“You are not a hero until you climb the Great Wall of China” is the ancient quote written at the bottom of the steps. And there are so many heroes!!!!
Old ladies with tiny feet, young ladies in crazy heels, toddlers, dodderers and men with big bellies exposed like laughing Buddhas all climb the steep steps with us on the Badaling section of the Great Wall.
Built during the Ming dynasty 600 years ago and renovated twenty years ago, this is one of the busiest stretches because it is close to Beijing and the best preserved section of the 21,196km wall.
You can either climb the steps from the bottom or take the cable car to join the tourist melee at the top. We walked up to the highest point (the ninth tower) and then back round on a quieter section passing through towers once used for storage, shooting or accommodation.
The steps, sometimes shallow then suddenly steep, are worn smooth and uneven by millions of feet. Tourists now follow in the footsteps of warriors. But the guards that once patrolled the towers and the wall were born, lived and died on the wall – we are just here for the day. Following the forested ridge line of the mountains, the wall carries on into the distance – lookout towers stretching as far as you can see.
I was surprised that most of the visitors to the wall are Chinese. Foreign tourists are still quite few and far between. Regularly the local people ask for me to pose with them in their photos. I find this all very strange.
The nearby Juyongguan section is much quieter because there is no cable car and the steps are even steeper. We saw barely a dozen people on this section the following day. The last fortification before Beijing, this 4.8km circular loop passes beautifully decorated archery towers, fortresses and stores. The temple to the god of war in the middle of the loop houses fearsome looking statues and 12 beast-headed warriors.
Thunder rumbles in the distance as we complete our circuit and descend back down to the start point – maybe not the heroes of Chinese legend but happy to have walked the wall.