What’s so Great about this Wall? Jinshaling to Simatai, China
November 25th, 2009
Cold, wet, exhausted and a little intimidated, Gary and I were ready to give up on the Great Wall of China before we even clapped eyes on it. In our infinite wisdom we had chosen to do the hardest section of the wall on one of the coldest days in months. This, combined with a pair of impractical shoes, resulted in Gary spending the first 45 minutes of our Great Wall adventure (a steep uphill climb through a forest currently coated in compacted ice) locked in an intimate embrace with the mountain.
Face to face, pelvis to pelvis, the two struggled for the upper hand, Gary shuffling his way forward a few inches before his opponent’s icy grip closed around his ankle, dragging him back on top of one of the ten local villagers who had followed us from the entrance. ‘Who are they? What do they want? Why are they following us?’ These are all questions that weren’t running through Gary’s mind as his sole focus was leveraging himself off an old lady’s shoulders and up another slippery foot.
Trying not to giggle as he fell on another octogenarian, I dangled our entrance ticket in front of Gary’s eyes for encouragement, promising him to most spectacular view once we got to the top. If we could only get through this patch of fog.
No such luck. As was a reoccurring theme during our trip to Beijing, once we got to the top we still couldn’t see 10ft in front of our noses. And our band of merry villagers were still following us with no indication of what they wanted. We had, of course, been warned. “It’s really slippy up there!” Our guide had said. “It’s really dangerous. You should just go straight to Simatai and you can walk all you want there. Please?” But we were hardcore and, after getting up at 5.30am and riding on a freezing cold bus with our legs tucked behind our ears for four hours we were going to climb the damned wall even if it killed us.
And there were times when it nearly did. When I was sliding down a hill on my bum, for example, because it was too steep and icy to stand up and I started to pick up speed and veer towards the edge of the wall and the foggy abyss. Or the time I nearly lost my footing on the first set of steps – steps that were so steep that you had to use both your hands and your feet to scale them.
It was in this grumpy, disappointed frame of mind that we stopped for a rest at the end of the Jinshaling section of the wall, holding up our entrance ticket to compare the view we had been promised (a beautiful, luscious image of the wall and its towers stretching on forever) to the one we had gotten (a few crumbling stones in the foreground and a whole lot of empty white space). Were we on the Great Wall of China or was this just another Chinese con? We could have been in the middle of the city for all we knew.
Then, as Gary once again put away his camera, sighing over his broken dreams, China suddenly started to give a little back. The fog peeled away to reveal the early afternoon sun bouncing off the yellow and brown reconstructed stones of the Simatai Great Wall of China.
Whatever about the original section (a great adventure and undoubtedly good to see), this was the pristine, powerful wall we had come to see – one we could trace as it snaked its way over mountains and across emerald green rivers, always picking the hardest path. Despite the freezing cold, the next seven slip-free kilometers were brilliant fun as we bounded, cheering and shouting and doing our finest Rocky impressions over the peaks.
I’m still not sure why but the Great Wall of China is every inch of what it’s cracked up to be if you get the space, weather and visibility to enjoy it. Definitely the high point of our trip so far.
P.S. After literally carrying half of our team – including one incredibly unfit, considerably overweight American – 5km along the wall, our Chinese back-up team only wanted to sell us some chopsticks and postcards for 50 cent. You have to love an innovator.