According to a recent documentary I watched, the Great Wall of China was once almost 10,000 miles long. My guide told me it was over 5,500 miles, which is still formidable. Today 60% of it has gone, having been eroded by the elements and used by villagers wanting to build stone houses.
This was all unbeknownst to me, as I’m far too disorganised to do any real research prior to travelling. I was also unaware the Great Wall is 70km away from Beijing high up in the mountains and, of course, the Saturday I chose to visit with my group of motley travellers was the Chinese equivalent to a Bank Holiday weekend. Everyone was heading for the countryside, which meant the traffic was horrendous. Bumper to bumper for more than 50km. Therefore it took us the guts of three hours to get there. Undaunted, it was unanimously decided we would have lunch before we made the ascent.
Lunch was above a Subway. Would you believe it? The sandwich food chain is at the foot of the pathway to the Great Wall! Yet we were served tasty Chinese fare with a nice sized glass of much welcomed beer and once sated, off we set, taking the upward path, following the world and his wife, towards the cable car, which would take us on the final climb to the wall.
The ascent was reasonably steep and I wondered if I would manage the climb. I really hadn’t envisioned it being so remote, set amongst a forest of trees, way out in the glorious, green countryside. My first glimpse of a square turret on the wall through the cloudy, overcast day (possibly the worst day we'd had) spurred me on, but I was thankful for the cable car, which rapidly rose above the trees and before I knew it, I was there, standing on the Great Wall of China.
It was far narrower than I expected and I was certainly NOT prepared for the steps. To say the walkway is uneven is an understatement, as grand as the monument itself. There are steps up and down to the gatehouses and steps where a ramp would suffice. To ensure visitors are kept on their toes some steps are an inch high, others a foot. I really had to pay attention and how anyone managed to fight on it is beyond me.
How anyone built it is beyond me too, but seemingly it is the world’s biggest graveyard and I was told of Lady Meng Jiang Nu who went in search of her husband who was building the wall. Not finding him him, she cried and her tears fell on part of wall causing it to collapse revealing his bones.
‘Can’t you see the wall is propped up with skeletons?’ she lamented and, distraught, she took her own life.
I also learned the white mortar holding the stones together is made of lime and sticky rice. Yes, sticky rice! I cannot say I am surprised considering the amount of sticky rice left after meals. It has to be used for something.
I set myself a target to walk three towers, the wall stretching into the horizon ahead of me. Well, out of my reach, but a few from the group were on a mission and there was no stopping 72-year-old Jack who set off at a gallop. He is amazing!
Step by step I made my way to the first tower, which was like a small keep. Large swathes of paper were on the walls and people were signing their names. I presume these are taken down each day and burned – so I didn’t bother – I kept on walking.
The stairs up to the towers are narrow and steep, but I stopped every so often to catch my breath and allow others to come down ahead of me. This 500 year old wall is NOT for the faint hearted. The sun was trying to shine, but we were up in the clouds and the heat was at least 30 degrees centigrade. I walked on to the second tower thoroughly enjoying the experience.
Arriving at the foot of the steps up to the third tower I immediately knew I’d be able to go up, but getting down would prove problematic. They were steep and there was no handrail. Two of my compadres were at the top and encouraged me to join them, so up I went and found myself in a square courtyard overlooking the spectacular scenery. What was Mongolia was to our right, China to our left. Keeping out the Mongol hoards must have been a full time job, the Chinese not being as proficient at living off the land as the Mongols. A 14th century Bear Grylls would have been required to teach a few survival skills!
Having caught my breath, I was ready to go back. I’d walked the planned three towers, about a mile. But how was I to get back down? Well, there was only one thing for it – I turned around and backed my way down as if the steps were a ladder. God help anyone taking photos from the cable car. My fat arse would be blaring out like a Belisha beacon. Did I care? No way! (Although I do apologise to anyone who has photos!) A charming American gentleman took my rucksack to facilitate my descent, his wife commenting I’d done really well. ‘I’d have come down on my backside,’ she said.
I admitted I’d been in a similar situation before and the only reason I’d gone up was because I knew exactly how I was going to get back down. Retaking my rucksack I thanked the gentleman for his kind assistance and wiped my hands on my leggings, (which were binned later that evening).
Back I walked, retracing my steps, very pleased with myself for having hiked about two miles, up hill, down dale, negotiating a multitude of steps and numerous tourists.
The wall truly is a Wonder of the World and I’m sorry I didn’t see it when I was younger (and fitter). I would love to come back in the spring and see it again, when the trees are in bloom.
The group reassembled at Subway, where we partook of another needed beer, which it seemed was half the price of other establishments nearer the summit. We sat around chatting and I felt most content, having seen what I had come to China to see. It was worth the trip. The Great Wall is better than Great, it is truly amazing.