Disappointment At China’s Great Wall

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Updated 01.01.2014

Another section of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is beautiful…and steep.

Is visiting the  Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on your travel bucket list? Here’s a secret: if you’re a traveler with a fear of heights, the experience is going to be a challenge. It also proved to be one of my biggest travel disappointments. Those dreamy pictures of the Great Wall that I had seen in books, and on the internet, showed a remote setting with few people around. Although I knew that the wall traveled over steep terrain, none of my research prepared me for just how steep and deep the stairs would be—or how crowded.

Climbing up the Great Wall of China
Yes, the Great Wall of china is steep!

Alan and I visited the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall while on a Regent Seven Seas cruise excursion as we traveled from the pier in Tianjin to our Beijing accommodations at the Regent Beijing Hotel for a two-night stayLater, Jane Yeo, our private guide in Beijing, told us that we had visited one of the more popular gates of the Great Wall, probably to accommodate tour bus parking plus provide restroom and snack facilities for a large number of people.

I can’t emphasize enough how steep and deep these stairs are. The reason? Soldiers on horseback once traveled along the wall. Let me show you what I mean:

A handrail attached to the wall provides some security for modern day walkers. I joined a long line of tourists holding onto the rail. Progression up the stairs was slow, depending on who was in front of me. My physical ability wasn’t in question; it was the fear of heights that slowed me down. Faster walkers, who obviously didn’t mind the steepness, pushed on around us.

Going up really wasn’t that bad, just slow going due to the crowds. It was coming down the stairs that cut my visit short. When I turned around to see where I had climbed from, the downhill view caught my breath. That was the end of my Great Wall adventure. On trembling knees and despite the security of the handrail, I began a slow descent. Other visitors, who had made it to the top, were joyously running down the stairs, scary to those of us who struggled with the wall’s steepness. Teens and young children jostled by. A careless step or trip from someone behind me and I would have plunged down those hard stone stairs to an accident that I didn’t care to experience.

If I had been the only one hiking up the wall, I could have managed to climb longer, with a very slow return down. A walking stick would have helped. But the crowded conditions were no match for this acrophobic boomer.

Celebrating a birthday at the Great Wall of China
All dressed up for his birthday at the Great Wall of China

Despite the disappointment in climbing the wall, my time wasn’t wasted. Observing the locals was one of the positive experiences of this visit to China’s Great Wall. I watched as Chinese families introduced children to their heritage. One family rented a costume for a son who was celebrating his birthday. And, of course, the obligatory souvenir shops caught my attention. A smoggy haze prevented eye-popping photographs, but Alan and I tried anyway.

Would I visit the Great Wall again? You bet. But I’ll be prepared next time with a walking stick and an awareness of just how steep the Great Wall really is.

We recommend visiting the Great Wall with a private guide. Be sure to confirm that your visit will be at a less-crowded area of the wall.

More tips for a Great Wall visit:

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