Rachel Richez in Chenjiabao
I don't remember exactly when it was, but I was in primary school when I first heard about the Great Wall. A 21,196-km wall built more than 2,300 years ago and still standing! It sounded unreal and, for a child, magical. About 20 years later, I found a job in Beijing and moved to China. I read everything I could about the Great Wall, and when I discovered it had joined the UNESCO World Heritage List in December 1987, the year and month I was born, I took it as a sign.
Falling in love
I headed to the Great Wall for the first time in February 2016 with some friends visiting Beijing. We went to Mutianyu, which is about two hours' drive from Beijing. After a cable car ride, I was finally on the wall. It was a cold winter's day, but that didn't matter. I was carefree, walking on the amazing ancient structure and admiring the beautiful mountains around.
I will never forget the steepness of some sections of the wall. As I was struggling to climb up, a very old Chinese couple passed me with smiles, a clear indication of their incredible physical condition and a reminder of mine! After the enjoyable walk, we went down the wall by toboggan, an amazing sled ride that takes you back to childhood. There it was; I was in love with the wall.
The second time I went to the wall was during a weekend getaway with friends in March last year, in the Chenjiabao area, just over an hour's drive from Beijing. We stayed in a family farm and walked just half an hour to find ourselves in a non-restored part of the wall. It was incredible; we had the wall to ourselves! No tourists, no entrance fee, and a breathtaking view.
Sitting there, I felt connected to the wall, to its history and the hopes of security it had both carried and failed—Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan had simply gone around it to conquer most of China. The wall had come into existence through the hard work of its builders in an attempt to meet imperial objectives, and it was still here, to be seen forever (not from the moon though, that's a myth!).
Not so perfect after all
Last June, some friends from Paris were visiting, and I took them to that same perfect non-touristy spot. This time, however, we (mostly they) decided to hike along the wall. We walked and walked under the merciless summer sun, sometimes in places where the wall was covered by bushes and the structure was hardly standing. We ran out of water, and the hike started to turn into a very long march. Four hours later, we finally made it down. While eating amazingly delicious farmers' food that night, I felt different; the wall had lost some of its greatness.
Why are you so cruel?
My cousin came to visit in July 2016, and she had little time, so we went for the easiest option: Badaling, reachable by train from Beijing in only half an hour. We got to the train station and queued for 45 minutes. I hate queuing, but I enjoy the fairness of it: If you get there first, you get a seat. However, when the train doors opened, people started running inside like their lives depended on it, and whether you had queued for two hours or five minutes didn't matter. If you didn't run, you could end up not getting on the train!
In Badaling, the visitor flow can be up to 70,000 per day, and I am convinced it broke a record that day. The crowd made me anxious, and I couldn't relax by looking at the mountains since the pollution had greyed the sky. When we finally got to the toboggan, the moment I had been anticipating, it turned out to be a boring, five-person car slowly driven by a very unpleasant woman, killing all the fun and my love for the wall.
Let's stay friends!
In October last year, I went to another peaceful farm close to the wall, and while my friends went for a hike, I decided to keep company with a hammock facing the ancient structure. Looking at that amazing human achievement, I finally understood what had happened. I felt as I had once felt driving by the Eiffel Tower every day. It's an incredible view that you know represents your city and you enjoy, but you're also aware that you'll never want to climb it again. Without noticing it, I had become a local; I was a Beijinger.
Rachel Richez is a French journalist living in Beijing
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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