Seeing the Great Wall is something I've always wanted to do. But it wasn't what I expected.
It was a wall, for sure, but I was expecting something massive and tall. I pictured walking up to the side of the wall and seeing it loom over me. It wasn't like that all. It was short, only about 25 feet off the ground. And it didn't look like the pictures that Google Image Search returned.
That was partially because those pictures are all from Badaling. Badaling is the Great Wall's most famous tourist site. I didn't go to Badaling. I went to Simatai. But it was also because you hear all of these stories about the Wall and how it was built to defend China. For me, that conjures some images of a badass medieval fortress that keeps China safe from the evil Mongol forces. But that's not really the case.
The Simatai Great Wall doesn't look as iconic as the one I was used to seeing in photos and imagining. It was not very beautiful. It was squat and falling apart. And it didn't have the air of a great fortress.
What did make the Simatai Great Wall impressive is the fact that it was built along the top of the Yanshan Mountain.
You have two options of getting close to the wall. The first is to hike up the mountain. We heard different reports on how long this would take, but the best estimate was around 4 hours. We didn't really have that kind of time, so we opted for the second choice: a cable lift that goes about 3/4 of the way up the mountain.
The cable car ride was fun, but a little nerve wracking. The "cars" are about the size of a ski lift. Enclosed on all sides with two seats that face each other. The scary thing is the frequent stops that occur as you slowly ascend along the mountainside. Whenever there is a strong wind the operators stop the lift until it dies down. So you end up just sitting there in this little metal box getting blown around a few hundred feet off the ground.
I was riding up with a Chinese friend of mine and I spent these nice quiet moments discussing the possible survival strategies if anything went wrong. Should we jump out of the car if it started to fall? We might be able to land in some trees with only a few broken bones. Or would staying in the metal box as it fell be the best bet? I could also try to grab the cable itself and climb hand over hand to safety. Yeah, right.
I had an afterthought that this is probably the most important time to have superpowers. Fighting crime and saving the world is all well and good, but I want superpowers to save me from random freak accidents. "You should have seen it, the whole cable lift started collapsing, luckily the webbing I can shoot from my wrists saved my life. It's the first time I've ever been grateful to have been bitten by that radioactive spider."
Alright, enough about Spiderman. I have my own secret identity anyway. I live two lives. One of them is spent trying to be funny on the internet, and the other one is pretty much the same thing. It's hard work.
When the car arrives at the top you are given the option of a second lift that will bring you right to the Wall. Or you can hike up the remaining section of the mountain. We decided to hike up the rest. Technically, it wasn't hiking as there were huge stone steps winding back and forth. But the steps were broken and steep and it wasn't an easy climb.
When I finally reached the top I start to get an idea of just how impressive the Wall is. Sure, it's only 25 feet off the ground, but the "ground" is a couple of thousand feet high. Here is a shot over the edge of the mountain at the ground below. If you look closely you can see the cable lift far below.
How high up this thing was built is pretty mind-blowing, but then you look out at the horizon and the other mountain peaks. The Wall goes on forever, winding its way down into valleys and back up along mountain peaks. Every few hundred feet is a watchtower that would hold a garrison of defenders. The wall was defended using medieval weapons like bows, swords, axes, and spears, but the great Chinese invention gunpowder was also used.
It is a marvel of human abilities. It is a testament to how human beings can do incredible things. But it is also a testament to how human beings can do unthinkable things. I remembered the stories about dead workers' bodies being buried within the wall and I wondered how many people died building this. Historians estimate between 2 and 3 million. The workers were forced into labor by different dynasties throughout the centuries of construction. I wasn't just standing on a marvel of human creation, I was standing on a mausoleum.
Like the rest of China, it left me unsure of how I felt. I couldn't help but like the Great Wall. It wasn't beautiful the way I expected, but it had an undeniable grandeur. And yet, you couldn't fully enjoy it. There was something hard and cruel about it.
As we walked back along the Wall I pushed one of the huge bricks off the side and watched it roll down the mountain. "What the hell am I going to write about this thing?"