by Gianna Maniego
If you’re a traveler, conquering the great divide that is the Great Wall of China is probably on your bucket list. This fortified barrier, which stretches for over 21,000 km, kept and protected the Chinese kingdom from northern raiders for centuries and was an important checkpoint in the Silk Road trade route. Today, it is one of the most visited destinations in the world.
Scaling the Wall, however is not exactly a walk in the park. While you do not necessarily have to be as fit as an Ironman competitor, you do have to have a bit of stamina. Below are some useful tips to keep in mind before you set off on your Great Wall adventure.
1. Choose your battles. Research which area of the Great Wall is best suited for you. A lot depends on accessibility, where you are on your fitness scale, and your ability to control your gall bladder. Badaling is the easiest to reach from Beijing, which is why it’s the most popular and the most populous. If you don’t mind sharing your space with a hundred thousand other visitors this is the way for you to go. If you like spectacular scenery, try the Mutianyu pass. It’s steeper but less crowded. If you like the extra challenge, though, go ahead and check out the more obscure sections like Jinshanling and HuangHua Cheng. But be sure to observe safety rules.
2. Timing is everything. It’s pretty difficult to maintain your dignity or get good selfies when you’re being swept along in a crowd, or sharing breathing space with a bunch of strangers, which is what usually happens when you go to the Wall during peak hours. Your best bet is to go first thing in the morning or during the late afternoon. Try to beat the tour groups, which usually come in droves near lunchtime or the mid-afternoon. Avoid holidays (especially during summer) and weekends.
3. Pay attention. If you choose to join a tour bear in mind that anything that’s cheap probably has a catch. A lot of these tours make their money from unofficial stops at several tourist traps like jade factories or ginseng centers where you are liable to spend your life savings. It pays to know how many of these stops there will be, especially if they also offer bathroom facilities along the way.
4. Don’t go alone. This is a journey of a thousand steps, and it helps if you have companions to aid you on the trip, not only for safety reasons. This way, you’d have someone to help you up those waist-high stairs, pick you up in case you face plant along the way, and take Facebook-worthy souvenir photos for you.
5. Dress for the season. What you wear depends when you’re visiting. If you’re going in the summer, wear lighter clothes. Don’t forget to bring umbrellas, fans and shades, and don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen. In winter, wear thermal underwear and bring a warm coat or jacket.
6. Leave the kitten heels at home. Some areas of the Wall are pretty steep so it’s important to wear comfortable and sturdy shoes that won’t make you slip or stumble. Nobody wants to go home with blisters or a broken ankle.
7. Hold off on that water. Restrooms are few and far between along the Great Wall, so if you’re the type who needs to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes I suggest you keep your water intake to a minimum.
8. It pays to ask. Don’t be shy to ask other tourists to take your photo (and return the favor by taking theirs as well). One thing all visitors have in common is to capture those special moments. And who knows? You may even gain new friends before this trip is over.
9. Keep track of the time. If you’re part of a tour group, be mindful of the time allotted to you. Avoid getting caught up in taking photos that you forget there are other people who might be waiting for you. Make sure you’re back at the meeting place in plenty of time to keep those death stares that latecomers are subjected to away from you.
10. Say no to vendors. Unless you intend to buy, do not dally among the souvenir stalls and food stands. Shopkeepers are relentless when they smell potential customers and will do everything they can to sell you their goods. Some of them send street urchins to dog your steps until you either go home or buy. Unless you intend to go back to your hotel with a child attached to your hip, turn your head away.