Climbing the Great Wall for the best foggy experience ever
The feeling is almost surreal, I wake up knowing that today we are off to see the Great Wall. I have very little knowledge of the place and the same goes for my expectations. Grand pictures and promotional materials dont give enough of a feel for what one can realistically prepare themselves to see.
The Great Wall is not in fact one continuous structure, contrary to popular belief. Protective structures of its likeness have been built in China for many hundreds of years by dozens of dynasties and states to a total combined length of about 50,000km. The Great Wall refers to the structures built by three dynasties, starting from 200 years B.C. The vast majority of those have vanished and today what we can usually see are the remains of the walls built by the last ruler that has added to the puzzle – Ming – during the 13th century.
There are a few spots across China to get face to face with what is left of this mind boggling project, the most popular being in the outskirts of Beijing. Choosing which of the available spots to go to was hard. Badaling is the best known and most visited one. I wanted to avoid as much as possible the horrific crowds we have experienced in China so far, so the search for an alternative was on. Simatai, sounded intriguing, as a non-restored section with very few tourists around. Unfortunately at the time we were in Beijing it was closed for renovations. Eventually, I decided we will go to Mutianyu – being generally less visited and going on a week day should give us more breathing space, but its also one of the most picturesque sections. Later on I read good things about Jiankou, which is also the closest to Beijing, but maybe next time.
Today we are off to Mutianyu, walking to the parking spot, where the people we are staying with keep their car. Yes, good people, that not only are giving us a place to sleep, but also insisting on driving us through the thick traffic to our destination [2 hours each way]. The city outside of the windows is grey as usual, its massive buildings lost in the smog and pollution of its bustling activities. Beijing is big and feels like it almost irregardless of where you are.
After what seems like an eternity we veer into a more rural setting and green color enters the subdued palette of the landscape. The kids are leading some rather loud conversations/scream fests next to me, but I am busy soaking up the views to interfere. I am looking into the distance trying to get a glimpse of magic in between the fog, but nothing peaks through. The only sign we are getting closer is the mini wall that is now lining up the road. I am getting impatient. I just want to see it.
Not long after, down the road, I get a glimpse of a multitude of carts selling fruits and tourist trinkets and know we are almost there. The crowds are not bad at all and the existence of other visitors is mostly obvious by the buses that are waiting patiently for them. I am keeping alive the hope that we wont have to fight through piles of bodies to see the views.
If there is something I universally dislike, its the tourist trap corridors that meet us before every somewhat big attraction. There is no way to avoid them, you just have to make it through them.
T-shirts are shoved in our faces “T-shirt! T-shirt!”, people are screaming from every which corner “Fruit! Peaches! Good Peaches!”, and that is just to make it to the booth selling the tickets. To enter the Wall is not that expensive – 45 yuan (about $8) and we only have to pay for Miss Fab 25 yuan (less than $5) as the rest of the kiddies are free. To avoid having to climb up and get down from the ridge of the hill, costs more – cable car is $10 return per person with very tiny discount for children. Yeah, right. We dont need no stinking lift.
So in the heat of the day, already moist from the heavy air, we make our way to the stairs leading to the wall. Half way through the first section we meet a couple, and they are looking at us with eyes as big as watermelons. “Its a looong way up” they exclaim short of breath. We assure them we will be fine. Then only a few meters up, another pair of youngsters warn us of the impending climb, while scanning the children with pity.
Now I am a bit worried, but it is what it is and we are making it up those stairs even if it kills us. And they keep on going, and going, and going. Not another soul in our way, up or down. I even wonder if we are on the right way at some point, only to have my thoughts scrambled by the yet another set of stairs.
The only people we saw were some workers along the way, who were looking at us with wonder in their eyes. By now I am barely moving one foot up the other, while Little B is jumping up without a care in the world and barely breaking a sweat. All the while I feel like hell has broken inside me and heat is eating me from inside, while those legs keep on going, somehow, dont ask me how.
I am not sure of the exact quantity, but trust me, there are a lot of stairs to climb up to the wall and I am no spring chicken with a free loader on my back. Here is me half-dead, only the sight of the first bricks ahead of us keeping me going.
And this is how, soaking in sweat, with trembling feet we step on the Great Wall.
The feeling cannot be described, simply because I have never in my life seen anything like it. A few more steps up and we can see better what we have gotten ourselves up to.
It is incredibly humbling to watch this massive structure snake its way through the steep ridges, as though its parting the trees. The lush greens around have erased any evidence that people had anything to do with this creation. Instead it seems surreal and as though its been there forever.
We stop and try to take a break, because by now our legs are barely holding us. Its in fact time to make sure that the mini Lego guys have their picture taken.
I had high hopes for an opportunity to take some fantastic pictures, instead I am faced with visibility of “faint something in the distance”, which translates into “nothing in the distance” within the camera.
The good part is that the section is not overwhelmed by tourists and often its just us and it. From time to time a group coming from the lifts will walk by, but that we can live with. Gazing at the wall, while around me is quiet, its impossible not to feel its greatness. From time to time the fog clears enough so I can see a lot further in the distance and each time I am amazed at its size and thinking about what it has taken to build it.
It is an experience like no other – amazing, unique, humbling and empowering.
If we ever come back to China again, I would love to see some of the un-restored sections of the Wall showing their true age and history. For now though, we have earned the right to claim that we have climbed The Great Wall of China, but most importantly that we have experienced its magic first hand.
And magical it definitely is.