Good Times On The Great Wall

On Thursday morning we awoke to the first smoggy day we’d experienced in Beijing. Shit. It was the day of our Great Wall hike, and we hadn’t banked on not being able to see it.

Shit. Shit!

We shouldn’t have been so cocky about the clear blue skies we had been having.

I shouldn’t have prayed for a cooler day. It was a clear cooler day, God, you read my mind wrong!!!!!

A bit dejected, we boarded the tour bus to ‘The Secret Wall’ the poster at our hostel had described:

No tourists

Secret part of the wall

10km hike

When they couldn’t tell us exactly which part of the wall we were going to (hello, it’s a secret!), perhaps we should have been suspicious, but being the trusting (read: gullible) souls that we are, we paid our ninety bucks and were prepared to be dazzled.

Unfortunately the dreary, misty, smoggy day had other ideas.

When we exited the city limits and could almost make out the jagged peaks of the mountains north of Beijing, we had to laugh, they were probably really beautiful.

We were a little sad that we would miss the amazing vistas of the Great Wall undulating over mountains, stretching into the distance like the spine of a giant sleeping beast.

Oh Well. You can’t control the weather!

After the first toilet stop by the entrance to The Great Wall, which was built in the style of the ancient wonder herself, a Californian guy stepped back on the bus.

“Well folks, that was it, thank you for visiting the Great Wall of China!”

I cracked up. Although no-one else did, I had a feeling I would need more jokes like this to get me through the day.


As I exited the bus at the starting point of our hike, I searched the milky skies for a miracle. A great wind, perhaps that would carry the mist away, revealing the ancient wonder to me, rising and falling over peaks and valleys like a ribbon.

Didn’t the Chinese have a highly developed cloud-seeding program??? I guess sending explosives into the sky to blast clouds away was justified for, say, The Olympics, but not-so-much for The Day Sarah Visits The Wall…

We began to climb the ancient wonder with our guide, who had decided to ignore the fact that we could barely see it. Instead he regaled us with tales of its construction, how water was poured from mountain tops to freeze in mid-winter temperatures so that huge stone blocks could be hauled up over great distances, or how it was mostly built by criminals and elderly people who were of no other use to society (!) and would have most certainly died during construction.

I began to feel a bit petty wishing for better photo-ops, and decided instead to just enjoy the day and the peaceful surrounds.

The poster had got one thing right: there were hardly any other tourists around on this part of the wall, and the peace was absolutely welcomed after bustling Beijing (though I still couldn’t tell you which part of the wall it was, they kept the secret very well!).

After visiting the first watch-tower with our guide, he sent us on our way.

“Okay, you can go and walk on the wall now, be back at the bus at one-thirty!” he instructed, and toddled back to the bus.

We continued along the wall, which was quite steep, and dilapidated in places. Though it was a little difficult to get my footing, I was glad to be on an original part of the wall, rather than a reconstruction.

Our group began to loosen up a little (much to the Californian’s relief), and a few jokes were bandied around. A young guy from Iceland posed animatedly in front of a stone tablet before saying, “Okay a normal one now,” with a stern, serious face.

“You call that normal?!” I blurted out, poking fun at him as though I knew him.

I thought I may have crossed the line, or that my humour might have been taken the wrong way, but he flashed me the biggest smile and began to crack up.

The ice broken, the jokes continued as we climbed up to the next dilapidated watch tower with our other companions, a girl from Ireland, another couple from Australia, and two girls from Denmark. A Dutch girl in really expensive-looking hiking boots had decided there was no point going any further if you couldn’t see anything, and her boyfriend dutifully stayed behind too.

When we stopped for a break, the Californian guy whipped out a McDonalds burger and one for his Icelandic friend.

“The Chinese may have created the Great Wall, but we created McDonalds!” he proclaimed, a hint of irony in his overtly American accent.

“And we’re all the better for it!” I chimed in, whilst the other more politically correct members of the group cringed.

I gotta say, I was a little jealous, we’d only brought snickers bars and bananas.

We had only walked a kilometer or so, nothing near the ten that we had thought we’d be walking, but I was secretly grateful – it was steep!!! I had thought that a hike on the wall would be relatively easy after my Rinjani hike in Indonesia, but steps are a whole other story!

Told you it was steep!

The saving grace was the cool weather. Though we were shrouded in mist which made for poor visibility, there was a light chill in the air that we hadn’t yet experienced in China. It was lovely.

We decided not to go much further. Conversations began to flow, burgers were devoured and snickers opened.

And then the photos. Since the awesome vistas were not really an option, we had to get creative.

The Icelander climbed over a short section of the wall and onto the mountainside, clinging to the wall as though he was falling off it, then climbing over it like a Mongolian barbarian.

It was pretty hilarious, so we all joined in…

Well, I tried…

A peeping Mongolian?

Soon the guys were climbing all over the thing like kids at a jungle gym.

After the shenanigans were over, we began to make our way back for lunch. I chatted to the lovely Irish girl about her travels as we negotiated the loose bricks with each step. We bonded over travel experiences, from hiking in Nepal to weird food in China.

Over a lovely lunch in a huge restaurant that was all but deserted except for our motley crew, we shoveled rice, pork and veggies into our mouths with chopsticks, and enjoyed the conversation mostly geared towards Weird Things That Happen In China.

Not having had much interaction with other foreigners since being in Beijing, it was really nice to have a laugh and get to know everyone.

Then we piled on the bus, most passing out in food comas as we zoomed along the highway back to the city. In the end, it had been an entertaining day.  Behaving like kids on a school excursion may not be everyone’s idea of experiencing a wonder of the world, and certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from the day, but it was definitely fun!

The guys shoot the breeze

Our motley crew

And me :)

* Any tweets of this post would be appreciated! In China I can’t access it, among other sites… They’ve even removed the tweet button from my view! Thanks!*



Good Times On The Great Wall — 15 Comments

  1. amazing photos my love. you look very well and fit.
    The vistas are beautiful so not a waste of a day.

    • Thanks Mum, not sure about fit, my thighs are still sore!! Yes, it was a really good day, one we won’t forget in a hurry! I think I just got my hopes up as to what it would look like. :)

    • Thank you Tiffany! We haven’t had a clear day in Beijing since, so it’s probably the rule rather than the exception, and today it’s raining, so I guess we did pretty well!

  2. The way you set the story up, I thought you were going to be scammed by the tour company you chose, but it sounds like you actually got to have a really pleasant visit to the Wall! As you say, the weather was beyond your control, so even if you didn’t get stunning views, at least you got to experience the Wall without also having to battle tons of other tourists (and thankfully the ones who were there with you did manage to lighten up!). I actually think the mist adds a rather otherworldly element to your photos!

    • Hi Steph! Yes, I guess they delivered on their promises, except the 10km hike, which was a blessing in the end! And it was good to be on a quiet section of the wall, we drove past ‘Badaling,’ which is a popular part and there were hordes of people scurrying up those steps!!!!!!! I wish I could tell you where we went, but most hostels in Beijing will have tours for you to jump on – they even do an overnight camping trip, it was just a little out of our budget, but would probably be great!!!!

  3. I agree with Steph – the mist certainly does add an otherworldly atmosphere to your photos, which are great as usual :) You certainly have the right attitude for travelling, finding other ways to take great photographs when the weather didn’t play ball – love Tyrhone’s beard as well!

  4. I trust you have read Unbrave Girl’s account of her 10km run (!) on the Great Wall? It’s hilarious…and painful looking.

    I guess you should count your blessings that you experienced blue skies in China, right?

    • No I haven’t, I’ll have to check that one out, she is hilarious!!!! There’s no way I could do that, walking a few km’s was enough :) Yes, we have been quite surprised by a few crystal clear days with blue skies, the trade off being it’s always hotter!!! Thanks Carmel, I might have to leave that run for you hey?!

  5. Hi Sarah, I Love your fun, creative photon session! It’s great that you made the most out it. When I hiked the walls six years ago this month, the weather was clear and we could follow the lines of the wall as far as our eyes could see. But the heat was so intense, it was so hard to breath and every step up was so laborious. I guess it’s a matter of luck getting a clear vista and a comfortable weather at the same time.

  6. Hi Sarah,
    We enjoyed reading about your experience at the “secret” wall. When we were there, we slept on the “secret” wall, which turns out is rather close to Badaling. But because it was in April and still relatively chilly, there were only 4 of us and we slept in a tent inside a watchtower. We woke up early to hike up to another watchtower to watch the sunrise but like in your experience, it was very foggy, making it rather eerie at 4am. It turned out to be a fantastic morning, exploring China’s Great Wall in the fog and in the dark. :)