It was maybe after the tenth or eleventh step I had climbed when I realised that my foot, every time I put it down , was falling into a well-worn , smooth and hollowed concave spot in the stone . I held on to the railing on the side with my right hand, suddenly stilled by a random thought. It was as though a soft and gentle cape of comfort had fallen over my consciousness. A recognition by some force of the universe that I too was a part of something very vast and undefinable . My feet falling where millions had stepped before me, the weight of my body and the will of my spirit joining that of millions who like me had attempted to take that daunting stairway to heaven.
The air was soft, the mountains covered in mist and gentle rain and the grey of the wall just that bit severe. It added to the drama ; and there is no denying it , grey skies sooping down on mountaintops is far more dramatic than bright blue , calendar art skies. . And, if I had any further doubts that I could not climb the Great Wall of China , every one of them simply fell away with each step I took ahead . Every shinning cocoon of stone my feet found told me someone before me had been there and gone ahead, so - move it , lady.
It is not that I have not climbed steps before, the Karla caves near Lonavala , the Tirupathi and Thirikazhikundram temples in South India , the Batu caves in KL, the Qtub Minar in Delhi , in my childhood when one could still go up the tower, two long and arduous treks up intimidating countryside, one over the rain forests of the Gold Coast in Australia and the other in the magnificent mountains of the North West near Seattle . yes I guess I have been there and done that quite a bit …
But this was the Great Wall of China , so much part of a distant wonderland of my childhood readings and so vast and steep and so powerfully , still one of the Wonders of the World .
All of 2700 years old. Built during the days of the Ming Dynasty . From whose tombs we had just driven up. As steep as the Titanic when it went nose down into the ocean , the steps each of a different dimension , some of them bringing your knees right up to your nose , some of them just toe level . The thoughtful steel railing added much later of course, freezing cold as your already chilled hands gripped it for support as you began the ascent.
As steely and strong and steadfast as the railing but infinitely warmer full was the other pillar of support who climbed with me . Dear Razak , my friend of more than seven years from KL . We were in Beijing as part of a patient advocate meeting and had more than 12 hrs between check out time at out hotel and the flight back home. We braved dire warnings of rain and sleet and set out with a small group to catch some sights of Beijing other than the walls of the hotel meeting rooms to which we had been confined for the last two days.
The sight of the snaking wall takes you by surprise as you ascend the mountain side by road and before we knew it there was The Wall !! to our right and emerging from the mist like the great reward for waking up at 6 on a freezing Saturday morning and joining the tour guide on the blustery patio of the hotel a bit later.
And guess what we were not the only ones . Eager hordes of tourists were already thronging the heritage site- Vivek , my son who has been to Beijing on work more than a couple of times in the recent past had told me to take time and go to Badaling section of the wall which was close to Beijing but I believe me I really had no idea this was THE portion of the Wall to see and experience . Am I glad I followed his advice and was able to cajole the others to join me .
If climbing up was one big exercise in stamina and stopping strategically to catch one’s breath then climbing down those hundreds of steps was another challenge in itself . It was supreme fun calling out to struggling yet determined climbers on our way down and telling them “Wait till you begin climbing down these steps folks “ or “oh ! hang in there , it gets only worse further up”
The camaraderie with people hitherto totally unknown but now bonded by the shared thrill of achieving this feat was a great gift to bring back . Taking pictures of each other , giving way or surrendering a piece of the railing or even offering your shoulder for an arm or hand reaching out seeking a resting place or the father of the teenaged girl who had climbed up ahead offering me the shelter of his bright blue umbrella as the rain got heavy .
They say another stretch of the Wall, closer to Beijing may be a better choice as a cable car takes you to the top and you can walk around and come back by the same cable car but maybe that can be for the next time –this time it was good to put truth to the well-known saying of the Chinese that He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall is not a true man.
The majestic Great Wall touches the billows of the Bohai Sea in the east, and traverses the vast expanse of the Gobi desert in the west. It crosses prairies and deserts, nestles up to the Yellow River, surmounts high mountains, stretches 10,000 li and, like a soaring dragon, leaps over the boundless land of China. It was built with the blood and sweat of the laboring people of ancient China. It is a symbol of the brilliance of China’s ancient culture and a pride of the Chinese nation.