I think I was in my late twenties when it occurred to me that I really would like to see The Great Wall one day. I'm not sure why I chose that particular world wonder, exactly, it just seemed to be a sight a girl should check out if possible.
And when my friend moved to Shanghai a couple years ago and we tossed around the idea of my visiting, seeing The Great Wall did become possible. There were other reasons for the trip to China, of course: reconnecting with my bff from college, experiencing Chinese culture and food, seeing cities I'd barely dared to imagine I'd ever see, using a squat toilet...
But it was there in my mind, a bullet train ride from Shanghai to Beijing, a jaunt from there to the mountains and, cue angels singing, THE WALL.
So I planned it and followed through and holy moly, it was the cleanest, most pure shot of elation when I saw a sliver of that 5500-mile behemouth. A peaceful rush.
But I'm going to back up a little.
The day I arrived in Beijing I was driven from the train station to my hotel which, to my delight, was located on a hutong. I checked into my room and I think I squealed a little. Excuse the bad phone pictures, but I just have to show you what I saw when I arrived.
After centering myself with a cup of tea, I proceeded to walk to the Forbidden City. The hotel's bellhop, breakfast server, and all around best boy "Jimmy", strongly suggested that I take a taxi, but I wanted to see as much of the city as I could, so off I went on foot. I had a decent map and iPhone compass and only needed someone to tell me a couple times if I was headed in the right direction.
Sadly, the help often came in the guise of some scammer who spoke good English. They'd see me squinting at my map and ask, "Can I help you?" I'd request confirmation that I was walking toward Tiananmen Square/Forbidden City and he or she would give me that. But then they would tell me they were an artist and ask if I'd come look at their etchings or that they needed to practice English and could I accompany them to a nearby teahouse. Yeah, no.
That happened two or three times until I finally reached my destination to discover that 1. Forbidden City closed at 4:00, which is was, on the dot 2. A gazillion more scammers and hard sell souvenir vendors saw my blond hair and pounced as if I were a wounded impala and they wanted feast on my still warm carcass. And also take my money, and 3. Tiananmen Square was full of Chinese tourists who thought I was the most exciting thing they'd seen that day. Let the staring and cell phone picture taking commence. I'd been warned that this would happen in China, but didn't realize how exhausting it would be. At one point a guy reached out to touch me (to see if I was real? I dunno). I dodged away, but he grazed my arm and I was done.
Fed up, tired, and hungry, I decided to forego checking out more of the Square and head back toward Wangfujing Street for food.
I found street snacks, which I ate and then immediately worried I'd wake up in the night projectile vomiting across my beautiful hotel room.
That never happened, but I did, while munching my chicken and vegetable wrap, smell the worst stench that has ever, ever, EVER curled inside my nostrils. Something gamey, dead, sweet and rotten is the best I can describe it. It wafted from one of the stalls and I badly wished I was with someone whose arm I could clutch as I doubled over in serious aesthetic agony.
The next day was Wall day. Wall day! I got up early, inhaled a strange and delicious breakfast provided by my hotel and waited for my tour guide to pick me up. He was an hour late, though I didn't mind because I had nothing else planned. When he pulled up, I jumped into a van without seatbelts (of course, because Chinese don't seem concerned with safety much, if at all), met the other people in my group: a Japanese-American couple from San Francisco and an Indonesian guy and his auntie, and off we went. First to the Ming Tombs, which were a snooze and during which I learned that I was the only member of our tour who didn't believe in an after life, a jade museum/store and lunch.
(I know I posted some of these photos earlier, forgive me).
We took cable cars, which were glorified chairlifts, up to the wall, then hiked around. I was on my own because I wanted to check out the more difficult but, as our guide told us, more beautiful end of the wall at Mutianyu. I climbed stairs so steep I felt like an animal scrabbling up a tree, but I was happy. Beyond happy. When I got to the top, I saw this:
A board people had signed as proof they'd made it up. It wasn't Everest or anything. The day was stunning, the trees goldens, the air warm, but making it there, just being there, was an accomplishment. I was on the freaking Great Wall in freaking China.
All too soon, it was time to descend. I took a sled-luge type thing down a metal chute, my hair flying, my back aching a little from hunching over the brake, my mood singing. I had done it. I was still doing it. Everything was so, so good.