Today we rolled out of our Beijing hostel beds early, expecting to travel with a tour group to one of the less-visited parts of the Great Wall of China. We soon found out, however, that the bus that was supposed to take us could not arrive back in Beijing in time for us to catch the train back to Hangzhou. A skill necessary for travel, whether one is visiting Beijing, China, or Bozeman, Montana, is flexibility in the face of unexpected circumstances.
Knowing this, we changed plans on the fly, and were able to secure a ride on a public bus to Badaling, the most famous portion of the Wall. Even with the delay, we were making the trek to the ticket office by 11 a.m. I will always remember catching my first glimpse of the Great Wall from the roadway. Like most people, I had grown up hearing about the Seven Wonders of the World, but the possibility of actually visiting one of them was as remote as the Wonders themselves. Until today, I still harbored in the depths of my awareness a vague notion that perhaps the Great Wall didn’t actually exist, that such a fantastic work of human hands was merely a model magnified to sell postcards and picture books. The reality of it all made itself manifest in the tiredness in my legs and the cool stone under my hands as I ascended the ancient fortification.
I found it ironic that a 2008 Beijing Olympics sign optimistically proclaimed “One World, One Dream” on the hillside next to the very wall built to keep China’s kingdom secure and isolated from its enemies. Times certainly do change. As we stopped at the end of “our” section of the wall, I felt the cool breeze on my face and listened for the occasional thunder of what we inferred to be dynamite from a nearby construction project. The Great Wall certainly defied my expectations, both in the steepness of its twisting path and the mist-enshrouded beauty of its green noontime surroundings. Even the mass of tourists and the recent restorations to the wall do little to cheapen the aura of, well, greatness that must have similarly inspired, terrified, and moved the ancients. Having sat at the top for a while, we made a leisurely descent to the bus, all of us placing this experience squarely among the highlights of our trip. In the evening, we boarded the train back to Hangzhou, giving a fond farewell to Beijing and its wonders. — Danny Barta