Recent discoveries make it even greater than we thought, so I was up early on Saturday morning to meet my guide in the hotel lobby at 7:15, excited that the Friday night rain appeared to have washed the skies clean. The sun had come up at 5:30 (and jet lag made sure that I was awake for that), the day had dawned clear and very warm, I had manned up and bought a steamed bun for breakfast from the vendor across the street and I was headed for the Great Wall at Mutianyu, one of the top things on my Beijing bucket list.
I didn’t come 14,000 miles to China not to see the Wall in some shape or form, and since many sections of the wall are less than two hours outside the city, I happily piled into a van with two Swedes, two Frenchmen (accompanied by their private Chinese guide), a German, four Canadians, a very quiet couple of indeterminate nationality and two other Americans for a Chinese road trip.
Beijing sprawls, but an hour or so outside the city things begin to get greener as the road climbs through an area known for its agriculture and its very popular weekend and holiday getaways for city dwellers eager to camp out and gather their own food, and the landscape provides proof that the incredible scenes in those ancient Chinese scroll paintings were not completely the figment of someone’s imagination.
As exotic as the destination may feel to us, arriving at the Wall is surprisingly like arriving at one of our national parks, and while I hadn’t expected a hike through thick brush, the long, winding walk through gift shops, souvenir stands and restaurants wasn’t the segue I had imagined between the highway and one of the world’s seven wonders, not least when our guide turned us loose and asked that we meet in three hours at the Subway restaurant.
Where is the Wall? Look up. It is about 350 feet above you, built along the tops of the mountain ridges for defensive value. At Mutianyu, the top of the mountain ridge is about 4000 steps or a chair lift ride up the mountain, and though I am afraid of both heights and falling, the lift won out over aging knees and lack of time. Even though I saw old Chinese women riding it while laughing and taking pictures, I held on tight – with both hands – since it was still a white-knuckle attraction as far as I was concerned.
The area of the Wall at Mutianyu has about 90% forest cover, and once you get to the top, if the air quality and the weather are both in agreement, the views are really spectacular in every direction. The Wall crawls along the top of the mountain range like a long, gray caterpillar and stretches in both directions for as far as you can see. Even though I understand that it was highly restored in the 1950’s, I was still impressed. At Mutianyu, the two hikes along the wall (left or right) are supposed to be very different, and even though I went to the right, which is reportedly the easier climb, it was challenging. Yes, it is every bit as steep as it looks (there were times when I half-considered dropping to my knees and crawling up the steps) and no, there is no quarter given other than the occasional rest inside the stone guard towers along the way.
I only hiked as far as three towers, but since the only reason I carry a backpack is to have portable toiletries and since endurance is never something to which I have aspired, I was content with that achievement and with the gentle breeze and the warm sunshine that graced what is for many people a once-in-a-lifetime experience – even more content when I found that instead of the chair lift that I was dreading, there is a twisting, zig-zagging, mile-long luge that admittedly felt a bit like bumper cars, but which delivered me safely screaming and laughing back to the bottom of the mountain, as fast as my nerve, my brakes and the holiday crowd allowed.