Friday, 22 March 2013

Alone on the Great Wall of China

Every so often when you visit places in various parts of the world, you will have one of those ‘pinch me, I must be dreaming moments’. This is that special feeling that every traveler seeks … that moment of realisation when you can’t quite believe where you are and what you are actually doing. It doesn’t happen all of the time and to be honest if you’re a seasoned traveler, it is easy to become a little blasé over many of the amazing cultural or historical sights that you often come across. So it was certainly wonderful to experience that feeling once again when Jules and I were walking the Great Wall of China on a brisk morning in March.

We had been driven 90 minutes from Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the wall which we were told would be far less crowded than those parts closer to the city. The day before there had been quite a heavy downfall of snow that had cleared the air to a degree, while also providing a much more picturesque perspective to the otherwise colourless tones of the winter landscape. While the sun wasn’t quite shining, it was bright and vision was relatively clear as we entered the county of Huairou and as we looked upward, we could see the mountain ridges that connected Juyongguan Pass to the west and Gubeikou to the east.

As we pulled into a relatively empty carpark, it appeared that our early getaway from Beijing may have paid off and even the souvenir stallholders were slightly caught on the hop with the arrival of a small but keen group of early bird visitors. To get to the Great Wall itself we could either hike upward or take the cable car to the ridge. It didn’t take too much convincing for us to opt for the later; we were after all keen to conserve our energies for the wall itself. As we began to move upward in our small gondola, we caught our first sight of The Great Wall with its saw-tooth parapets threading its way across the countryside. It was amazing to think of it stretching almost 9000 kilometres across China from east to west and with a history of over 2000 years, it is not surprising that it is regarded as one of the great wonders of the world.

While millions of tourists visit the wall each year, we were amazed to find that when we stepped from the cable car we were quite alone. Possibly it was the time of the day, the unseasonal cold snap or the congested traffic out of Beijing, but what ever the reason, we just felt privileged to have this 2.5 kilometre section of the wall all to ourselves. With snow on the ground and with the silence of the deserted scene, we were provided with a truly unique outlook of this remarkable structure as it snaked its way off into the distance. While the snow certainly added to the panorama, we began our much-anticipated walk only to discover that it came with its own inherent dangers …ice! It seems that photographs don’t quite convey the rolling nature of the narrow walkways or the steepness of some of its sections. Quite often we found ourselves literally clinging to the wall turrets in fear of sliding down the hill, as we tentatively made our way between the various guardhouses. Nonetheless it was a truly fantastic experience and while the ice limited how far we could travel, we were just happy to be there and to enjoy the experience in relative isolation.

With the best possible views of the nearby countryside, it is not surprising that the wall provided a highly successful form of protection against the marauding nomads from the north. Even if they had survived the exhaustion of climbing the mountains, it would have been almost impossible to penetrate the solid granite blocks used to construct it, not to mention a possible shower of arrows from above. Although many parts of the wall’s structure have been rebuilt over the years, it is remarkable that it has survived war, weather, time and the millions of tourists who continue to tramp over these ancient fortifications each year. While the myth of being the only man made structure visible from space may have been debunked, there is no denying that it is a remarkable testament to human endeavor.

As Jules and I made our way back to the guardhouse where we had first begun, in the distance we could now see large groups of tourists beginning to arrive. We had timed our visit well and with the squeals of an excited group of school students shattering the silence, we knew that our time alone on the wall was over. On descending downward we could see gondolas full of camera clutching tourists heading upward … it seems that there would be no repelling of these invaders today!

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