The main reason I came to China was because I wanted to see the Great Wall of China. The main reason I almost regretted coming to China was because of the Great Wall of China. Those who know me, know the extents I go to to avoid closed spaces: suitcases have been placed in lifts while I ran 10 flights of stairs to meet my luggage at the bottom, dignitaries I’ve interviewed have offered to join me in taking the stairs over lifts, and friends have helped calm me down when we were on trains, which stopped mid-tunnel during rush hour. So, you see I do my best to avoid small, closed spaces. One would think that the vast 20,000km-long, open-air Great Wall of China would be a viable option for a claustrophic traveller such as me. Think again.
We had been in China almost a week now and climbed the Wall about a third of the way through our trip. Having attributed so much importance to this extraordinary structure, we gave the process much importance and even booked ourselves into a remote hostel located practically on the wall itself, whose guests visit only to climb the wall.
While the very essence of the Wall is to stress unity, it is actually divided into at least four distinct parts, having been built at various stages in the course of history. The most popular part is the Bādálīng section, which has been restored and is easily accessible by lift and cable car, making it popular among masses of tourists, especially during the warmer months such as September when we were visiting.
So, the brave travellers that we were decided to go to a more remote part, a section that has not been reconstructed, and is really disintegrated at parts, therefore making it far less busy with visitors.
But once up on the Wall, the sprawling countryside beneath me, the mountain tops enveloping me, and the snaking Wall all around me, and the deep, plummeting drop beneath me, I found myself paralysed with what I suppose was acrophobia. The Wall really is crumbling at parts, at many of which only one person can pass at a time. We had done a good chunk of the Wall before it reached a critical stage that rendered me almost unable to take a step forward. My body was shaking and I had got myself into such a state I probably would have slipped. Yet despite the crippling fear, I did it, I walked as far as my group of friends did, and walked all the way back as they did and I am so glad I did it. Overcoming my fear was the result of a combination of encouraging and consoling words from my friends, being told to breathe slowly and talking to myself and telling myself I could do it. I have no regrets and remain utterly overwhelmed by the sheer magnanimity of this, China’s engineering triumph. To this effect, I want to look back and remember the positives of this memorable experience, as well as to encourage others to go:
The route: Coiled Dragon Loop
We started our hike in the town of Gubeikou which links easily to the part of the Wall known as the Coiled Dragon, named for a big sweeping bend in the Wall with three towers on top. The first section of the Wall is very special as it is a very rare part of the Northern Qi dynasty Wall, making it some 1500 years old. The walk takes some two and a half hours, unless you decide to continue further, as we did, until you reach a military section, through which you cannot pass, hence why we had to turn back. Words really cannot do justice to this mammoth structure and to the experience of standing on it, in the middle of nature, surrounded by astonishing views.
The Great Wall of China
I will forever remain mesmerised by this fantastic structure with an equally gripping history. Work on the ‘original’ Wall was started as far back as 221BC under Emperor Qin Shihuang. It is estimated that some 18—million cu metres of rammed earth was used to build the Wall. The bricks were cut at ground level and then hoisted up by slaves up the soaring heights. Sadly, millions died in the process, and legend has it that the bones of the dead workers were used as building materials too.
The people we met
From the fearless tour leader, who led her group briskly across the Wall, clad only in sandals, to the Chinese lady in heels and the locals who were on their daily walk, the person who stands out most in my memories is the elderly man we met, whose name, unfortunately I never got hold of. With straight, combed white hair, leather loafers, and a stylish camel leather backpack, we met this American man at a somewhat difficult section of the Wall, for which one had to climb over scattered rocks and clamber up some pretty steep steps. Cheerfully grumbling that he had been ‘deceived!’ that the Wall was a smooth part, this brave man refused our help, explaining that he would have to return on his own. He told us how his friend Sally could not join him on this tour, which would go on to include visits to Egypt and Portugal, but that he was taking photos to remember this memorable day. During one of my panicky moments, I thanked myself that I had done this trip now, while I was young, as I would not be able to do this later on in life. I am now reassessing this! And of course, I will never forget and will remain eternally grateful to our walking buddies – Queenie and Eric – who walked with us, encouraged me at my difficult moments, and Queenie who translated for us when one lady advised I use a stick to help me keep my balance.
Where we stayed:
Chinese Box Hostel
A gorgeous traditional Chinese courtyard hostel in the heart of Old Beijing, a haven of serenity after the bustling and busy life of central Beijing.