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By Sam Abbott


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The Great Wall of China is something you have to see to believe. This Wonder of the World is steeped in history, culture and myth. No, it isn’t visible from space. But it really is 13,000 miles long – equal to over half the length of the equator – and it dates back nearly 3,000 years.

When I visited 2 years ago, I was 17 years old and on my first solo trip. I wanted to see and experience the famous spots of Badaling or Mutianyu, with the pristine winding walls and immaculate watchtowers bearing the weight of thousands of crammed tourists, all wanting to take the most classic and recognisable photos. However I also wanted to take in a more authentic aspect of this ancient structure, leading to one unforgettable day trip from Beijing.

I was coming to the end of a 5 week trip to China, and I had a few days left to fit this in. I’d found a very unknown route online – mentioned only in 1 or 2 blog posts, which would take me along the unrestored Jiankou section of the Great Wall and eventually onto the popular Mutianyu section.

I’d pre-booked a taxi from my hostel to pick me up at 4.30am and it was one of those days that I just knew was going to be an adventure, whatever happened. The afternoon before however, I fell ill with food poisoning and as I started to feel very unwell and was trying to get back to my hostel, I was scammed of all my remaining money (which I had just taken out of an ATM) by a taxi driver. A great start.

Fortunately by the time I woke up early the next morning the worst of the food poisoning had passed, and despite feeling a bit weak and somewhat miffed at losing all my money, I jumped in my pre-paid taxi to Nanjili, with no idea of what to expect due to there being such little information online about where I was headed.

An hour later we were out of Beijing and driving through the countryside, and I felt like I was witnessing an aspect of China that tourists weren’t meant to see. The taxi driver seemed confused and was asking me lots of questions in Mandarin, and with only a limited knowledge of the language from a few months of self-learning, I couldn’t understand much. It clearly wasn’t somewhere he’d driven tourists before. He kept trying to drop me off even though I could see on my phone that we weren’t close to where I needed to be. There were no buildings around, and only the odd moped on the road so I kept refusing to get out. We drove another hour before he explained he couldn’t go further in his car, so I reluctantly had to get out. I couldn’t offer him any more money after all…

“I’d never felt so lost and helpless, and yet alive.”

Luckily at this point I was only a few miles away from my starting point, and walked along a dirt track to Nanjili. The village consisted of 3 or 4 half-built and impoverished houses at the very edge of a tall and seemingly endless forest. One elderly woman was attempting to build a roof on her house as I walked through what was essentially rubble, feeling very lost and out of place. There was no sight of the Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the world-renowned pride of this country, other than a sign (which had been consumed by an overgrown bush) telling me not to try and climb the unrestored wall. But at this point I knew my only way out of the situation was to try to find the wall, and to walk the many miles across it to reach the restored section at Mutianyu. The heat was palpable, close to 50°C, and I still hadn’t fully recovered from the food poisoning the day before. I’d never felt so lost and helpless, and yet alive.

I began to set off into the forest, which resembled a jungle, and with no obvious route had to simply hope for the best. The ground was very difficult to walk on and I kept having to turn back on myself as I couldn’t go any further. There was no human life, just the incessant humming of cicadas and other such insects all around me. At one point as I was taking an exhausted deep breath, a cicada flew straight in, big enough to fill my mouth. It really was as bad as it sounds.

3 hours later of non-stop climbing through the forest, retracing my steps over and over again, with no idea of how to get back to Nanjili even if I wanted to, I had just about given up when I stumbled across some bricks. I looked up at a crumbling watchtower and had never felt so much relief.

The watchtowers are between 10 and 12 meters high from bottom to top, and I had to climb 4 or 5 meters to reach the wall. I noticed some bricks from the rubble had been piled on top of each other, and after piling on some more I managed to climb it. At the top I was amazed to see a young Australian woman who had also set off from Nanjili and found the wall just a few minutes before me. She’d begun the journey 2 hours after me though which I must admit was slightly demoralising…

“From the top we could see empty wilderness for miles into the distance, empty except for the wall itself, snaking through the green desert.”

We were both very happy for the company and carried on together along the wall. It was in complete ruins, with big drops on either side of the path, and was being absorbed by the forest. At one moment the path was so overgrown that we had to climb down and walk through the forest again for a while, to a point further along the wall. From the top we could see empty wilderness for miles into the distance, empty except for the wall itself, snaking through the green desert.

After several hours of walking, the wall was slowly beginning to look more intact. We eventually reached the Mutianyu section and came across men in uniform who were stopping people from crossing over in the opposite direction. They wouldn’t let us pass. I couldn’t comprehend turning around at that point, and having to walk for potentially days to reach some form of civilisation that could help me get back to Beijing.

Thankfully, my new Australian friend spoke fluent Mandarin; she gave them some money and we were allowed to pass through. She explained to me that they weren’t in fact officials, but that they earned their living by taking money off tourists who wanted to cross between different sections of the wall. As I had of course been deprived of all my money, I was once again extremely grateful for her company.

As we continued across this restored section of the wall, we began to come across more and more tourists. The further we went, the more busy it became, and by 4pm we came to a point where we could get off and find a bus back to Beijing.

I felt absolutely exhausted after walking 20 miles – 40,000 steps – since the morning, much of it uphill and all of it over tough ground. It wasn’t only physical exhaustion I was feeling though, but mental as well. I’d never felt as lost and powerless as I had at several points during that day, and the feelings of relief that came after the most challenging moments were huge. It was, and always will be, one of the best experience of my life.

My point is to, every once in a while, be #spontaneous. Because you won’t regret it.

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