There were two places on my must see list on this journey to China and this past weekend in an Olympic sightseeing marathon I visited both. On Saturday friends and I flew to Xian for a whirlwind day trip to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and on Sunday three of us visited the Great Wall of China. The Terra Cotta Warriors are amazing to ponder. What compelled some Chinese royal to create such an army in the first place? Did he really believe the soldiers, generals, archers and horses could help him rule in the afterlife? And what would drive an invading army to pillage and burn such a spectacular treasure? Were they not in awe like I was? Archaeologists have done a brilliant job restoring the ancient warriors, and continue their work to this day, but answers to these questions still escape me.
As incredible as they are I’m not writing about the Terra Cotta Warriors. I’m writing about the Great Wall. We chose to visit a fairly remote section between Jingshanling and Sumatai after it was recommended by intrepid colleagues. They said it was the most spectacular section and far less crowded than the areas at Badaling and Mutainyu that are packed with tourists and closer to Beijing. They warned us though that it was a difficult hike with lots of steep sections going up and many areas where the wall is crumbling and difficult to descend. It was an understatement.
It’s a two hour drive from Beijing to the spot in Inner Mongolia where we would embark on our ten kilometer hike. As we entered Hebei province and the wall started to reveal itself in the distance a hush fell over the car. The wall snaked its way up and down high green mountains and we all were quietly thinking this might be more than we could handle. I suppose there are hundreds of reasons to talk yourself out of making this trip but if you muster the courage it will be one of the most memorable things you do in China. Our driver left for Sumatai. We had no choice but to proceed.
As we set off on the rugged wall in Jingshanling, a group of Mongolian farm women fell in step with us. They had tsotchkes for sale and as we hiked they engaged us in conversation. “Where are you from? How long have you been in China? Are you family? Do you have children?” We really didn’t want them along. It was an uneasy arrangement. You don’t come to a place this remote to be hustled but as I struggled with one of the most challenging physical feats I’ve ever attempted, Ginger was by my side. She coached me, told me to watch my step and walk slowly. After 103 huge steps straight up, when I could hear my heart pound in my head and could barely breathe, she offered me a hand to help me up. When she sensed I needed a break she would wait, and when she thought I could go on she would move again. When I finally got up to the tower she would fan me in the shade. “You are almost at the top,” Ginger would say. “Keep going.”