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April 1, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

To say that we were excited to see The Great Wall of China is an understatement. As poorly as Kristin was feeling she was a real trooper in pulling together enough energy to make this a memorable adventure. The idea of traveling outside of Beijing’s thick haze of polluted air gave us some hope for a breath of fresh air.

We had signed up for an organized tour, which we don’t normally do, but in our fragile states, we just weren’t up for navigating public transportation. We jumped on a bus early in the morning with about 15 other fellow hostel travelers and proceeded to collect other tourists along the way. The ride was about 2 hours to Mutianyu, our choice for our Great Wall experience. We had 3 general locations to choose from to maximize our Great Wall experience, and had settled on this one for several reasons. Firstly, it was not the closest one and therefore it would not be the most crowded one. And secondly, this one had both ancient untouched walls and finished reconstructed wall sections with amazing vistas.

Our tour guide spoke great English and gave us some background info on the bus before we arrived at Mutianyu. Upon arrival he gave us some helpful hints on how to approach our time venturing along the Great Wall. As appalling as it sounded to these intrepid travelers, he suggested taking the chair lift up the mountain so we could spend less time climbing to and more time climbing on the wall. Little did we know we would take him up on all his hints. As the bus arrived at its destination we could see the wall above us as it ran along the mountain spine disappearing behind another mountain only to reappear further away on top of another mountain.

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Wow, just how far does it go, and how far can we walk it? We were anxious to get out and start our adventure. So instead of hiking up the hill to the wall we took the chair lift up to give ourselves that additional hour of time hiking along the wall.

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Woo hoo!!

We bought our tickets, jumped onto the chair lift, and made it up to the wall in short order.

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We’re soooo happy, and the mountain air seems to be agreeing with Kristin!

Breathtaking? Oh my god yes! At first we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we were actually here doing and seeing this. It’s actually one of those times in your life when you know you are experiencing something amazing. We instantly started taking pictures at almost every step. And everyone around us was doing the same. We felt giddy with joy along with everyone else up there.

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We decided to first walk towards the section of the Great Wall where you could go out to the ancient crumbling part of the wall. There were extremely steep steps leading up to this part of the Great Wall. How steep? Many people were either walking up or down the steep steps using both hands and feet to make the climb. It made for some fun picture taking. One missed step here though, and you don’t want to know what happens.

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Yikes! I hope it’s not like this the whole way.

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Stopping to pose for a picture as the other tourists pass me by using both hands and feet to climb the steps.

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Don’t tilt your head you’re looking at this the right way. This is one crazy wall!

Video Clip “Walking the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu”:  http://youtu.be/MJW9fa6fxR0

We arrived at the end of the refinished part of the Great Wall and the start of the crumbling part, and walked onto the ancient wall to a point where we could stop for some unbelievable views. It’s a little redundant to say it was unbelievable at this point because every step of the way was unbelievable. There were posted signs to not go any further: go on into this part of the ancient wall at your own risk – and don’t expect any help if something goes wrong. We decided not to go any further out onto the crumbling wall.

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Looking out onto the ancient wall though one of the rebuilt tower doorways.

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This portion of the wall is overgrown with vegetation, but the wall is solid.

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Don’t look down! You can’t tell but I’m just on the edge of the wall.

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Tourists scrambling around one of the crumbling towers on the Great Wall.

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Absolutely unbelievable!

Once we had taken in the view from that vantage point we decided to backtrack and head the other direction. Walking past the point where we first got onto the wall, the refinished part of the Great Wall seemed to go on forever into the distant mountain range.

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All we can say is, seeing is believing.

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Towers along the wall on a faraway mountain ridge.

The views of the wall along its different twists and turns made for some breathtaking pictures.

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The walk along the wall was strenuous at many points causing many of the tourists to stop and catch their breath.

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Kristin had to take a quick photo of this Chinese lady walking the Great Wall in her neon yellow high heels. Ouch! Guess making a fashion statement comes first.

We too had to pause along the way, and we usually stopped at one of the several towers interspersed along the wall. It turns out that Mutianyu, this location, had several different types of towers not usually found all together in one location.

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Looking over the side of one tower we noticed snow still on the ground at the base of the wall. I guess it was still pretty cold there during the night.

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We thought about the thousands, if not millions, of worker’s bodies that were buried at the base of the wall. Worked to death, collapsing in exhaustion, and buried where they fell. The work had to go on and there was no stopping the progress. In the end The Great Wall was successful in stopping the marauding hordes of Mongol, Turkic, and Huns from invading China, but at a tremendous human cost. But as in all ancient empires, when you have hundreds of thousands of indentured citizens what’s a few thousand (maybe millions) lives lost, in order to complete another wonder of the world?

Our time on the wall seemed to just fly by and we soon had to make a judgment call on how soon we needed to start our walk back to make our appointed time for a late lunch and ride back with the tour group. I decided to go a little further as Kristin, in her weakened condition, was going to need more time to make the walk back. I went as far as I could and took more pictures. It seemed the further you went the better the views got and you just couldn’t get enough.

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Checking the time, I turned back and caught up to Kristin just as we were about to line up for our toboggan ride down to the bottom of the mountains.

Yes, you heard me – toboggan ride down the mountain!

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This was going to be fun. After waiting in an interminable line, we finally jumped onto our toboggans and zipped down the mountain. We both tried to take some pictures of the experience but for some reason the people in front of us had stopped and almost caused a major disaster for us. Averting that near disaster, the rest of the ride was fun and we still got a few pictures.

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Notice the snow on the ground. That’s why we’re always bundled up in these pictures. It was a bit cold up here walking the Great Wall.

Video clip “Tobogganing down Mutianyu”:     http://youtu.be/0kErf5zQNAg

We caught up to our tour group, had lunch with a whole bunch of different people from all around the world all exclaiming our joys of our time on the Wall. We had a great time sharing all our stories with our fellow tourists. Then it was over and we jumped on the bus back to Beijing. After a long day of climbing The Great Wall most of us fell asleep on the bus ride back.

Looking back on this day’s adventure it seemed almost surreal and unbelievable, kind of like your first glance of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, Iguazu falls, or Machu Picchu. Some of us have been lucky enough to experience some of these and some of us have experienced other equally amazing sights. This was one of those amazing experiences for us – though man-made.

Kristin was not getting any better and our next destination was to be Mongolia. Luckily for us I had contacted my Mongolian friend Jenny, who lives in Los Angeles, before we had left on our world trek. She was as excited as we were that we would be visiting Mongolia and had insisted that we stay with her family in Ulan Baatar. We had been keeping in touch with Jenny throughout our trek and I had warned her that Kristin would be arriving in poor health.

We packed our stuff and made our way to the train station to catch our overnight train to Mongolia. We had bought our train tickets to Mongolia earlier in our stay in Beijing through CITS, a travel agency located in the lobby at one of the larger hotels in Beijing.

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Cosmopolitan Beijing.

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Kristin had been trying to buy the tickets on-line without any luck, and it had gotten to the point that she thought that maybe no tickets were available. It turns out we were a bit of an oddity – there were plenty of tickets available because no one travels to Mongolia in early April because it’s too damn cold. What person in their right mind would be going to Mongolia at this time of year? Huh, I guess us? This would be our longest train ride yet, at about 30 hours. We would be sharing a 4-bed sleeper cabin and so at least Kristin could rest in some comfort.

We dragged ourselves out of the hostel – the Great Wall experience, and Beijing’s wonders under our belts – jumped on board our train to Mongolia, located our cabin, unloaded our backpacks, claimed our beds and settled in for a long train ride. What we didn’t know is that this train ride would be one of the most memorable travel experiences we would have on our trek.