Walking the Great Wall
What could be more humbling than the combination of slippery ice, lack of exercise and a crumbling wall?
I certainly couldn’t think of any- me, a tiny speck moving slowly on China’s Great Wall, muttering angrily. This is winter, I told myself. Winter means ice and you’re not exactly fit. Slip over the edge and you’ll break your neck. What were you thinking?
As if I needed to affirm what I already knew: You’re an idiot, I told myself.
I was also the second last in a row of hikers on the Wall. The only reason I didn’t make the rear was that Ivan, the computer programmer from Chicago, was busy taking photos a few yards behind me.
Take more photos, take more photos. As long as I’m not the last, I thought as I puffed up the steps, channelling my thoughts into Ivan’s brain.
I love challenges, I really do. Especially when they involve the outdoors. The problem is that most of the time I over-estimate my strength and level of fitness and realise only too late that I shouldn’t have tried at all.
“You okay?” Antonio from Spain- friendly and built like the Michelin man- turned around.
“I’m good, just a bit tired,” I replied.
“It’s okay, I’ll wait for you.”
At the start of the hike, I’d overheard the blond-eyebrowed Norwegian proclaim, “This is like when I was in Nepal last year! Also, I’ve just come back from a hiking trip in Mongolia, so this is excellent.” Okay, so some people do do this for a living. Fantastic.
Sure enough, the Norwegian was far away in the distance, scrambling up a 50-degree incline just a few yards behind the super-fit Kiwi who was leading the pack.
I’d signed up for this hike two nights ago together with nine other foreigners. At the time, a seven-mile (11km) hike didn’t sound so difficult. It would have been been easy if the Wall had been built on flat land, but this was Hebei province where the terrain isn’t flat- it’s covered with hills. Here, some sections of the Wall are so steep that you have to crawl on all fours to climb up. I couldn’t imagine how the Chinese rode their horses up and down the Wall hundreds of years ago.
Just the day before, I had walked from my hostel to the Forbidden City, through Tianenmen Square, up to the Muslim Quarter. I figured that it was about the same distance and if I could do that, I could do the Great Wall. No big deal.
But it was a bit of a big deal for me, with my bad back and all. I love the outdoors but the outdoors doesn’t always love me.
I stopped to drink from my flask and looked around. In spite of the cold, I was glad to be there.
The Great Wall was never one single construction to begin with, but in fact made up of a series of shorter defensive structures built over 2,000 years. The oldest wall, which originated from the seventh century BC, no longer exists but the oldest section of the Wall which can still be seen to this day was built in the fifth century BC.
The Wall stretches an estimated 3,700 miles (6,000 km) from Gansu province in the west to China’s east coast. China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi (259-210 BC), is credited as the man who built the Great Wall. It was Qin, also responsible for Xian’s famous Terracotta Warriors, who ordered that the shorter walls be joined up to serve as a defence against the Mongols.
The section where our group was- between the villages of Jinshanling and Simatai – is particularly beautiful and the most unrestored part of the entire Wall.
Other sections closer to civilisation have been re-built and come complete with the requisite postcard vendors, ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ t-shirts, even cable cars.
This particular part of the Wall, built around the 1400s, had been pretty much left on its own. A number of watchtowers here had crumbled, some with their outer walls missing, making them downright dangerous. This section was also remote and difficult to get to so for a long while, we didn’t see anyone else for miles. Even the trees looked wild, their dark leafless branches contrasting against the clear sky.
Where I stood, the Wall perched precariously over the hilltop, promising a painful death to anyone who fell off the edge. At the spots where walking on the Wall was too dangerous, there were signs asking people to get off the Wall and to walk on the grass beside it. These signs, in Mandarin and English, came with graphic illustrations of matchstick men falling to their deaths as their friends raised their arms in horror.
Four hours later, our band of 10 completed the hike, hills and all.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we reached the last watchtower. The stragglers – Ivan, Antonio and I- stopped to drink and take our last photographs.
We were tired but in a pleasant way, if that makes any sense. It was like running a race with yourself and winning it.
Before we boarded our van back to Beijing, Antonio turned to look at the Wall behind us.
“Look,” he pointed. “Like a dragon. Isn’t that beautiful?”
I turned to look. He was right. The Wall ran like a giant, scary dragon behind us, its body tracing the shape of the hills in the distance.
Well, maybe not so scary anymore.
Image by Jacob Ehnmark, Wikimedia Commons
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