The Great Wall of China is one of the world’s most majestic architectural masterpieces in the world — a site that is part of every traveler’s bucket list — mine included. A structure that was built in 221 BC both to unite all the territories under China and protect the country from invaders, the Great Wall was built by farmers, soldiers and regular folk with their blood, sweat and tears and became the only structure in the world that could be visible from the moon. A marvelous feat that was recognized by the UNESCO, which dubbed the structure as a World Heritage Site in 1987. Recently, it was formally recognized by the New7Wonders Foundation in Zurich as one of the new wonders of the world.
While the history behind the wall is indeed fascinating, what really excited me about the Great Wall was the challenge it presented. While I knew that I was not in the right shape to scale the wall up to the top (the wall spans 21,196 km or 13,171 miles according to Wikipedia), I wanted to see how far I can climb and witness for myself the view that I have only admired on postcards and refrigerator magnets from China’s capital.
Because we were staying in the Changping district for our three day stay in Beijing, we were taken by our guide to the Juyongguan side of the wall, which was nearest to the area. In some sides of the wall (Mutianyu and Badaling), cable service is available to bring tourists to and from the top of the wall for a fee (45-65 yuan). In the Mutianyu side, slideways are also an option on the way down. Juyongguan does not have similar amenities so even from afar, we could see a lot of people huffing and puffing their way up and down the uneven steps of the wall. Scaling the wall takes quite an effort, even for the seasoned hiker. Because the wall was not built by men trained in construction, the stone steps were not only uneven but very steep. The climb is not recommended for those with weak cardio or those suffering from vertigo because even if the climb up is manageable for some, the descent would be challenging. I have heard some foreigners exclaim that the way down is even harder than going up.
I was not mistaken. It was really challenging to go up because some of stone steps have eroded while some were visibly well worn by the amount of people trodding up and down on a daily basis. Because we travelled during the winter season before the snow fell, the steps were not slippery. The cold weather actually helped me not to feel too tired. There were occasions though, that I had to catch my breath and take a short rest. It would be wise to bring a bottle of water during the climb as it is important to hydrate for any physical exercise of this magnitude. Pacing oneself is also important because it is a long climb and it is important to listen to what one’s body is saying. Climbers have to understand their own limitations as it is hard to call for help from the top because the stairs are not very wide, especially given the volume of people on the wall. My advice? So, take periodic rests and enjoy the scenery. The higher you get, the better the view of the Juyongguan Pass you will get, as well as the view of the other parts of the wall snaking along in a seemingly endless fashion.
My friend Albert and I only made it as far as the third station and it took us about 30-45 minutes to get up and down but we took a short cut for our descent. Around this area, we found a small shop called The Great Wall Store (duh) that sells a variety of stuff, from coffee, hot chocolate, juice, souvenirs, as well as medals and metal plates that can be engraved with tourists’ names as proof of climbing the Wall. They sell for 30 yuan in the store and I should have gotten one, but I thought it was a bit pricey. Turns out, they sell the same stuff at the bottom for a higher price. So I suggest that given the opportunity, buy one as a keepsake of your great accomplishment.
Outside the store, there was a pathway and a sign that says mountain pass. We asked the salesperson if this path led to the base of the wall and she said yes. Seeing how difficult it was to climb down, we decided to follow the trail instead and had a much easier time getting down. It took us mere minutes to meet up with my mom and the tour guide who were waiting at the base.
For those who opt to stay behind at the base, a variety of activities can occupy one’s time. Coffee shops, restaurants and souvenir shops abound but don’t get too carried away and always try to haggle for a lower price. The salespeople are not very fluent but can understand and speak English — plus they’re used to tourists so it is easier to transact with them than in some areas. Just remember to bargain and you’ll surely get the best price for your purchases along with some choice freebies. There are also booths that offer souvenir photos in traditional Chinese costumes, talismans and good luck charms that will make for excellent mementos of your travel to the Great Wall.
All in all, my Great Wall adventure was immensely satisfying and unforgettable but I couldn’t help but wonder if I had more time how much father I could go. Perhaps, I might go back to Beijing one day and give the Wall another go. For this structure, each effort really has just reward because aside from a great sense of accomplishment, the view from the top is simply magnificent. Besides, there is just something about the wall that speaks to the part of me that is Chinese and makes me proud of my ancestors who built these walls.