The Great Wall of China

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of China  , Beijing,
Friday, July 1, 2011

So today we are coming face to face with a sight which we have dreamed of for longer than we can remember; today we are visiting The Great Wall of China. The thought of even going there all seems very strange. The Wall is such a mythic and mysterious place, something that you read about in books, see in films and learn about in school… and now we are actually going to see it with our own eyes. What a surreal experience! The Wall is divided up into different sections, some of them are decrepit and some have been rebuilt and are new and shiny, some are literally overrun with tourists and some don't have another person in sight. We decided to steer away from a newly rebuilt section called Badaling because despite it being the most popular section, it has millions of visitors annually, it has pretty much been built again from scratch. We wanted a much more authentic and private experience so we booked ourselves onto a tour of the Wall at a section called Jinshanling which is known for being the only remaining original part of the Wall which hasn’t been restored. As our tour guide later told us 'if your going to visit the Great Wall of China you should at least visit the bit that wasn’t rebuilt in the 1950s’. Jinshanling is about 3 hours outside Beijing so we were collected from the hostel at 6am and driven out to the Wall along with the other ten people on our tour.

The only issue which we had was that the cold which I’ve been suffering from recently has now gone down onto my chest and I’ve been feeling quite poorly during the last few days. Visiting Jinshanling involves a 4 hour hike along the Wall and I was pretty anxious at the thought of having to trek and climb along a very steep and rocky wall whilst also coughing and in pain. On the way to the Wall we were given a breakfast of coco-cola and egg and sausage McMuffins, suffice to say Tom had both of the muffins while I tucked into a packet of crackers we had bought along with us. During the 3 hour drive there we had to listen to a very annoying American woman telling the whole bus about her and her husband’s 1 month trip through Asia; you’d had thought she was some kind of blinking travel guru the way she was harping on, telling people they simply had to visit Vietnam and that she would give everyone the email address of a wonderful tuk-tuk driver in Saigon. After half an hour I wanted to throw myself out of the window, partly because she was so irritating but mostly because nearly everything she said was wrong, I had to really bite my lip and not correct her all the time (the problem with travelling for as long as we are is that you end up thinking that unless someone is travelling for at least 6 months in Asia they are just silly holiday-makers who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about). However, I realized that she really was just a silly holiday-maker when she started retching at the sight of an open-air squat toilet at the service station and it took all my self control not to ask her to stop being so disrespectful whilst in front of the locals; she might have been traveling for a month but she didn’t no squat about being culturally sensitive (get it? Didn’t know squat!).  

After driving for a few hours we started to see the first signs of the Great Wall of China; unfortunately it was a really overcast and muggy day, but in the distance we could just make out the peaks of a watchtower high in the mountains. Suddenly all the people who had fallen asleep on the bus were wide awake and we were all peering into the fog to try and get a better view. We ended up driving through some tiny villages and saw mile after mile of dazzlingly green fields and people feeding their pigs and dogs on their way to the market. Every time I glanced down a pathway or alleyway I would see little babies toddling around in their dirty training pants; thinking about it, I don’t actually think I’ve ever explained about the Chinese potty-training pants before. Basically they are babies trousers but they have the bottom and crotch cut out of them to make it easier for a toddler when they’re are getting potty-trained and with these pants on it’s totally normal to see kids going to the toilet in the street. The funny thing is though that parents will dress their kids in these pants while the child is wearing no underwear or nappy underneath and then go out for the day, say to the supermarket, with their child’s genitals on show to the whole world. I can’t tell you the amount of times we have been eating in a café or walking down the street and seen a row of bare babies bums (or worse) just toddling around. Tom and I don’t know what these pants are called but we call them ‘bum pants’; Tom thinks that they’re a great idea and everyone should wear them back home.

Anyway, back on the bus we finally arrived at the entrance gate to Jinshanling and after a quick briefing from our guide ("don’t get lost and don’t fall over the edge or you might die") we were off. The weather was closing in around us and we were all just waiting for it to start raining, but the iffy weather did nothing to dampen our spirits and we were all off and hiking to the start of the Wall at one heck of a pace. The Wall is placed on the top ridges of the surrounding mountains in order to make it a good outpost from which to survey the oncoming troupes, however this means that in order for us to get to the Wall we had to hike up the side of a mountain. By the time we reached the top my chest was very painful and the first spots of rain were beginning to drop on us. But we didn’t care. I don’t think a hurricane could have wiped the grins off our faces. We had made it; we were standing on the Great Wall of China! The emotions were overwhelming. Not only is the Wall obviously a hugely significant Chinese site but it also has a deep resonance for us both and marks a mammoth achievement for us in terms of our trip. It might sound silly but the Wall is extremely symbolic for us as it marks the last big moment of our travels; we have come so far and achieved so much and finally reaching the Wall symbolizes the huge journey have both come on, it is the pinnacle of everything we have achieved on this trip so far. We had both been looking forward to seeing the Wall snake across the horizon like a dragon, however the rain was now coming down pretty fast and we could hardly see a few feet in front of us. This section of the Wall is in pretty bad shape and there were lots of rocks and boulders blocking our path, plus some of the pathways were very steep and many of the steps had crumbled into dust. Combined with the rain, it meant that we were slipping and sliding along getting covered in mud and I could hardly see a thing because my glasses were steaming up in the humidity. But, yet again, nothing could stop us now!

Half way through the hike we were met by our tour guide, who had climbed up a shortcut through the trees, and warned that the next part of the hike was very steep and dangerous, not that she was trying to put us off climbing it but she just wanted us to know that a tourist had died recently when he tried to climb down a near vertical pathway. However by this time the rain was starting to clear so we decided to press on and see what the next section of the Wall had in store for us. Well, our tour guide was right, the Wall was almost vertical and we were practically climbing on our hands and knees. The tour group had started to break up because some people wanted to walk faster and we ended up walking with a really sweet American lady who insisted on taking our photo every two steps (that’s why there are so many photos of us together in this album!). Every 400 hundred meters or so we would enter a watchtower and be met by an ingenious tout who had scaled the Wall in order to sell bottles of water and beer, snacks, rainmacs and souvenir t-shirts. The touts had even carried up huge flasks of tea and coffee and we felt really bad for not buying any… it’s one heck of a hike at the best of times, but I can’t imagine doing it whilst also carrying around a small catering company on my back.

As the rain started to clear we could finally make out some of the watchtowers in the distance and, low and behold, we could finally see the outline of the Wall, like a huge backbone, snaking along the mountain tops. It was truly magnificent. We have seen some pretty amazing sights during our travels, the Sydney Opera House, the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, Halong Bay, the Great Barrier Reef, but I can vouch that the moment the mist cleared and we saw the Great Wall of China emerging from the clouds I was dumbstruck. I only wish I could bottle that emotion, that feeling of being completely overwhelmed with happiness and awe and gratitude… for a split second you feel like every bone, muscle and sinew in your body is entirely in love with the world. All words leave you and all you can do is sigh. It’s an amazing feeling and one I wish everyone could feel about the world we live in. We couldn’t go any further, we were soaked to the skin and the path in front of us was starting to get pretty dangerous. So we sat down and let it all just wash over us for a while. In a single moment I realized that in one weeks time we would be leaving all this behind and going home and, if I’m completely honest, the thought of it terrified me. Since we left home we have both faced some of our darkest demons, both as a couple and as individuals, and I am very proud to say that we have overcome every obstacle that has been laid before us. While we are traveling I feel like I can achieve anything, I feel invincible. So I’m very nervous at the thought of having to go home because I don’t want to go back to being the anxious person that I was before I left. I feel strong and capable and happy and I have traveling around the world to thank for making me this way. As we sat there looking at the Wall the magnitude of our trip and our achievements hit me: Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China; suffering with Dengue Fever, snorkeling with turtles, eating noodles morning, noon and night, visiting the refugee camp and orphanage, laughing and crying, helping students to learn English, taking care of each other, bargaining for souvenirs, running away from rabid monkeys, facing our fears every single day. A lifetimes worth of experiences and memories crammed into a few short months; how can we ever process and understand it all? Some people come traveling and they go home with a few nice photos, a good suntan and one heck of a hangover, but for us traveling has fundamentally changed our lives. We are not returning home the same people as when we left. And in one moment all this hit me. As we were sitting looking out over the Wall we realized that today marked the 10 month anniversary of our travels; to think of ourselves 10 months ago, sitting on a plane bound for Hong Kong, was a surreal experience. Surely it must have been longer than 10 months ago?

Later we walked back along the Wall and met back up with our tour guide, who took us all for lunch at a local restaurant. During the drive back to Beijing we had to listen to more of our American friends stories from her travels; who would have thought that one person could possibly talk about themselves for 6 hours straight? By the time we arrived back at our hostel we were both exhausted and settled in for a quiet evening in front of the TV with some noodles, a box of biscuits and a bottle of coca-cola. By the time 8pm come around we were both sleeping like babies, dreaming of world’s far, far away.
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rach on

really love the fact that your home and im still cheaking your blog everyday !! how mad am i ? x loved this blog and every single picture on it xxx it looks a stunning place to have visited , now a serious question .................................................. did u pinch a bit and bring it home ?? coz i think i would off , not a brick or anything ,just a little stone or something ,your own little piece of the great wall of china xx see you soon xx

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