Vertigo on the Great Wall of China

“You’re going to CHINA? You must surely visit the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!”, squealed my elderly neighbour.

I smiled warily. Her enthusiasm was palpable. Despite her age and average health, given an opportunity, she would have most definitely have walked the great walk herself. I probably kept her in mind, when I reluctantly signed up for the Great Wall of China hike.

Basil loves mountains and scaling them. On the other hand, although I do love mountains, and most certainly admire them; I prefer to hopelessly surrender to them. I understand and accept my mortal human limitations in front of their cloud tearing ability. But, there are some things that have to be done on a trip. That’s what gives us our ‘super-human’ moment. Never mind my fear of heights (vertigo) and weak stamina. Yes, there are some things that have to be tried on a trip. Conquering ‘fear’ is probably the first.

In the words of Chairman Mao,

“Until you reach the Great Wall, you’re no Hero.”

“The Great Wall of China can be seen from the moon. The total length of the wall is 8,850 km in length and construction first began under the rule of Emperor Qin and continued right up till the Ming dynasty.” Our guide rattled out words as fast as she could, interspersing them with a question or two. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that as fascinating and imposing as the Wall is – it cannot be seen from the moon or space. Recent measurements indicate that the length of the Great Wall could measure at least 21,196 km. It is believed, that a number of labourers who worked to build the great wall lost their life in adverse weather conditions.

We had enrolled for the Great Wall of China hike through our hostel. The hike includes pick-up & drop, entry fees, and a traditional Chinese lunch. Our hiking group comprised visitors from China, Germany, Sweden, France, and the US. There are ten main zones open to tourists – segregated on the basis of their level of walking/hiking difficulty. Our hike would tackle the Mutianyu section. This section is of medium difficulty and it’s not as crowded as the section in Badaling.

It takes about two hours from Beijing to get to the Mutianyu section of the wall. After parking the car at the car park, our guide advised us to take the cable car to the main wall. At an additional fee, the cable car saves the trouble of consuming your energy before the actual hike.

The actual hike starts from level 12 and continues to level 23. Unlike my previous trips, I wasn’t prepared for this hike. Our little practice on Jingshan Hill wasn’t of much help. Add to it, the height seemed unnerving. I had my first moment of uncertainty at the beginning of the hike – as I stood at a vantage point and saw the circuitous wall in front of me with plunging valleys on either side. I thought of giving up before I had started. Surely, not everyone hikes the great wall? I had seen two tourists from our group give up before reaching the wall. I needn’t need to be a ‘Hero’. I could take snaps posing with the wall. Who would know?

After much prodding and Basil convincing me that it gets easier, I walked slowly. And he turned out to be right. The wall is generally broad and thankfully reconstructed (in this section) – making walking easier. Those facing problems with heights can stay in the centre and yes, you will feel really safe. Once you tackle your fear, the hike takes you up and down steps – as the wall weaves itself around the undulating mountain scape. The wall literally resembles a giant dragon sleeping on the the mountain ridge. In summer, it gets rather hot and our breakfast of dumplings was digested pretty quickly. It’s best to come prepared with energy bars, water, and fruits. Prices on the wall itself are pretty high and you may not find a vendor easily.

The watchtowers are the best part of this section of the wall. As the rays of the sun get stronger, they offer much respite from the heat. School kids formed picnic groups at watch towers; snacking and laughing. By now, I had handled myself pretty well and had even started enjoying the view. Some watch towers had stairs leading to the roof. We chose to carry on as we had a time limit of reaching back for lunch at 1.

After some more walking, we took a break at a watch tower. We met the elderly Swedish tourist in our group. Although tired, he was doing very well for his age. We exchanged notes on the places we had been and would be going. You’re English is good, he remarked. I smiled. Maybe that requires another post in itself. We asked him whether he would hike up to the last point and he said that’s what he aimed to do. I had my doubts I could continue further, but I guess looking at his enthusiasm, I decided to carry on.

By now, the sun was shining bright and walking and climbing was proving to be difficult. Add to it, my right knee had started giving problems. We had covered a long distance of the hike and the thought of going back – with an injured knee – was not a happy one. The last watch tower before the wall turns into steps at a steep angle was where I called it quits. I was hungry, tired, and my right knee didn’t help. I had come so close and really wanted to walk up, but didn’t want to injure my knee. So, I waited on the rooftop of the tower, while Basil tackled the stairs. I saw many other visitors (from our group) climb the stairs at separate intervals. The long flight of stairs leads to the rugged portion of the wall. Basil continued for a while before coming back for me. With the heat sapping me totally, I preferred to wait in the cooler part of the watchtower below. The view was breath taking here. The silence and fresh mountain breeze soothing. Maybe, this is what attracts Basil to the mountains. I forgot my hunger, the heat or noisy group of tourists.

There was no sign of the elderly Swedish tourist, but Basil came back after half an hour. It was nearing twelve and we had an hour to get back to the parking lot. Somehow, the journey back always seems faster. I had great difficulty climbing down stairs. To compensate, I put pressure on my left knee which seemed to face the brunt of my body weight. There were times I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it back as the pain increased. The possibility of injuring my knee seemed real to me – marring my happiness of completing a sizeable portion of the hike. The last few steps were probably the hardest and I was really happy to see the cable car.

Most of the others had already made it back to the lunch table. The Swedish tourist was the last to come. He seemed tired, but jubilant, to have made it till the last point. Over lunch, we discussed the diversity of China, food, people, races, and probably everything between. He pointed out a very important observation. In his words, “Children are the same everywhere. Be it China or Sweden. They don’t care of anyone around them. They behave the way they wish.”

That evening, when the exhilaration of the hike had died down, I limped my way up and down the hostel stairs. What a experience it had been. I’m not sure if I would want to do it again, but definitely feel elated to have tried and succeeded to the best of my abilities.

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