According to Mao Zedong, “he who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.”  I’m not sure what this means for me, but Derek, at least, now qualifies.  We hiked a relatively rugged 10 km of the Wall yesterday, from a small town called Jinshanling to another one named Simatai.  I didn’t know what to expect before we arrived: Would it be overrun with tourists? Even more beautiful than we’d seen in pictures? Once we finally stepped onto its rocky surface, I was overcome by its majesty.  The structure alone is amazing, but its true beauty emerged for us when we saw it in the context of the barren, rolling hills that surrounded it.
Construction of the Great Wall began over 2000 years ago, when emperor Qin Shi Huang organized (some would say conscripted) hundreds of thousands of workers to connect a series of separate walls that had been built by independent kingdoms.  While the Wall never really functioned as the impenetrable line of defense against northern invaders that it was intended to be, it ultimately worked very well as an elevated highway.  Legend has it that one of the building materials used in the Wall was the bones of deceased workers, earning it the gruesome nickname “the longest cemetery in the world.”  Oh, and you can’t actually see it from the moon (although astronauts have reported seeing it, as well as highways and railroads, from a low orbit of earth).
The section of the Wall that we visited was fairly steep in parts, so it made for a great hike.  Although we encountered some other tourists and a handful of vendors (thanks, but no, we don’t want to buy shirts that say “I climbed the Great Wall…”), we were still able to explore the Wall and its watchtowers, where soldiers used to burn wolf dung to signal enemy movements, in relative privacy.  Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience…which is not to say that we won’t come back as soon as possible!

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