The adventure started at 7:30 in the morning. My tour group departed from our hostel by van to make the three hour drive up to the Northern section of Beijing where multiple sections of the wall stand.
After we arrived to the mountains, we drove past several sections of the wall where waves of people were visible making their way up thousands of stairs. From a distance, they looked like an endless river snaking their way up through the hills because there were so many visitors in the easier-to-climb sections.
Through my hostel, I signed up for what is known as The Secret Tour – a tour that takes travelers to an empty part of the wall so they may enjoy it without the crowds. The Secret Tour was a bit more expensive than a regular tour and I was initially skeptical because The Great Wall is the most popular attraction for tourists in China, so it was difficult to imagine an empty section because every other tourist spot in China included massive crowds of people.
The Secret Tour, however, was absolutely worth the 50 additional Chinese RMB (China’s money) because the section we arrived to, Badaling, was empty and to experience one of the most historical locations in the world on such a personal level may only be described as one of the best moments of my life so far.
We arrived at the base of Badaling and unloaded from the van. I immediately noticed there were bees everywhere; a couple of people, myself included, were wearing yellow clothing, and we were extremely visually attractive to the bees.
To summarize a long story: after being stung, I ended up changing shirts about two miles into the wall because bees kept swarming me.
We made the one-mile walk up through the hills to get to the entrance of the wall and we shot a group photo. Our tour guide told us some tales and the history of the wall, and then we spent the next three hours making our way through the winding walkways at our own pace.
Climbing The Great Wall was hands-down the most physically exhausting activity I have ever done. Initially it was similar to climbing up a large number of stairs, but as I ascended the wall, the stairs became inconsistent in size; a single step would be tiny, about the length of a toddler’s shoe; and then the next step would be 3 feet long and 18 inches high. It was impossible to settle into a walking groove because it was necessary to constantly change my stride in order to accommodate the differentiating sizes of the steps.
The paths were also quite steep in many areas. There were side rails to hold onto because it was impossible to get up and down the perpendicular, stairless paths without slipping on the slick stone.
A few people on the tour were getting physically ill because of how intense the climb was. I felt nauseous after only 30 minutes of climbing because the experience was so physically exhausting. Prior to climbing the wall, I had only ever seen it in photos and never realized the majority of the paths on the structure are stairs. 13,170.69 miles of stairs, steps, and paths to be exact!
During the tour, I learned The Great Wall was originally built during the Qin Dynasty around 221 B.C. Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered for the walls to be joined up into one in order to keep out northern invaders. (Spoiler alert: it did not work.)
It is estimated that over 400,000 people died during the construction of the wall, and many of them are buried within the wall itself!
Parts of the wall have been destroyed since it was originally erected and a section disappeared from view years back when the Chinese government created a dam in order to provide water to a few villages. Nearly 1/3 of the wall has vanished without a trace.
The wall is not one continuous line. There are parallel walls, sidewalls, circular walls, and stairs leading to lower sections for further exploration of The Great Wall.
Starting in 1957, the Badaling section of the wall was reconstructed and protection of the wall began.
Descending the wall was just as difficult as ascending because the stairs were still uneven and going down numerous, steep downward slants proved to be just as difficult. When we reached the bottom, my legs were quivering (a lot of people had a similar sensation) and my calves were sore for a week after the spectacular climb.
The Great Wall may have been the most physically exerting moment of my life so far, but to experience such exhaustion and be rewarded with breathtaking views immediately after was indescribable. The further a person ascended the wall, the more of a visual gift they were given with greater views of rolling green hills and an endless sky. I cannot help but find the entire experience to be a metaphor for the difficult moments in life, and I’m thankful I was able to experience such a stunning place.
This post was originally written in June 2016.