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Thoughts on the Great Wall

You know that feeling, when you dream about something for a long time, imagine it, see pictures, envision it in your mind? And then you finally see it for the first time and it is just impossible to wrap your head around it, make it real?

The Great Wall of China. Such an iconic idea and image. Everyone knows about it, but so few people ever make it all the way there.

Was I really one of those people? I know I rode three hours in a cramped and sweaty van, cracking jokes with random Australians, to reach Jinghshalin- an unrestored, less touristy swath of the Great Wall. Our guide handed us a bottle of water, a Snickers bar and a map, pointed us in the general direction of the pick up point and let us loose. I know all of that happened for sure, but the rest of it?

Did I really walk on the great wall itself? Observe the dizzying outline as it twisted up and down among the hills? Did I climb the rugged stairs, curving like the back of some huge beast? The stairs of Kyoto have nothing on the Great Wall.

The air was crisp and clean- decidely un-chinalike. No smog, not a cloud in the sky, I could see the wall winding for miles ahead and behind me. What luck for me, and for my photos. It was all so perfect, so unreal.

My companions chatted amiably but would dissipate often for moments of solitude. I stood on the watchtower and gazed out in the vastness in the direction of Mongolia, trying to imagine the fear and strategy that went into building such an enormous structure. Not to mention the manpower, blood, sweat and bones.

Even there, sitting ON the wall, it was awful hard to believe where I was.

And on the way home, with the packed dirt of the unrestored wall fresh under my fingernails I still wasn’t sure. Had I really been there?

And now here I am, in Australia. I flew out the day after my Great Wall Climb, knees still aching slightly. Sitting here, in my friend Mattie’s house in Melbourne, the whole experience seems even more remote and improbable.

Maybe that’s why we need to take pictures of ourselves posed in fron to iconic landmarks. It’s proof. Proof that we were really there, really saw the things we saw and did the things we did. Proof to others yes, but also proof to ourselves.

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27 Responses to Thoughts on the Great Wall

  1. Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World November 7, 2010 at 11:02 AM #

    That’s so funny, my mom was just there 2 days ago. She’s on her way back home now 🙂 How long did you stay in China and did you get to hug a panda?

    • Steph November 7, 2010 at 8:18 PM #

      Iwas there for three weeks but I’m coming back in the Spring! Didn’t manage to see a panda yet so that’s good motivation to return!

  2. Andi November 7, 2010 at 12:21 PM #

    My 1st trip to the GWC was so surreal that I had to go for a 2nd time!!!!! Awesome pics. 🙂

    • Steph November 7, 2010 at 8:19 PM #

      Thanks! Yeah it’s definitely a surreal experience.

  3. Amanda November 7, 2010 at 12:48 PM #

    Wow, you really lucked out with a gorgeous day to climb the Great Wall, Steph! I know what you mean about it all feeling very surreal, though. I think we’ve all had plenty of travel moments like that!

    • Steph November 7, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

      Yeah about time I had a good bit of weather luck!

  4. Michael November 7, 2010 at 2:04 PM #

    Beautiful photos! I love the one with the wall framed by the archway/window 🙂

    • Steph November 7, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

      Thanks! That’s my favorite as well.

  5. retrotraveller November 7, 2010 at 4:13 PM #

    Lovely photos… I’m slightly jealous as it there was a lot of dust in the air when I walked the Great Wall – still an unforgettable experience though…

    • Steph November 7, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

      Yeah definitely lucked out with the weather. I’m sure it’s cool at any time though.

  6. ehalvey November 7, 2010 at 4:31 PM #

    I felt the same way in Rome! It’s so unbelievable to look at and stand on something so famous and ancient.

    Hope your lungs get a chance to recover in Australia 🙂

    • Steph November 7, 2010 at 8:21 PM #

      Thanks! I’ve been breathing lots of fresh air here.

  7. Michael November 7, 2010 at 6:59 PM #

    I’m glad I told you to take more pictures of yourself in them

    • Steph November 7, 2010 at 8:21 PM #

      Yes you are a very wise man.

  8. Michael Tyson November 8, 2010 at 8:04 AM #

    I found out just the other day that the Romans built their own great wall to keep out the German tribes!

  9. Thomas Aylmer November 8, 2010 at 9:10 AM #

    this is really making me want to go there?

    was the tour guide worth it?

  10. Dan Thompson November 8, 2010 at 11:20 AM #

    We had a similar experience… we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we knew we had actually gotten there. It was kind of funny too, as we were standing there another person walked up and she was saying to herself “wow, I’m totally here… I’m totally here!” It is apparently a common reaction.

    Great pictures, by the way. It was quite hazzy when we were there… luckily we got there very early in the morning and I managed to get some pics before the sun got too high in the sky. Good times though!

    Dan

  11. Rebecca November 8, 2010 at 7:05 PM #

    Haven’t done China yet, but I am sure I’ll feel the same way that you did. Can’t wait!

    But I totally felt the same way about the Opera House in Sydney. 100’s of pictures (that everyone else has as well) later, and I am still in awe that I was there. When I was feeling homesick or sad, I would just go out there and my mood would instantly lift:-).

  12. Jaime November 8, 2010 at 8:59 PM #

    How do we know you didn’t just crop yourself in the picture??? Im kidding. Its a crazy feeling you get when you finally go somewhere you have been dreaming of for ever or have heard so many things about.

  13. Scott November 9, 2010 at 3:02 AM #

    Great point about those iconic pics that we all HAVE to take in front of those landmarks, it truly is I think for proof to us in the future that we did it. As the years go by, those pics end up meaning more to us I have found.

    Also, moments like that go by so fast it’s almost unfair. The sad thing is I always end up leaving those moments with thoughts of “how am I gonna weasel my way back here” more than anything …

  14. Ramblingsaffie November 9, 2010 at 11:22 PM #

    Surreal is the word I would use. I was at Jinshaling in September, and it was magnificeint. The scale of the wall just blew me away, and so did some of those’stairs’

  15. Dan Thompson November 10, 2010 at 12:42 PM #

    Hey, BTW, I was doing some digging about the section of the wall you went to… and is Jinghshalin the correct name / spelling of where you were? The only place I can find that name is on your website. Google wants to correct it to Jingshan, but that doesn’t seem to be correct either.

    Thanks!
    Dan

  16. Emily November 12, 2010 at 10:11 AM #

    Awesome pics! So happy to hear that the weather was surprisingly perfect. Seeing the Great Wall is definitely high on my to-do list. It’s so massive and iconic, I’m not surprised it felt surreal!

  17. Ashlea November 19, 2010 at 10:48 AM #

    There’s a poster of the Great Wall in my office (which I will add is very drab and depressing). I look at it and imagine myself in China and not in a grey box. Love your pictures of it by the way!

    • Steph November 21, 2010 at 1:23 AM #

      Thanks! The Great Wall is just such an iconic definition of travel!

  18. Rease November 19, 2010 at 11:00 AM #

    This looks amazing! How great that the air was fresh and clean so you could enjoy your long walk. I definitely want to make this journey someday.

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