Hiking the Great Wall of China
Above me, to the left and to the right, and as far as I could see, the massive Great Wall stretched into the distance. It dotted the top of the mountain range with its towers. The clouds hid the blue sky, but created a mystical shroud that the stones peaked out from.
I remember when I was six years old, I stared up at the wall in our playroom. My mom had bought an educational set and posted pictures of the seven wonders of the world around the room. There was a world map and on the right side, closest to Asia, there was a large, postcard like photo of the Great Wall of China. I became obsessed.
There was nowhere I wanted to travel more in the world. I devised ways to get there in my head and imagined what it must be like. China only seemed as far away as the grocery store to my young mind, even though rationally I knew it was much farther away. I was even obsessed with Chinese culture for a bit.
That love didn’t last forever, but it was one of my earliest memories of learning and yearning to visit a place. And I never quite forgot the first thing I was passionate about that shaped me so.
Little did I know that just 12 short years later, I would be looking out at nearly the same view as that old educational poster. But this time, there was no wall behind the image.
It was the real Great Wall of China.
Our tour started early in the morning outside a random metro stop. It was our job to find the way there, but the Chinese subway system was the same in nearly every city, very similar to American and European railways, and had English translations posted, so I had no problem.
The drive was long, supplemented only by one rest stop with a small grocery store to stock up on snacks and water. I bought more water than I needed, but the heat and struggle of hiking made the strain on my back worth it.
My eagerness drove me forward as we went from our bus to another shuttle that would take us to the visitor center. It killed me as we walked up the first set of stairs that would take us to the start of the hike.
But then we were there.
Those first few moments were incredible and there was no amount of pinching I could have done to convince myself that it was truly real. That I was truly there.
I quickly caught up to reality as we started the hike. For four hours, I scrambled up and slid down steps walking from tower to tower across the mountains. Five other people from my tour and I grouped together and soon were joking and helping to balance each other as the trek became harder and harder.
In search for a more authentic experience, I chose not to go to the commonly visited Mutianyu or Badaling sections of the wall that are equipped for tourists. Instead, since I love hiking, I chose the older and more ruined Jinshanling section for a challenging journey.
And challenging it was. Though picturesque, it wasn’t the flat and stretching version of the Great Wall that so many of us have seen. I never thought the reviews were telling the truth when they said the hike entailed nearly 80 flights of stairs but how wrong my assumption was. Up and down, in and out of the wall it went.
Just fifteen minutes in, I was soaked in sweat.
Well, I hadn’t come to try and look pretty, I had come to try and connect with a place I had dreamed about for so long. At least the latter was attainable.
There were some sections where the stairs were so steep it was like walking up a ramp. It had rained the day before and there were still clouds in the sky which made the stones slick with water and dew.
Our little group would grab onto the edge of the wall and pull ourselves up to the top of a small section, catch our breaths and have a small celebration, then lean precariously backwards to try and balance ourselves on the way down.
Certain sections required climbing with all fours to get to the top. I pushed and pulled my way up the ancient stones, panting in the hot air.
I was a bit behind everyone for a moment after I had paused to look around for a moment. I peaked down at the sheer ramp down to the lower level and began to make my way down. Step after step, I walked and gained speed to a trot as I went down the wall.
My weight pulled me forward and I tried to lean backwards in an attempt to keep standing, but my hiking boots hit a damp stone and slipped out from under me, sending me sliding to my bum.
I landed hard and in an attempt to not embarrass myself, I quickly crossed my legs so it looked like I was just sitting down criss-cross-apple-sauce. But everyone still burst into laughter when they looked back and saw my red face stark against the tan brick.
I gingerly stood up again, but only after scooting the rest of the way down the decline on my butt to avoid falling down again.
The view was indescribable. I couldn’t stop taking pictures and definitely took too many, but who could blame me? Each view, each tower, brought a new view even more picturesque than the last and sure to be the most spectacular. Until I reached the next turn and found that to be even more so.
My phone ended up dying on the hike, but I had come super prepared and plugged it in to my power brick so I could continue to take an obscene amount of photos.
The mist sat upon the mountains like heavy cotton and draped itself against the wall fading into the distance. The view didn’t go on forever, but it created a sense of mystery of what might be beyond the gray. It made it all the more magical.
I ran my hand along the side of the wall. As a historian-in-training myself, I loved the fact that I was visiting such a historic monument. But actually touching it was something else.
It was near impossible to believe that this area had been used for nearly 1400 years and that those exact stones had stood for several hundred. I could almost see the soldiers manning the towers or standing behind the small windows with weapons against the Mongols. I could turn to either side and imagine that this were still the border between China and Mongolia, two different and opposing lands.
But in another way, it seemed fictional that all of that had ever occurred there. How could it be that the same place I was hiking and visiting for a day could have been the same place that had seen all that history? How could the stones I was touching be the same stones soldiers leaned on all those years ago?
And the highway that now ran so close to the wall was visible from the walk. In the same span of vision, I could see this ancient structure running across the tops of the mountains into the distance and also the cars racing around the bend of a highway that was likely constructed within the past five years. It was the strangest mix of modern and antiquity.
It would continue to not sink in throughout the day and I can’t even say that I’ve fully realized it all now. It was unreal but incredible all in one.
At the end of the six kilometre, four hour hike, the end of the climbing and scooting, the end of the panting and chugging water, I sat at the highest tower of the 22 we had passed. I didn’t want to buy anything from the incredibly overpriced stands inside the towers, but I had been living off Snickers bars in China and couldn’t resist grabbing one.
I sat on the steps looking down at the entire section of the wall I had just hiked. I could see it stretching, yawning off into the distance. I could see the specks of people, also making the arduous journey up the final stretch. I could see the rest of the mountains, rolling off into the din.
That was the best Snickers bar of my life. And I had totally earned it.
Even though my legs ached, I forced myself back up and began to hike just a little bit farther onto the completely ruined section. I wish I had gone further, but I knew I had to at least see what lay beyond where we were supposed to hike to.
Most people had stopped at the final restored tower where the path ran to a parking lot, but many had chosen to go on.
After a small stretch, the wall quickly turned to rubble, half standing and half destroyed. It ran into the grass and weeds poked through holes in the structure. To get into the next tower, I had to push myself up using stones stacked by previous travelers.
From that vantage point, I could see how ruined the wall really was. Some might argue for restoring it all, but seeing it in its natural state was maybe the most enriching part of my visit. As impressive as it was, the cracks and rubble reminded me just how old it was. And how nothing we build, even this, will last forever.
I could have continued to climb over the ruins and gone on, which a huge part of my heart yearned to, but it was nearing the time that the bus would be waiting for us in the parking lot far below and it was still a half an hour away.
I jogged back to the official final tower of the hike, dodging crushed stones and jumping over fallen debris. At the peak, I took one final last look around as I ghosted my hands over the stones for a few moments as I breathed heavily, still recovering from the long hike.
I so clearly remember six year old me staring up at the image on my wall. In fact, I’m sure we still have that poster, buried somewhere in our basement. And I was sure as soon as I left, I would be reminiscing and dreaming of the next time I could visit the spectacular monument.
But for that moment, I was there. The Great Wall of China was spectacular. It was here long before me and would be there long after. It was so foreign and yet I had gotten an intimate glance at it’s vast distance and crumbled ruins. It was just as beautiful as it was mighty.
As I let my hand leave the stones and I stepped off into the forest, the six year old dreamer and the eighteen year old traveler inside me were equally satisfied.