Sometimes one knows when to push oneself beyond one’s limits and sometimes not. Ever since my 2005 road traffic accident, I have found that I am reluctant to push myself beyond my perceived limits in walking as it has always ended in a lot of pain. As this adversely affects travel experiences and that of my travel companions, I tend to avoid pushing at my limits especially when I am in a group. I also have a fear of re-injuring my leg, in a difficult to access region or a place, without facilities to treat me in case of another accident.
So by the time the end of our group’s three week travel around China was in sight and I ended up with not only a fever and nasty sore throat but also fatigue and leg pain, I decided that I would not exert myself the last couple of days. However, I was hoping to do one last walk on the trip – a hike across the Great Wall.
We took the bus from Beijing to Dongpo village, where we were accommodated in a simple home stay/ guesthouse.
When we reached the village at the foot of the Great Wall in the afternoon, we found it was colder there than it had been in Beijing. After some coffee, the group decided to go for a sunset hike. I initially tried to go on that short hike but just a few minutes after we started, I was finding it more and more painful to walk so I took a photo of my friends continuing the hike and returned to the guesthouse.
I enjoyed sitting in the courtyard resting my leg, while attempting to make friends with the little dog under the chair, and watching the sun set over the hills.
When the others returned from their sunset hike, we had a lovely sumptuous dinner following which the hosts started a bonfire outside.
Our sleeping space was in tiny rooms where six mattresses had been placed on a concrete platform in each room. The platform had smoldering coals underneath them to warm up the sleeping space. We had to sleep like packed sardines so it made for an uncomfortable night.
I woke up very sick and with a lot of pain in my leg and I knew that I would not be able to keep up with the others on a hike across the Great Wall. I told myself that I did experience a lovely home stay at a village at the foot of the Great Wall and had experienced lovely views of the wall in the distance. After everyone had left on the hike, I completed my packing and waited for the cars that would leave with our bags to the meeting point with the hikers. I was enjoying my coffee when three of my friends, including a staff, returned. In some ways, it is nice to have company rather than being alone when you are feeling a little down. We decided to play a game of cards till our departure time, which was a lot of fun.
When it was time to leave the guesthouse, the hosts offered us some ‘baijiu’ (Chinese beer) and the others encouraged me to try a sip as well, suggesting that it would be better for my throat. I tried a sip of the bitter, pungent concoction which was my first introduction to beer. I did feel slightly better as the drink burned my throat but the taste put me off beer that I didn’t attempt a second taste till several years had passed.
We went with the hosts in their car to the point where our bus was parked and transferred to the bus. The bus took us to one of the entrances of the Great wall. I initially assumed we would be waiting at a restaurant at the entrance, and the others would join us for lunch after their hike, but I found myself following the others on a walk to the base of some steps leading upward to the Great wall. One of our mini-group members decided to go up the steps and meet up with the rest of the group. When walking back to the restaurant area, we passed the cable car ticket counter and the staff with us suggested we take the cable car up the mountain, since we had come all the way to the great wall and it would be a pity if we at least didn’t take a photo on top of the wall. Tempted, we agreed and took the cable car up.
As we were in the cable car going up the mountain, we learnt that the rest of the group had begun their descent down the steps. We took some photos at the viewpoint at the top. I was happy that we had made it to a tiny portion of the Great Wall and it was amazing seeing the wall winding its way into the distance.
Given the context of today’s world, it was easy to imagine the fear that provided the impetus for the Chinese empire to start building its walls to control migration as well as prevent attacks by nomadic tribes along its borders. Some fears of humans seem to remain the same despite a couple of millennia of evolution.
When we returned to the cable car, we were told that the cable cars had stopped working and that we had to climb down the mountain. I felt dismay because I knew I was not fit to attempt an arduous climb down and worse, I had left my hiking stick in the bus thinking that we were only going to a restaurant to order lunch for everyone. We agreed that the less strenuous way would be to walk across the wall to the nearest steps that led down the mountain rather than attempt the souvenir sellers’ rough hiking route downhill. I steeled myself to face the inevitable. One of the souvenir sellers, who had been pointing out her walking route down the mountain, said that she would accompany us to ensure we found the stairway. She also found a stick for me which I could use as a temporary walking stick.
There we were, the four of us, going so slowly across the great wall marking each tower we reached as an achievement and keeping our spirits up. The souvenir seller was a very kind woman and she helped me across the steep inclines and steps. She mentioned she was from the Mongolia side of the wall and I found it admirable that she made the hike up to the wall and back every day to sell her souvenirs.
I am glad we went up the cable car and were forced to walk across the wall as it turned out into a special achievement of will and perseverance, besides actually experiencing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of walking on top of the Great wall. I felt quite proud that despite my initial dismay, once I resolved myself to face the task, I undertook it without a murmur of complaint even at the tough sections of the wall which we had to cross.
The unexpected kindness of the souvenir seller touched me and I felt that simply giving her some money, as if in payment for her services, would devalue her kindness. So, I bought a Tshirt for my mother from the souvenir seller, which my mother loves to wear on her short evening walks knowing the story behind it.
The travel lesson for me from my Great Wall experience is that sometimes when you find yourself in an unexpected and seemingly impossible situation, there is always some residual strength and determination left within you to go the remaining distance and often, where you least expect it, you come across unexpected human kindness and empathy.
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