Ancient, beautiful, historic… pretty much every Westerner has some notion of what the Great Wall of China is like. Personally, I always pictured it as something out of a classical Chinese painting; a massive structure surrounded by elegant, mountainous scenery. Having lived in China for almost a month now, I've quickly learned that preconceptions almost never hold up when faced with the real thing.
So, as I settled in for the hour long trip from Beijing to the Great Wall at Badaling, I was excited to see how my fanciful vision would stack up to reality. After catching a quick nap on the early morning ride, the tour guide's voice crackled over the loudspeaker, telling us we were at Badaling. I opened my eyes, looked out the window and there it was—the Wall, sitting proudly on top of the green peaks. My first impression of the landmark was simply "… how?" Like the pyramids and other ancient sites, it's always amazed me how people so long ago could build such incredible things. Still a little awestruck, I filed out of the bus with the rest of my tour group. Since we had arrived so early in the morning, the place was relatively empty though there were still plenty of tour groups pouring out of buses, their matching shirts making colorful lines as they walked up and down the Wall. My group decided to break away from the pack, walking a few extra minutes to reach a less crowded part.
When I finally came face-to-face with the steps of the Wall, the first thing I discovered was that it was not quite the easy climb I had imagined. It's steep. Very steep. I wasn't going to let that stop me from getting to at least the first watchtower toward the top of the mountain though and between huffing and puffing and silent promises to myself that I'd hit the Stairmaster when I got home, somehow, I made it. Clambering my way over what felt like the millionth uneven step I looked out at the spectacular view. Though not exactly the scenery I had seen in my mind's eye, the mountains had their own kind of rugged beauty.
Our tour guide caught up with me as I snapped some pictures and proceeded to give me a little more insight into the life of a soldier posted here way back when. "The watchtowers," she said, leaning casually against one, "once doubled as dormitories. Soldiers lived there year round and the structures stayed warm in the winter, cool in the summer." The latter was a little hard to believe as I felt the back of my neck burning in the sweltering heat.
The watchtowers were also where warning signals were lit. "One signal meant 100 people were coming, two meant 500 and three, 5,000," she explained. I looked past her, out at the mountains and tried to imagine what it would have been like to see 5,000 people bent on destruction headed towards you… and decided it probably wasn't the best feeling in the world.
After exploring a little further and taking many, many photos, I was surprised to feel a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a Chinese girl around my age standing next to me, and what looked like a good chunk of her family behind her. "Will you take a picture with me?" she asked. I turned to my tour guide who met my confused expression with a wide smile. She explained that they were from the provinces and that taking a picture with a Westerner was considered a cool thing to do. I looked back at girl and her family and their eager expressions and thought, "Why not?"
The instant I nodded my agreement, the girl was at my side and her family had stepped around me. I felt kind of special as they took the picture and then left with a chorus of "xiè xiè" (謝謝), thank you. A little bemused that I had somehow become part of the tourist attraction, I began to take more notice of the people around me. Surprisingly, most of the other visitors were actually from China, which bulldozed through yet another big expectation.
For some reason I had imagined more fanny packs and sunburned foreigners, but it was really nice to see so many Chinese nationals appreciating their country's heritage. After the rest of my group filtered down from other watchtowers, we carefully descended the almost vertical steps and made our way past the small souvenir shops that sold everything from Mao pocket watches to "I've been to the Great Wall" T-shirts, and filed back onto our bus. Tired and sweaty from the climb I looked out the window again and decided the burn in my legs was well worth it. My visit to the Great Wall at Badaling may not have been quite what I'd pictured, but the real experience went far beyond.