The Great Wall: or Could You Hear Me Screaming?

I love to travel. After graduating from college in 1986, I spent two years teaching English in China. I returned in 2010 and in 2014 with students from my school. Here is just one of our many adventures:

Our tour guide explained that there is a Chinese saying that when one comes to Beijing, there are three MUSTS: The Forbidden City, Peking Duck, and of course, The Great Wall. Most tourists, Chinese and foreign, visit the Great Wall at Badaling because of its proximity to the city. Of course, this means that it is the most crowded and “touristy”; even 30 years ago when I first visited Beijing, Badaling had more of a carnival feel with lots of tourists, souvenirs and throngs of people pushing their way up the Wall. Our tour guide suggested Mutianyu, a bit longer of a drive, but far less crowded and “more natural."

Even in the early March morning in Beijing, an ominous yellow smog hung in the air. We spent close to an hour in Beijing bumper to bumper rush hour traffic, but once we got out of the city, the sky was bluer, trees lined the roads and we arrived in the Mutianyu region of The Great Wall.

Just in case you don’t remember your Great Wall facts, the Chinese call it the greatest construction project in history. It was also the longest. The Great Wall began in the 3rd century BC and continued through the 17th century AD on the northern border of the country. It was initially started to keep out the Huns (as in Attila….) and their horses. The Great Wall begins in the east at Shanhaiguan in Hebei province and ends at Jiayuguan in Gansu province far to the west. Experts estimate it to be about 5500 miles long. And no, one cannot see it from space. Although some of the Wall is in disrepair, a lot of it is in remarkably good condition considering its age; Mutianyu is just one section open to tourists.

So what’s it like? First, we had to walk through a gauntlet of sales stands with women peddling their t-shirts, pictures of Chairman Mao, chopsticks, hats, sunglasses and other souvenirs. One woman grabbed me and asked my name and told me she would remember me on our way back; this was all in an aggressively friendly manner. I could hear her practicing pronouncing my name, “Kar-en, Kar-en” as we hurried towards the entrance.

We rode up the mountain towards the Wall in a gondola………..I don’t love heights, so I tried not to think too much about safety standards. When we hopped off the gondolas, we were on the Wall! In a word, the Great Wall is breathtaking. To go from the traffic, congestion, and pollution of Beijing to the mountains and fresh air of Mutianyu was wonderfully refreshing...and a workout. There are lots of uneven stairs to climb with several watchtowers to pause, catch your breath and take pictures. It’s a bit arduous but completely worth it unless you have really bad knees………..then, I can’t imagine.

Ok, so we took gondolas up………… did we get down? On the drive to the Wall, our tour guide searched on her phone translator and then casually informed me that we take a “toboggan” down; for some reason, I didn’t give it much thought. Nor did I make note of the fact that she opted to nap in the van while we set out.

Could you hear me screaming? So folks, before you roll your eyes and mock me, try to picture the small seat one places herself in while carrying her backpack as the “toboggan attendant” instructs me in Chinese how to pull the lever backward to slow down and forward to accelerate. When I told her in Chinese that I was scared, she laughed madly and gave me and my sled a hard push. (Again, I ask, did you hear me screaming??) The trip down was a fast five to seven-minute circuitous route. I continued to shriek and pray aloud and tried to obey the signs that instructed, “slow down”, but there were several checkpoints along the route where the attendants screamed, “Kwai! Kwai!” which means, “Faster! Faster!” Scream. Pray aloud. Finally, I arrived at the bottom where my traveling companions, four lovely adolescent males, took photos to document my journey and arrival. Word on the street is that one particularly unflattering photo was posted on social media minutes after touchdown. The boys were doubled over, laughing hysterically; I was merely hysterical.

As I staggered back towards the van, I heard, “Kar-en! Kar-en!” What?? Who was it? Why, it was the friendly saleswoman who did, in fact, remember my name. After a few minutes of haggling, we agreed on a price for two “I Climbed the Great Wall” t-shirts. She started at 380 yuan; I ended up with 2 for 80. And that, my friends, was my day at The Wall.

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