Julia Dimon/for Metro toronto
Built in the 3rd century B.C. to prevent attacks from nomadic tribes, the Great Wall is China’s most famous tourist attraction, thronged with millions of international visitors each year.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site; a man-made, military wonder that’s on every world traveller’s to-do list. Spanning more than 6,000 kilometres, this famed fortification winds its way across China and can be viewed from several sections. Among them: Badalig, Simatai, Jinshanling and Huanghuacheng, all just a few hours’ drive from central Beijing.
Some sections, like Huanghuacheng, are remote ruins with crumbling bricks, while others — Badalig in particular — are newly renovated tourist traps complete with cable cars and souvenir shops.
Stupid me. Instead of hiking an authentic section, I followed the flock and joined a guided bus tour of Jinshanling.
This part of the Great Wall was built-up, commercial and packed with people.
Over my year of travel, I’ve come to hate hordes of tourists. Tourists equal lineups, over-priced vendors and commodified experiences.
Sometimes, there’s no getting around it. When you’re travelling, visiting one of the world’s most famous landmarks, you have no choice but to suck it up, brave the tourists and start climbing.
Clinging to the railing, I struggled along the wall, past watchtowers and up steep steps. I broke a sweat, working my glutes on this ancient stone Stairmaster.
I finally reached the top and took in the panoramic view. Strung along the mountain ridge, the wall snaked and receded through the countryside. “Wow. That really is a great wall,” I heard one out-of-breath tourist say to another.
From this height, the crowd below looked pixilated. Tourists were little dots, scurrying around like sea lice, snapping photos beside terracotta warriors and buying ice cream cones.
Local legend says that a man can only become a hero after he’s climbed the Great Wall. In typical tourist trap fashion, a souvenir stand is set up at the top, set to capitalize on this heroic achievement. Tourists can purchase their very own “hero” identity cards; plastic proof that they came, saw, huffed and puffed up China’s famed Great Wall.
Julia Dimon, a Toronto-based freelance writer, is travelling around the world for a year. She can be reached through www.thetraveljunkie.ca.