Visiting the Great Wall

I was sad to read recently that flooding in Hubei province as well as the bungled efforts of roadway construction workers has caused some major damage to the Great Wall of China. I’ll never forget my visit there. 

“You are not a real man till you’ve climbed the Great Wall of China.” That quote became famous worldwide when Mao Zedong said it to President Richard Nixon on his historic visit to Beijing in 1972. 

Spending a day at the Great Wall of China isn’t just empowering for men however. I felt like a “real woman” on the wall for a number of reasons.

I was exhilarated by my ability to maneuver the steep climb. We decided to climb in a westward direction on the Badaling portion of the wall because the path was more difficult and challenging than the one going east.  The west wall clings to the mountainside and follows its contours. There are only steps at the very steepest points and even these are built irregularly and unevenly. Coming down was even more treacherous than going up because the surface of the wall has been highly polished by the feet of many visitors, soldiers and workers. It was easy to slip and fall. I was tired but energized by my climb on the Great Wall.

I was excited to be walking in such an historic and ancient spot. The first sections of the Wall may have been built as early as 770 BC.  Unification of various portions began in 214 BC. The part I visited was reconstructed in the Ming Dynasty in the 1400’s. As I walked along the wall I tried to imagine what life was like for the soldiers whose barracks were in the huge watchtowers we saw.  I envisioned them lined up with their bows at the ready, standing guard at the special slits in the wall designed for firing arrows at enemy invaders.

I was intrigued by the fact that I got to see the Great Wall in the company of people who had come to China from all over the world. As I observed the hundreds of tourists on the Wall I thought how ironic it was that this structure which was used throughout history to keep the rest of the world out of China is now the very thing that draws thousands of people from all over the globe to China.

I was awed by the amount of labor that went into building such a magnificent structure. Some men dedicated their whole lives to the project. Hundreds of thousands of the laborers who worked on the wall died from malnutrition, exhaustion or attack by enemy invaders bent on halting construction. Legend says one hundred and sixty workers died for every kilometer of wall that was built. Where the hills were too steep for oxen, men carried the stones up to the construction sites on their backs. Masons would work an entire day just to complete an inch of the wall.

I was spell bound by the view from the top of one of the watchtowers. There was Beijing in the distance. You could see the wall stretching like a great stone dragon snaking its way across the mountains for a far as the eye could see.  We were there on a spring day so the trees were beginning to bud. It was truly a breathtaking sight.

I was happy I got to see the Great Wall with my husband, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew.  Remarkable experiences are always so much better when you can share them with those you love.

Finally I was thrilled because my husband kissed me on The Great Wall of China. He is not a man who is comfortable with public signs of affection but he made an exception at the Great Wall.

Mao Zedong extolled the empowering virtues of a trip to the Great Wall for men, but I don’t think he got it quite right. Climbing the Great Wall of China can be empowering for women too!

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Filed under China, History, Travel

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