Up there with Angkor Wat, the Inca Trail, and the Lost City of Petra, China’s Great Wall had been on my bucket list for some time (the latter two still are!), so when I booked my 21 day ‘China on a Shoestring’ tour with Explore just over a year ago, the Great Wall was the one attraction on the itinerary that I was looking forward to above all else.
It had some pretty high expectations of mine to live up to.
Unsurprisingly really considering that it’s the longest man-made structure in the world: the main wall is approximately 3460km long with an extra 2860km of branches and spurs. Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall is not a single, continuous wall, but rather a series of fortifications built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern boundary, that have since been joined together. Some of these fortifications were built as early as the 7th century but the majority of the existing wall was built during the Ming Dynasty (between 1368 and 1644), and since then has been periodically rebuilt, maintained and enhanced.
Often compared to a dragon – which the Chinese perceive to be a protective divinity and one synonymous with vitality and Springtime – the Great Wall snakes its way across the tree-covered mountains that surround it, a symbol not only of its historical significance but also of the strength and determination of the Chinese people, and the lengths they went to in order to protect their existence, identity, and cultural heritage.
We arrived at the Mutianyu section (located in Huairou region, about 45 miles north-east of Beijing) of the wall in the (relatively) early hours of a beautifully crisp, sunny, autumnal day. Although there weren’t many other tourists around, the entrance was already lined with endless vendors of wall memorabilia, setting up shop in preparation for the hoards of tourists who would be undoubtedly arriving by the busload not long after we did.
In actual fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The majority of our group opted to take the gondola up from the foothills to the level of the wall, but I chose to utilise the steps (there are in excess of 4000 of them!), and was quickly joined by Kevin, and Karen (who was to become my partner in crime later on that day, when the pair of us got epically lost in Beijing and nearly caused the whole group to miss the overnight train to Xi’an! – but that’s another story).
The path wove its way upwards, underneath the shade of the trees, growing steeper the further it climbed. Yes, the muscles in my legs were starting to make their presence known towards the end of the ascent, but when I reached the top and beheld the awe-inspiring views that surrounded me in every direction, I instantly forgot about the effort it had taken to reach that point. I felt so completely and utterly alive.
I’m sure it can be beautiful up here no matter which season you choose to visit in – flowers bloom all over the mountains in Spring, lush green grasses dress the hillside in Summer, and Winter brings blankets of snow and frost that decorate the landscape – but Autumn, for me, was magical. The section of the wall at Mutianyu is famous for its breath-taking scenery: woods cover over 96% of the total scenic area, and in autumn the leaves on these trees turn so many different shades of reds and yellows, that when the sun shines, the mountains appear to be touched with gold.
Mutianyu winds 2.25km through lofty mountains and high ridges, encompassing 22 watch towers distributed at close intervals along the wall, and – despite this being one of the best preserved areas of the wall (and therefore one of the most popular to visit) – we found it to be largely devoid of tourists for the entire 3 hours we spent there. Yes it was impossible to take a photograph without having a few people in the foreground, but these few gave the photograph a sense of scale rather than detracting attention from the subject matter. It was by no means overrun with tourists – as I had previously suspected it might be.
Moreover, the majority of tourists we encountered were Chinese tourists – many of them students – so in a way, their presence added to the authenticity of the whole experience. At this point in the trip, I still hadn’t gotten used to the whole idea of the Chinese people’s fascination with wanting to have their photographs taken with you (at first I didn’t know whether to feel creeped or flattered, but soon leaned towards the latter and learned to take it all in good humour), so it was rather novel to be posing for silly photographs with a bunch of Chinese students on the steps up to one of Mutianyu’s imposing watch towers.
As I’ve already mentioned, there are 22 watch towers (or gates) in total, and the route towards the higher gate numbers was reportedly the most scenic, so that’s the route we took – from gate number 8, where we initially joined the wall. Just as I’d imagined – although with steeper ascents and descents than I’d imagined – the wall twisted its undulating way across the hillside and over mountain ridges for as far as the eye could see. It was a spectacular sight to behold and one I don’t think I could ever tire of, which is why I spent the next 3 hours walking the length and breadth of this one small section of a truly immense and fascinating structure.
I marvelled at the beauty of the scenery that constantly surrounded me…
I climbed countless steps…
I peered through watchtower windows…
I considered the beauty of graffiti, to someone who does not understand Chinese script…
I puzzled over intriguing signs…
And took far too many photographs, because I wanted to commit this experience to my memory and carry it with me forever…
I’m sure you already know the answer by now, but did the Great Wall of China live up to my expectations? You’re damn right it did!
As I’ve mentioned earlier in this article, my visit to the Great Wall of China was part of a 21-day tour, which I took with Explore. To read my review of the tour (dated 15/08/13), please click here
Is the Great Wall on your bucket list?