Walk the Great Wall – Beijing, China

Excitement is a good alarm clock and it worked well jolting me out of bed at 5am. I had eaten my breakfast and prepared a small snack before jumping in the shower to be ready for 630am. We were supposed to go as part of a tour but when the bus didn’t show up, we were all left to fend for ourselves. We secured a private taxi would said he would take us to the Great Wall for $150 return. We all thought this was a good deal and piled into his car.

Although the car was newer, it was still small so the over 2 hour drive was a little cramped. Our driver didn’t speak any English at all so there were no questions or touristic facts to be had. I decided to zone out and nap until he turned on the radio. I listened to the Chinese radio show as I watched the sparsely populated countryside roll by. The expressways were huge and at this time of the morning, there were very few cars. Our driver (whom we never actually got his name) sped at 140 which seemed to be the norm rather than the posted 90 limit.

When we got closer, the countryside began more mountainous and green. I noticed thousands of orange oval fruits hanging from the trees that fringed the road. Try as we may, we could not identify them. I want to say they are persimmons but then some looked like peaches. I wanted so badly to taste one but curbed my desire. We were on a mission and I didn’t want to distract our driver. As capable as he was, we couldn’t account for the other variables which could quickly spell our demise. After all, we only had one seatbelt among the four of us and lets just say I wasn’t the lucky one.

We got our first glimpses of the wall when we were still a half hour away. At that point it was a thin light edge that outlined the top of the mountain. We got some idea of the magnitude of the thing seeing that we were so far away and it was so visible. The wall spans over 3600 miles and it’s said it can even be seen from the moon.

The traffic was surprisingly light and we congratulated ourselves on beating the rush that would surely come. This is, after all, one of the seven wonders of the world. I was a touch nervous when we parked in the carpark and our driver agreed to meet us in three hours. I left my stuff in the trunk and didn’t want it getting “lost” so I took a photo with the driver so we would be sure to remember his face. I also took a snapshot of his license plate, just in case.

I felt somewhat timid as I scanned the mob and didn’t see one other Westerner among them. Could it be true that we were the only foreigners visiting this part of the wall? We made a pitstop at the bathroom which was pretty humble to say it delicately. Then we paid the 50 juan (7 dollar) entrance fee then sprang for the extra 20 juan bus ride up to the top of the mountain. We didn’t really know what we were doing but it turned out to be the best choice.

We lined up in the cue and climbed onboard the little tram when it finally came our turn. Up up up we went as the little buggy snaked up the windey road beeping his horn all the way. Around ever curve there was another roadside fruit/veg seller. Simple people with deep lines on their faces who seemed like they had been there forever. They looked bored and almost as if they were growing into the ground they sat upon.

One old man who really struck me was just standing on the side of the road watching the cars go by. He looked like he was at least a hundred years old and was firmly anchored to his spot. He really stood out as his stillness was such a severe contrast to all the activity going on around him. My eyes locked on him and for a brief moment, I could feel the gravity of his presence. Somehow I sensed that for him, the world moved slower and he could make it so.

We were let out a short walk away from the entrance to the actual wall. We had to pass by a number of vendors touting their wares which ranged from wooden samurai swords to postcards to little jade buddhas. I tipped my head up to the glaring sun and decided it may be wise to spring for the cheap pair of sunglasses since I had forgotten mine on the ship.

We snapped a few shots of the wall from below which seemed to just go on and on and on. Honestly, until one actually gets up ON the wall, you really don’t have any idea. There is something very different about looking at it from a distance and being on it.

We climbed up the stairs and finally got ourselves onto the actual wall. I was awestruck by the heaviness of the experience. I don’t know where in my head I got the idea that it would be a flat straight wall that you could just stroll along. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a heavy wide thick brick wall that goes up down and all around in many different directions. It’s an architectural masterpiece. Looking down beneath my feet at the giant barricade which stood and still stands for so much…well, “Great” is something of an understatement.

Instinctually, I began climbing up the steps. There were so many steps! And they were all different heights. Some were short and stubby only a couple inches high. The others were mammoth at over 2 feet requiring you to use the sides of the wall to steady yourself. Before there were Stairmasters, there was the Great Wall of China.

After ascending several flights of stairs, I had to stop and catch my breath. I turned and surveyed my progress. From where I was standing, it looked like I had come quite a long way and I was pleased with myself for hiking between a few towers. But then I reminded myself that this was merely a tiny fraction of this colossal 2000 year old project which hosts 10,000 watchtowers.

As I inhaled the crisp mountain air, I gazed out over the landscape. That’s when it really hit me. This is an ancient land with history and roots deeper than anything I grew up with in Canada. From the corn fields to the rolling hills to the villages I could make out in the distance through the haze of the day. It was so serene and picturesque. I stood quietly for moment in respect of the grandeur I was immersed in.

Then I began climbing again. I wish I had my pedometer because I would have liked to know how many steps I actually took. In the end, it was only a few hours of hiking but I was sweaty and slightly sore. I was grateful to have been so active in the gym for the past few weeks, so as to have almost trained for this endeavor.

The number people climbing around the wall were surprisingly low and we only saw three other Westerners the whole time. The rest were Chinese from toddlers to elders with their family, friends and even their dogs. It seemed to be a social event to some and a sacred experience to others. Still others seemed to be using it as an opportunity for fitness training. I have heard that there are people who have covered the entire wall but that it took 3 years.

I made myself a goal to get to the highest point of this part of the wall and scaled a couple towers. Afterwards, I motored back to the starting line and reconnected with the gang.

We paid the extra 20 juan to take the tram back down the mountain in order to meet our driver on time. With a half hour to spare, we made a speedy tour of what the typical tourists were doing. It was this canned experience which made us uber grateful to have opted out of the package tour in favor of our own adventure. I felt we had something distinctly more authentic by taking the higher risk option. I was so thankful to be in such good health and get to experience the Great Wall of China in such a way that many never will.

When we got back to the taxi, our driver was waiting for us cheerfully and all was in order. He blasted some techno remixes of Madonna songs for us as we drove away from our monumental climb. I felt like I’d accomplished something great. The whole experience was priceless and although I don’t feel the need to do it again, it was something I would recommend highly.

I dozed lightly all the way home and felt somewhat tired when we finally got back to the ship. We lost 2000 passengers today as most had only signed up for the short two week tour from Whittier to Beijing. I’d heard rumors that we would be getting a whole new ship full of passengers and had strong suspicions that they would all be Chinese. I was a little worried about the increase of spitting and shoving that would accompany our new guests after experiencing how rampant and accepted this behavior is here.

As I wandered around the decks taking stock, I was flabbergasted that not only were the guests almost all of European decent, but that our average age had come down noticeably. Woohoo! It’s nice to have a more lively bunch who move just a little quicker, if you know what I mean. Just a welcome change of pace, I suppose.

Even though I had hiked around the wall, I decided I still needed to get into the gym so that was most of my evening. Marshan and I took a stroll through the fitness area to scope the new blood when we saw a cute guy working out on the ab machine.

“Hummm…who‘s that?” Marshan mumbled suggestively as she nodded towards the hot guy in a ball cap doing his ab workout.

“He’s kinda cute,” I replied back confirming her discovery. “He’s not a regular before but he looks familiar….”

“He MUST be one of the staff…” Marshan stated knowingly.

We both looked at him a little closer as we strolled by and he noticed us checking him out. He flashed us a million dollar smile, dimples and all, and gave us a little wave. We both tried to contain our giggles only to burst out laughing as we turned the corner.

Um yeah, that’s the Captain. Italian Dino Sagani happens to be the youngest cruiseship captain at age 39. He is very personable and sure does add a certain innovative energy to the ship that I haven’t experienced on any of my previous 15 cruises. Bravo!

It’s no surprise that when it came time for sleep, it hit me like a ton of bricks. And believe you me, I have now seen my fair share of bricks.

Grateful for mobility.

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