Taking on the Great Wall – Part One: The Wild Wall

4 Oct

I’m back from the greatest few weeks of my life to date. I absolutely loved China – everything about it, good or bad, seemed a world away from the culture I’m used to and it was a great break from life as I knew it. However, having said that, China wasn’t as far from life as we in the West know it too – it was vibrantly modern in parts and enviously simplistic in others. It definitely also managed to retain a distinct charm that was almost tangible, especially in the temples and on some of the older and less touristy streets.

Without detailing absolutely everything as I’m prone to do, I’d really like to share some of the stories and images that make up my memories of the few weeks I spent in this amazing country and as it was my reason for going, I shall start with the Great Wall.


The Great Wall at Jinshanling, taken by myself. Sep ’13

They say that you can see it from space, and although logic says this can’t be true (you can’t, after all, see the M1 from space and its much, much wider) there is something so majestic about the structure that the illogical part of you doesn’t want to deny it. We were there as novices and had, between us, raised over £60,000 for two incredible charities (Breast Cancer Campaign and The Make-a-Wish Foundation) in the process of getting there. With images like the one I took above in our minds, we set out from London for a twenty odd hour journey to Beijing (with a short layover in Dubai). The 21 strong group had different expectations, I’m sure, but after our first (very sleepy) night in a Beijing hotel and our first Chinese-style breakfast and lunch, we set out on our very first trek and encountered the wall.

The Great Wall in stealth mode - taken by myself, Sep '13.

The Great Wall in stealth mode – taken by myself, Sep ’13.

What this picture shows is the Wall, without walls. What most of the glossy photos don’t show is that the vast majority of the wall has fallen into disrepair and although the government do frequently restore sections, the wall is estimated to be over 5000 miles long and, as such, there are obviously areas that become neglected. This was the ‘wild’ wall. Completely overgrown, broken stones and deserted, this was our scenery and our path for a good two days. In the above picture you can also see just how far up the mountainsides the wall is – the village below is where we had begun our trek (and where I had established just how unfit I truly was). At least to me this justifies why parts of the wall are less restored – it is definitely not easy to do that trek once, let alone every day with tools in hand.

For the time on the sections of the wall like this I didn’t see another human that wasn’t with our group. It was an insular beginning and more physically tough than I could have ever imagined, but the views were just so stunning that at every new peak and after every tough climb I almost forgot the aches and the scratches and just went “wow”, over and over again. We trekked and climbed for hours, trees and branches became both best friends, saving us from falling and steadying our climbs and descents, and also our attackers – bare arms don’t do too well when you’re surrounded by jungle and your attention is drawn to the uneven stones that masquerade as the floor of the Wall. Something else I learnt on this first day is that going down a mountainside is treacherous; the strain affects very different muscles to going uphill.

The second day on the wall brought new challenges. I discovered that I seem to have a penchant for voicing everything I’m feeling when I’m either scared or tired, emotions which dominated my trek experience, particularly on this day. Looking back I feel very guilty for the amount of moaning I must have unleashed to those around me. The group were always so supportive and such lovely, amusing and genuine people – I was very fortunate to have them alongside me and to have shared this experience with them. We were forewarned by our guides that this was going to be an especially tough day and I was even pulled aside to double check that I wanted to do it, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Then again, neither did the rather ominous statement of “once we go up, we don’t come down again” that was uttered more often than perhaps necessary. As a short human being, with not particularly long limbs, there were parts of the trek that we’re really quite difficult – there is only so far my legs can physically stretch and some steps were a few inches too big to comfortably climb.  The second day showed this to particular effect and when I was halfway up the mountain on the way to the wall I was quite frequently cursing myself for being my stubborn self, encouraged by their doubt to prove them (and myself) wrong, and deciding to climb. However, as with the day before, after the difficulty came the absolute beauty. This was, most definitely, the best thing I have ever seen.

View from the Jiankou Section of the Great Wall - taken by myself, Sep '13

View from the Jiankou Section of the Great Wall – taken by myself, Sep ’13

And this, this was how good I felt…

RL13 China 2

Jiankou Section

I was on top of the world – I’d never done anything quite like it and who knows when I will again. The struggle, the bruises…all of it for that view and that intense feeling of success…I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. This second day epitomised the whole trek – tough (very tough) but oh so totally worth every minute of it.

Later on in the same trek – my memory of this day goes on forever, as I’m sure it felt at the time too – we started encountering people and the wall, once ruggedly beautiful and wall-less became ‘new’ and restored. We had left the jungled areas of the first two days and entered a very shiny and popular section of the wall known as Mutianyu. It is still very empty compared to sections such as Badaling and Shanghaiguan, but nethertheless compared to the wall we had trekked it was very different and very busy! This ‘new’ wall had its own challenges too – steps, hundreds and thousands of them. They also weren’t uniform in appearance or size; there wasn’t a way you could get into a regular rhythm and instead you had to be careful of steps being a lot lower or higher than the one before. It also seemed a lot steeper than before, but it was the wall I had anticipated and the views were certainly no less beautiful.


And, at the end of this stretch, was something equally beautiful…a cable car! After the long climb to the wall and the trek along it covering numerous vertical and horizontal miles it was a pleasant feeling to not have to trek down! We met some interesting men from Sudan in the cable car, enjoying the wall like us (although we definitely had to explain our sweat-ridden and trek-equipped states as many take the cars up and down and few trek the whole day like we did). This was also our first experience of shopping in China, dozens of stallholders thrusting t-shirts and chopsticks into our faces, screaming a rather unbelievable “One Dollar!” at us. I resisted (mostly…) and we continued on to dinner and a planned night of camping on the wall itself.



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