My guide was far ahead of me, foraging her way up the steep steps, and couldn’t hear my call for help as I yelled, “Wait! Where do I put my feet?” A warm mid-September breeze whipped my hair across my face, making it hard to see. A lush forest lay below. Beyond it, a patchwork of hills and a winding river faded off into the distance. Under my feet lay teeny, tiny limestone steps, with little-to-no footholds.
Few who ascend the Great Wall know what they’re getting into; in fact, I wager few who visit China know exactly what they’re getting into. I arrived in Beijing a day prior to my climb and immediately hopped on a bus for a winding two-hour drive to Gubei Water Town. Upon entering the village, I could spot the Sīmǎtái section of the Great Wall lit up like a Christmas tree in the distance. I felt my heart racing at its magnitude and length, and I knew then that I was in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After a restless night of sleep thanks to jet lag and excitement, I was up with the birds and ready to set out on my expedition. It was clear to me from the beginning that getting to the top would be no easy feat. After walking through Water Town and entering through the gates into the city walls, I was ushered onto a large open shuttle bus that navigated alongside the Mandarin Duck Lake Reservoir, juddering over twisting roads and mogulling up and down steep gullies until we arrived at the base.
We could hear the base of The Great Wall before we could see it, with a kind of chug-chug-chug-chug noise bellowing from the open-aired building. There are two options for getting to the beginning of the official trail: take a cable car, or opt to climb right from the bottom (but why would you?). So there I was in a glass enclosure with my guide, Amber, being lifted high into the burgeoning mountains that quickly became covered in thick, grey smog as we ascended higher and higher.
“Do you know why they built The Great Wall?” Amber asked.
“As a defence against invasion from northern nations and to protect the Silk Road trade?” I questioned.
“Yes, that, but also to protect villages from wildlife that could have destroyed their crops or preyed on villagers,” Amber said. We rode up the rest of the way in silence, eyes peeled for predators in the verdant forest below.
We arrived at the top and I spotted the sign marking the walk to The Wall and with it, what appeared to be a million stairs. And so, we started to climb. The path wound up and down and around the mountain face with some passages so lean, we had to hug people as we passed by one another. The stones were slippery and in some areas, a thick woven rope was needed to scoot down. Finally, after what seemed like forever in the blazing sun, the trail opened up to the most dangerous and majestic section of the entire Great Wall. With crumbling stones and dramatic drop-offs, this dilapidated section was heart-thumpingly steep and I stood in awe.
Back on solid ground, I found myself hovering on the edge of Yuanyang Lake Wharf where a rickety wooden boat awaited our embarkment. In front of me was a fast flowing waterfall dispersing over shallow rocks. The air carried a tangy funk from the water, but its sea foam colour was mesmerizing. Our boat waded through the water as we took in the architecture of Water Town. Buildings stood perched on stilts above water and some seemingly older still, were built into the rock bed of the river, swayed as if they could collapse at any moment.
I asked Amber how long the famed Ancient Gubei Water Town had been around for and was startled by her answer. “Since about October 2014,” she replied. Upon entering the town, I had imagined fishermen from another time hauling away their catch of the day and women, washing their laundry in this very river. Instead, the town was built as a holiday resort, devoid of residents and designed to replicate the Wuzhen Water Town in southern China. It was odd to be in an ancient town without a history. A unique kind of ghost town where no one had ever lived and where no one ever would. I was quickly learning that in China I should expect the unexpected.
Prior to my landing in the country, I had heard repeatedly to pack a jar of peanut butter. “Don’t you know they eat dogs in China?” friends said, “And bugs too!” others would chime in. I couldn’t stop imagining the worst. Snakes, scorpions, monkey brains—what horrors awaited me? Upon walking into, In Beijing, a popular chain restaurant, I was greeted by a charming gazebo made of swirling steel adorned with paper lanterns. The waitress brought over mint tea in delicate cups which we sipped as we perused the menu. Beijing is famed for its Peking roast duck, making it the obvious choice for our first course. Placed before me was a large, headless bird with crisp, lacquered skin that smelled aromatic. The meat melted in my mouth, tasting surprisingly sweet - like honey. I had to try more.
We racked up a rather large tab with seemingly endless orders: pig’s ear mushrooms, pork dumplings, biangbiang noodles, bamboo rice, hot pot, youtiao – the list continued with no end in sight. Dishes were served within minutes, one after another, and our taste buds were delighted by a cacophony of tangy, sweet and savoury until we could take no more.
I’m happy to report that duck’s feet were the most peculiar dish that crossed my plate and even after braving the slimy texture, I consider myself an official Chinese food convert.
“The food in China is becoming increasingly modern,” Amber said. “But I would like it to be on record that no one I know has eaten a dog or wants to. And only some people eat snakes, but that’s more traditional China.”
I found myself in the heart of what is known as ‘traditional’ Beijing, a gorgeous shamble of colours: turmeric orange, mustard yellow, cherry red and deep green. Row after row, ancient homes are pinned together like laundry on a clothesline. Yet each home is separated by a distinguishable look from the rest – some restored, some wearing bright tatters of paint, while others, crumbled apart at the seams. We’d arrived in search of the oldest architecture of them all – the Forbidden City, or the palatial heart of China.
Dating back to 1420, during the early Ming Dynasty, Emperor Yongle began construction of the imperial palace. Upon completion in 1420, it was deemed the largest imperial palace in the world and holds that title to date.
As I wandered through more than 90 palaces and courtyards, I found myself feeling small in a world made of massive, opulent buildings. Climbing to the top of ‘Scenery Hill’ and overlooking the entirety of the Forbidden City, I realized it looked much like a movie set: buildings stood as relics of a time gone by, cathedral sized-doors were fenced off, protecting visitors from the jumble of beams and rubble piled on the dusty floor, while buildings that sagged with age were decorated with a “work in progress” sign. In a country that has been without an emperor since 1912, I was surprised once again by the care that went into maintaining the old and the new.
“In ancient times, the emperor was said to be a son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power was bestowed upon him. The imperial palace was considered a divine place and was forbidden for commoners,” explained Amber. “It may be an old belief, but protecting our heritage is extremely important in Chinese culture.”
But time moves on. The city of Xi’an is proof. While considered one of the oldest cities in China and once home to multiple important dynasties, Xi’an is now a megavcity after an economic revival in the 1990s. The first thing I noticed about the city is the disturbingly friendly people. Much to the chagrin of other weary travellers, I found it almost impossible to leave an interaction without knowing one another’s blood type. Every time I asked a local for their top must-see, they all pointed me to the same destination—Muslim Street. I knew I had to go.
Bursting with palpable energy, lively Muslim Street is not exactly easy to escape.
“MISS, MISS, GET YOUR FRIED BEE PUPAE!” I heard being shouted from multiple vendors.
While the bustling street didn’t catch me off guard, the fact that Xi’an had a dedicated Muslim Quarter did. I had always thought of China as a homogeneous culture and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the religious scene is rather diverse. No religion has ever assumed a dominant position in China, however, there are four regularly practised religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Christianity. The Muslim quarter of Xi’an covered several blocks and is home to more than 20,00 Muslims. As I wandered in and out of the ten mosques in the area, I spotted men with white hats relaxed and talking leisurely to one another. Others rocked in old cane chairs, as they turned their faces up towards the last of the summer sun.
My final mosque, The Great Mosque of Xi’an, stood larger and more grand than any of the others. A blend of Chinese and Islamic architecture, it’s walls housed an ethereal-like sanctuary of ancient turquoise-tiled buildings and lush greenery that poured from every crevice. As I stood inside the silent walls of the Great Mosque, hidden away from the loud and humming city, I couldn’t help but notice the Mosque was a reflection of China itself – full of contradictions and surprises. And while my footing may have been a little misguided on arrival, there, tucked away, I felt like I finally found my foothold.