The Great Wall
With my schedule almost free for the afternoon, my plan was to visit the Great Wall of China. I had actually booked a car (for 600 yuan, including tolls) to pick me up from my hotel and drive me to the Great Wall and back, but the problem was that I never expected the closing ceremony to go over time and asked the driver to come at 2pm, meaning I only had an hour and a half to have lunch, get back to the hotel AND write an article and send it off.
By some miracle, I managed to do all of the above in time (a true demonstration of how determination can work wonders), and by 2pm I was in a Volkswagen heading towards the famed Great Wall of China.
There are supposedly three parts of the Great Wall near Beijing that most tourists visit. The nearest is Juyongguan, followed closely by Badaling, with Mutianyu a little further away. Badaling is the most popular and considered the grandest, and I believe it is the one I visited about 20 years ago during my first trip to Beijing. But it’s also the most annoying because of all the tourists and vendors and what not. So with my limited time in mind, I decided to go with Juyongguan, which is about an hours drive from the center of Beijing without traffic.
After a fine snooze we arrived at the Juyongguan parking lot. There wasn’t a whole lot of the Great Wall I could see from down there, and to be honest it didn’t look all that “Great”. It was just a long wall rising up on a mountain slope — I don’t know what else I was expecting. I paid my entry (40 yuan) and headed in. Apparently it is the beginning of the off-peak season so I was glad that there were hardly any other souls around.
One thing that surprised me was how steep parts of the wall was. It was actually a real challenge walking up and down those steep stairs, which took me all the way up and down various peaks and valleys along the mountainous terrain. The Great Wall is truly impressive when you can stand in a place that enables you to see how long it stretches for. It just goes on and on and on. And on and on.
I had supposedly entered the east side of the Juyongguan part of the wall, and from there I could see the west side, which looked even longer and challenging as it goes all the way up the mountain. According to Wikipedia, the Wall stetches for more than 21,000km, which is more than the journey from Sydney to Beijing and back. Considering the technology they had more than 2,000 years ago, and the fact that much of it is on ridiculously difficult terrain (not to mention how cold it gets in winter), it’s no surprise than an estimated 1 million+ people died while building it.
What really freaked me out were the stories that many of the bodies were simply buried into the foundations of the wall, making the Great Wall of China essentially a mass burial ground. That was when walking along the wall for about 20 minutes in the breezy cold without seeing another soul kinda scary (I was was ready to scream if I saw anyone dressed in clothes from another era).
Eventually, I came across a group of Hong Kong tourists, who were so loud that I realized the company of ghosts wouldn’t actually have been so bad. I was tempted to keep walking but I knew the later I left the place the longer we would be stuck in traffic on the way back. So after briefly checking out the west side of the wall, I decided it was about enough and returned to the car, roughly about an hour and 45 minutes after I arrived.
Visiting the Great Wall was a strange experience. On the one hand it is just a really long wall, but walking on it and absorbing its majestic grandeur up close and from afar is indeed a powerful experience. It’s a unique place that infuses you with a sense of history and wonder, while at the same time making you work up a sweat from all that climbing. Ultimately, considering what a rare opportunity it was, I am glad that I decided to take the trip.
PS: The ride back was, according to the driver, unnaturally smooth. We didn’t really hit any traffic until we were near the city, and even then it took about an hour and 40 minutes to get back to the hotel.