American Culture

China, Day Fourteen: The Great Wall

Part fourteen in a fifteen-part series

sm-gw-towersstairs“You have never been to China until you’ve climbed the Great Wall,” Chairman Mao once declared.

By that definition, the twelve days we’ve spent in the country thus far don’t qualify.

I can see Mao’s point, though: it would not feel like a trip to China unless we visited the Great Wall. We’ve all been looking forward to the chance to finally see it, and now that we’re nearly done with our trip, the Great Wall feels a bit like the grand finale.

The most visited section of the Great Wall is called the Badaling, about fifty miles northwest of Beijing. We’re going to a slightly less touristy section, about forty miles from the city, called the Juyong Pass (also called the Juyongguan Pass).

“Wait’ll you see this place,” my colleague, Carl Case, says. “You’ll see why it’s a little less touristy.”

sm-gw-damSituated in the Guangou Valley, the pass served as the most important gateway through the Wall from the capital to the territories north. A huge fortress sits at the center of the pass. Once upon a time, the fortress helped protect the Middle Kingdom; today, it serves as a gateway for all the tour busses.

From the valley floor, the Cuiping and Jingui mountains rise up like Yin and Yang on the east and west. Cuiping stands 150 meters high while Jingui—the mountain we’ll climb—is 350 meters high. That’s just under a quarter of a mile tall.

But the path to the top is a lot longer. The mountains twist and turn and fold back in on themselves like a Chinese dragon, with the Wall riding the ridgeline of the dragon’s back.

“This is where people find out how strong they really are,” Carl says. “This is about mental toughness.”

The Great Wall of China stretches for some 4,160 miles, although, if you count all the branches and offshoots, it’s closer to 5,500 miles. 

The first sections were built just after 700 B.C., although Emperor Qin of terra cotta warrior fame is generally credited with being the guy who ordered construction of the first parts of the Wall as we know it sometime around 220 B.C.

Time proved to be the worst foe of the Wall, and sections fell into disrepair over the centuries. In 1368, the first year of the Ming Dynasty, the emperor ordered reconstruction of the Wall, following the general footprint of Qin’s original structure. They started their work at the Juyong Pass and took some 100 years to complete the full project.

During the course of construction, somewhere between two and three million people died. They were buried within the Wall itself.

Parts of the Wall have again fallen into disrepair, and no one has ever done a comprehensive study of the Wall’s condition. But in 1992, government officials undertook a massive renovation project at Juyong Pass so it could serve as a tourist area.

We’re one of the first busses there, but the lot fills up by midmorning. “Less touristy,” as Carl described it, is only a relative term.

Carl tells us that a student last year counted 1,604 steps to the top. “I’ll see you there!” he says, and off he goes. Four of the grad students on the trip take off with him, determined to beat him. If one of them does, Carl will buy them a drink. (He will get to keep his money.)

I resolve to take my time. “So I can take notes on the way,” I tell myself.

The lowest section of the Wall, from the fortress to the foot of Jingui Mountain, is crowded with people. Parasols are popular with the ladies, as are high-heeled shoes. “For climbing the Wall? Are you kidding?” I ask myself. The slope upward isn’t strenuous, but it’s not gentle, either.

The Wall here stands over thirty feet tall and a little over ten feet wide. The idea was that four horsemen could ride side by side. Near the fortress, where our tour bus passed through, the wall was over fifty feet wide.

sm-gw-pagodaAt the first tower, I catch a breather to take in the view. I’m up above the fortress and have a good view of the nearby dam. Above me and to my right, a little pagoda sits alone on a ridge that juts out from the mountainside.

The Great Wall is already turning into the Great Stairway of China. The wall has narrowed into a steep staircase that leads to the next tower. At its narrowest point, the Great Wall is just over four feet wide.

The stairs are uneven, too, so  so it’s really even more appropriate to call the Great Stairway of China the Great Uneven Stairway of China. Their unevenness makes the going tougher because it’s impossible to find any kind of rhythm. Emperor Qin’s achievements included standardizing money and standardizing the written language. Why couldn’t he standardize steps?sm-gw-unevenstairs02

On my way up, I pass a stair sweeper singing to himself as he swishes his switch broom in what might be rhythm to his song, although I can’t quite tell over the throbbing of my heartbeat in my ears.

As I near the second tower, the Great Staircase of China turns into the Great Winding Staircase with a Single Rickety Handrail of China. The path switches back on itself precariously as it rises into the cool shade of the tower.

Workers constructed towers every 300-500 meters. The Wall has about twelve hundred of them in all. Builders averaged about one tower every five days for five straight years. They served as observation decks, weapons storage, and battle platforms. Today they serve as places for tired climbers to rest.

Traffic thins out past the second tower. No more parasols. No more high heels. I hear people huffing and puffing in German, French and Australian. “Chinese keep going,” says one man, pausing for a scrap of shade. “Japanese stop.”

All along the stairs, people cling to shade the way a lizard clings to a rock in the sun.

I finish a flight of stairs and come to a straight stretch of about fifty feet or so. I can’t stop because it’s in the open sun. The temperature is in the mid-nineties. Sweat rivers down my back, and I can feel my brain drying up. I am glad I brought water with me. “You don’t need to carry any up with you,” Carl had said. “You can buy some at the top.” That’s assuming a person makes it.

There’s a tourist shop at the third tower. A tourist shop? Who has to lug all that kitsch up here to sell it? “T-shirt?” a vendor asks. “Hat? Chinese lantern? Painting?”

How about some oxygen?

Hikers sprawl in every bit of shade. “Enough is enough,” one British woman says. “It’s not clever to keep going, is it?” “It’s a bloody long way to the top,” her husband replies.

Red-tasseled good luck charms hang from a display. I already feel lucky for having made it this far.

I continue up, falling in behind a young woman who has “Hongda” written along the bottom cuffs of her Capri’s. I have no idea what the word means. It’s just something to focus on so I don’t have to think about dying. She also wears ankle socks with pom-pom bunnies on them. I want to stop again, but I urge myself onward. “Keep your eyes on the bunnies,” I say. “Follow the bunnies.”

The girl stops to ask me for the time, which halts my pace. She keeps going; I begin to worry about the Great Cardiac Arrest of China.

I notice the little lonely pagoda I had been measuring my progress against is suddenly way, way below and behind me. I keep trudging upward.

The next tower reeks with the stench of urine. There are pools of it under each window. I don’t stay although I desperately want the shade.

sm-gw-sixteenstepsThe next leg of the journey is relatively easy: an uphill ramp that passes another shop. I don’t even have the breath to say “Booyah” to the vendors as they try to sell me something.

The ramped section leads to sixteen steps downward—agonizing because those are sixteen steps of lost ground I’ll have to make up. I plod along.

I hear cheers above me. As other members of the group make it to the top, those already there give cheers. I get one, too, when I finally arrive. I am number twenty-two out of twenty-four and, as it turns out, the last one who’ll make it all the way. It took me an hour and twenty minutes.

“I made it in twenty minutes,” Carl tells me. “Beat my old record by two minutes!”

sm-gw-christop1I’m too exhausted to throw him from the battlements. Instead, I smile and nod and take in the scenery. Beijing’s famous smog is gone. The day is sunny and clear and glorious, and I can see the Wall wrap itself over mountain after mountain into the distance.

It is one of the most accomplished feelings I’ve ever experienced.

Now I have been to China. I have climbed the Great Wall.

4 replies »

  1. During the course of construction, somewhere between two and three million people died.

    Beggars the imagination.

    Meanwhile, I’ve always wondered how the wall kept invaders out. A 30-foot height doesn’t sound difficult to scale with grappling hooks or ladders. I would imagine its protective benefits lied in the advantage that guards atop enjoyed in fighting off interlopers.

  2. Although when I went it was a little foggy, it was still one of the best landmarks I’ve ever been to.