was a full day, to say the least.

I woke up at dark o'clock and stood shivering in the below-freezing temperatures in front of my hostel waiting to be picked up.  After about ten minutes some guy emerged from one end of the alley and waved at me and said "hello!" and turned and walked back the way he came.  I figured this meant he was my driver and followed him, thinking that perhaps it would have been a good idea to clarify this assumption before following some dude down a pitch black alley.  Isn't that one of those no-nos that ranks high on the "things not to do while traveling alone" list?  I was the first one in the van with no heating to speak of, and sat there huddled and shivering and watching my breath as we bumbled along, picking up others as we went.
  Apparently we hit more traffic than anticipated, because it was nearly four hours by the time we were dumped at the wall and started on our trek.

Before we set off we were shown a map that showed we needed to walk to a fork in the road, take a left, and hike the wall from there.  The stretch of the wall we were to trek was ten kilometers and an estimated four hours to complete.  We were warned not to miss this fork in the road, and to be sure to go left, because if not we'd hike an extra 30% of the wall and clock in at fifteen kilometers and in no way make it back in time for the vans home.  (There were three van loads totaling thirty-five of us in all.  Predominantly Australians and Germans with a few Brits; I was the only American.
)  So we set off in a big cohesive group, and after about ten minutes pass a small little sign pointing to the left, and one dude is like "do you think that's the fork?" and the rest of us are like no way.  A fork in the road involves an actual FORK IN THE ROAD, not some puny sign down a small path.  Yeah well, that was the "fork" we were supposed to take.  (Turns out about ten people circled back and took that path; most of us did the full fifteen kilometers.)

All I can say is wow.  Just, WOW.  The Great Wall is PHENOMENAL.  Absolutely mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, and infinitely more impressive in person.  It's incredible.  You know all those world-renowned sights that you show up for and are definitely cool and worthwhile but still somehow a bit disappointing because they don't quite live up to the boatloads of hype dedicated to them?  The Great Wall is not one of these.
  Listen to all the hype, believe every word, you will still be amazed.  It's out of this world.  I have no doubt it will go down as my absolute favorite in China.  PHENOMENAL.

I spent the first fifteen minutes or so (the walk along the road to the wall) miserably cold, shivering and kicking myself for not wearing a second long-sleeved shirt or buying a winter hat and gloves at the market the day before.  As it was, I had a tank top, long-sleeved shirt, fleece, scarf, wind-proof shell, and headband, and was even wearing leggings underneath my pants.  The sun was out in full force, not a cloud in the sky, and it was FREEZING.  (Yesterday's warmest temps were in the high 30s (Fahrenheit) in Beijing, which means it was colder out up in the mountains.
)  The climb up to the first watch tower certainly got the blood pumping, and helped take the edge off.  Twenty minutes and two watch towers later, we were peeling off layers like it was summertime.  I ditched the shell and the scarf and headband, but kept the fleece thinking surely I'd need it.  Not five minutes later I stopped to shed that too.  Spent the rest of the day huffing and puffing and sweating, cursing the damn leggings I couldn't take off and shoving my sleeves up as high as they'd go.  I can't imagine what it's like to hike the wall in the summertime.  It must be utterly miserable.

About an hour in a guide appeared to tell us that we had just then reached the point we were supposed to enter on (had we taken the "fork" in the road), and that we were twenty-five minutes behind schedule, and should pick it up, should we wish to have a ride home.
  (Being tucked up in the mountains, there aren't exactly people around or taxis to take you home -- catching the van was crucial.)  We were going along at a pretty good clip.  I had broken off with an Australian couple, and while there were a few people ahead of us, the majority of the group was behind us.  We were by no means lallygagging.  Hearing we were so far behind was somewhat alarming.  In hindsight, I shouldn't have been worried: if we were just then at the point we should have entered on, that means we covered five kilometers in an hour.  At that pace, we'd be done in three hours total, and they had budgeted four hours for two-thirds of distance we were to cover.  We did exactly that.  Fifteen kilometers with an hour to spare.

A word about "walking" the Great Wall.  No one ever told me there would be hiking involved.  I've always heard you walk it.  Walk.  Not hike.  WALK.  Climb a few steps, get to the top, stroll along for however long you please, climb down when you're done.  Piece of cake.  Oh no.  Oh no no no NO.  There is no walking to be had.  Hiking is stretching it.  Climbing is most accurate.  Heaving, balancing, trekking.  Up and down, up and down, up and down.  The wall looks hilly from a distance; makes sense, it's stretched across mountains.  Again, here I am thinking I'd be strolling along the top, perhaps cresting a hill for a pretty photograph from time to time.
  (Thankfully, the dozens of travelers I've met in the last week have warned of all the up and downs, but you really have no inkling of what you're getting yourself into until you're actually there.)  What I want to know is, what's with all the up and downs??  I mean, what did these people do when the country was under siege?  Think about the work involved to climb down from where they were, climb up the next bit, and have a coronary on the spot?  It's mind-blowing how idiotic and inefficient the wall is.  You're not just going up and down each watch tower (we covered 36 in all), you're going up and down between them too.  And when I say up and down, we're talking the height of six, eight, maybe ten stories UP AND DOWN every freaking time.
  And the wall is OLD.  Sometimes there are stairs to be had (a true luxury), most of the times the stairs are crumbling and jagged and you're working to find every foothold, and sometimes the stairs are eroded altogether and you're climbing on raw rock and ground.  None of the steps (be they actual steps or mere spaces you can balance the front of your foot) are very deep; they're all quite shallow and precarious.  Don't forget it snowed here a few days ago, so the places that are exposed to the sun have dried up and are ok, but the places that are in shade are frozen and slick and pretty scary when you're slipping that many feet up above the ground with nowhere to hold on to and you're on the outer edge of the wall and if you fall you're going down into that massive gorge right there.
  Icy, slick, and not to be messed with.  The steps range in height from shorties that are just a couple inches high, to massive chunks that were taller than my waist.  (The taller steeper steps outnumbered the shorter ones by far.)  Most of the up/downs are so steep you're climbing with both hands, as you're essentially scaling a wall.  Really, it's rock climbing if anything.  It's a terrific workout, great fun, and REALLY freaking hard work.

At the end of the walk there is something called "the flying fox," which is a zipline that you can take across a reservoir.  It's priced for tourists (as with everything else), but I wasn't about to pass it up.  I thought there'd be some kind of harness or something, but nope.
  They loop a rope around your legs and clip you to the line and off you go.  No instructions, no safety measures, just clip and "go."  And when you stand there blinking at the guy thinking he's going to show you exactly what you're supposed to do, surely he isn't suggesting you just step off this platform into nothing, he gets irritated at your delay and barks "GO!"   So off I went.  It was loads of fun (and quite brisk) to be sailing through a gorge after the strenuous three hour hike to beat all hikes, and in my opinion, lasted nowhere near as long as it should.  There's an even grumpier woman on the other side barking at you in Chinese, incrementally more pissed off as you're not doing what she wants because you can't understand a word she's saying, who finally rips the rope off you and shoves you out of her sight.
  Pleasant.  You then take a boat across the reservoir and walk up to where the vans are, which then cart you off two minutes down the road to the most over-priced buffet you've ever paid for.  Seeing as you just conquered Goliath and haven't seen food in quite a few hours, you load up your prison-esque metal tray as high as it goes, horrify all the dainty Europeans with your American appetite, and chow down.  It's then an excruciatingly long (nearly four hours) and bumpy drive back to Beijing, with a useless ipod with a dead battery and a jerk of a driver who tries to dump you at the nearest subway station.

I staggered into the hostel, took a not hot enough shower (the showers here don't go above 38 degrees Celsius, and only reach that if you're lucky; that's not NEARLY hot enough when it's freezing outside and the shower room isn't heated and you're freezing your ass off trying to abstract every molecule of warmth possible from the insufficiently "warm" water), scarfed more food (delicious sauteed vegetables and a pile of rice), downed a well-earned beer, and mindlessly poked around the internet until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.
  Passed out shortly after 10pm, and had my first good night's sleep in days.  Long day.  Great day at the Great Wall, but loooooooong day.  May even indulge in a napperoo later.  I've earned it.
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photo by: wbboy29