Earlier this year, guest blogger Emma Dance stepped foot on the Great Wall of China for the first time, and discovered winter was the perfect time to enjoy uninterrupted views.
As we left the Beijing traffic jams behind us and drove into the Chinese countryside, I pressed my face against the window of the minibus eager for my first glimpse of the Great Wall of China.
I thought it would be easy to spot. I mean, it’s supposed to be visible from space so surely from just a couple of dozen miles away it should have been practically leaping out at me, right? Wrong.
It wasn’t until we were much closer that it first came into sight, just for a few seconds. Even then at first it was barely visible to the naked eye – just a faint line at the top of the hills ahead, so pale that it faded into the sky. I couldn’t even be sure if I had really seen it or if it had simply been wishful thinking.
We turned a corner and it vanished again, shielded from view by the dry rolling hills. But a few moments later and there it was – clearer this time, snaking its way over the horizon. I could even make out the turrets. There was no doubt this was it: the Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Even from this distance the sheer scale of it was awe inspiring.
As we neared, there were more signs of civilisation, although the scenery was no less barren. Alongside the roads were various signs for camp sites and restaurants. In the height of the tourist season, when the trees are in bloom and the dull greys and browns are replaced with vibrant greens, they will be packed with visitors. Now, they were deserted. No-one was crazy enough to consider camping in the bitter Beijing winter. Few were even visiting at all.
But this was to our advantage. There were no queues to take the rickety-looking chair lift up to the point where we could join the Great Wall. Within moments we were there, the chair lift operators shouting at us in Chinese, indicating to us to quickly lift the bar and jump off and out of the way before we could be knocked flying by the next arrival. In the few moments of panic I failed to notice my surroundings and then the realisation struck – I was here. Actually here. Standing on the biggest man-made structure in the world; something that had been here for centuries upon centuries.
I tried to imagine the number of people who had stood where I was standing. It was too many to contemplate. I took a long breath in. It might have been cold but the sky was a piercing blue and the air was crisp and clean. We were only 60km from the heavy, grey air of Beijing, thick with pollution and the sounds and smells of the city, but this felt like another world. It was so peaceful. Occasionally the breeze carried the sound of excited chatter from some other out-of-sight visitors, or the calls of the vendors from the souvenir stands below, but that was all.
While in high season the view could be blocked by crowds, we could see for miles. The Great Wall stretched ahead endlessly, ducking and diving over the hills, punctuated by the watch towers which seemed to get smaller and smaller as it stretched ahead. It didn’t stop, just faded into the distance.
Either side of the wall the valleys dropped away, plunging down sharply before jutting upwards again. There were no smooth lines, everything seemed angular and jagged. Our surroundings were stark and bare, the dullness highlighted by the brightness of the sun and the vivid blue of the sky. It was striking, haunting even. I could imagine that in some other season, the lines softened by lush vegetation, it could have been beautiful.
We walked further, eager to find the best view – the perfect place for the souvenir photographs that would be shown to friends and family. I wouldn’t need a photograph to remember though. The sight, the sound, the coolness of the air and the feeling of the stones beneath my feet was indelibly etched on my memory.
As we left, driving back towards the hustle and bustle of Beijing, the Great Wall gradually disappeared from view. It grew smaller and smaller until with one turn of a corner it was gone. Out of sight, but not out of mind.
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