Beijing, China

June 5-7, 2009

There are some wonders of the world that have become so over-hyped, over-commercialized, and overrun with tourists jostling for their vacation snapshot that they perhaps aren't worth the time and effort and expense required to visit them.

The Great Wall is not one of them.

At the most popular visitation sites it has indeed become extremely commercialized. Badaling, the closest site to Beijing, requires visitors to navigate through rows of shops selling overpriced souvenirs, a live bear exhibit, and even an elaborate ride snaking down the mountain before finally reaching the Wall. It's essentially a miniature modern Disney World tucked into a curve of the ancient Wall, and while it's jarringly out of place, why not try to make a buck off the thousands of tourists that visit Badaling annually. But once you reach the Wall itself, all the silliness below is forgotten.

There is no question that the Wall is worth it. It is so very, very worth it.

As with most of our trip though Asia, we didn't bother to plan anything ahead: we arrived in Beijing on a Friday afternoon and walked over to the state-run tourist office to find a Great Wall tour for the following day. The office only takes groups once the bus fills up and you need at least 15 people or they cancel the tour. The one we wanted had no one else signed up and so was unlikely to happen, so we had to jump on another that included the Ming Tombs. Tours with English-speaking guides required a group of at least 6 to book, so we tagged along on a Chinese tour with only a Chinese-speaking guide. Elaborate pantomime gestures were employed on each side to communicate when we would need to be back at the bus after each stop, and the trip worked out beautifully: we got organized transportation to the sites and were free to wander the tombs and the Wall without having to shuffle along with the group.

Above the amusements of Badaling, the Wall is eerily quiet. It's simply ancient stones surrounded by misty forested hills, and the sense of history, the craftsmanship over centuries required to build it, is very strong.

The Wall follows the lines of the mountain ridges so closely that the walkway slopes perilously steeply up and down almost without a break. Railings have been placed to help tourists haul themselves up (and keep from tumbling down). When it's not an incredibly steep slope, there are steps - so many high steep steps! It is seriously exhausting and in the time alotted we were only able to pant our way up to two very high points. The next high point beyond us literally disappeared into the clouds. I can't imagine how soldiers actually patrolled the Wall.

It was so very, very beautiful, with the Wall curling and twisting in all directions, lush greenery covering the mountains and the mist shrouding the higher peaks.