Photo Essay: How to Climb the Great Wall of China

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If you're planning a trip to China in the foreseeable future, you're probably also planning a visit to the country's biggest star: The Great Wall.

The Great Wall is the most-visited attraction in the massive country of China, and when you first catch a glimpse of it snaking along atop the hillsides like some sleeping serpent or dormant dragon, it's not difficult to understand why.

The Great Wall – really a series of walls connected together – was originally built to protect the northern China border from invasion. It was built, rebuilt, and then restored over many centuries, and is estimated to stretch over 5,500 miles in total length.

I visited the Great Wall in 2007 during my college marching band's performance tour to China. We visited the most popular restored portion of the wall, Badaling, roughly 50 miles northwest of Beijing. The Badaling section was built during the Ming Dynasty, and was the first part of the Great Wall to open to tourists in 1957. These days, it sees millions of visitors per year.

My Great Wall experience was unique compared to most. Not only was I visiting the world wonder with my college marching band, but we actually performed a concert ON the Great Wall. I crashed my cymbals to everything from traditional Chinese songs to Kelly Clarkson's “Since U Been Gone” as a crowd of curious tourists from around the world grew around us.

Yup, that's me in a band uniform on the Great Wall!

After our performance, we had a couple of hours to explore the Wall on our own. How would I sum up the Great Wall? Three words: Long. Steep. Mezmerizing.

Though there is no “right” or “wrong” way to climb the Wall, there are certainly some things to keep in mind before your trek.

How to climb the Great Wall of China

Before you go, perfect reciting the phrase “Bu yao” (pronounced “boo yauw”), which means, literally, “No want.” You can use this phrase with all the pushy vendors at the entrance to the Wall, who will try to sell you everything from T-shirts to DVDs to artistic drawings. My advice? Just say no. Believe me, you don't want to be lugging anything extra with you on this climb!

The crowd pre-performance, including some vendors.

Be sure to dress for the weather, but wear layers if you're visiting in the winter months. It may seem chilly on the Wall at first, but I guarantee you'll be breaking a sweat once you reach some of those watch towers. Bring some water, too, while you're at it.

Stretch out those calf muscles before your climb. Better yet, do a warm up. Trust me.

Yes, your calves will be screaming.

Watch your step. Even here on the restored Badaling section, the footing can be questionable. The steps are never the same height two stairs in a row, and the fact that millions of people have climbed this section means that some of the stone has been worn away completely, leaving odd dips and holes just waiting for you to sprain your ankle in them.

As you climb, try to imagine this site hundreds of years ago, when soldiers would actually patrol sections of it. (Those guys must have been in SHAPE!)

Head up to some of the highest watch towers you can see. Along the way, even though you'll be paying attention to where you're putting your feet and trying not to pass out from the steep climb, make sure to take in your surroundings. They're pretty awesome. See how far you can trace the wall snaking off into the distance.

Once you reach the highest watch tower, be sure to spend some time there — both catching your breath and taking some artsy photos.

On the way back down, be careful not to fall!

Every now and then, turn around and look back at where you came from. Now you can really appreciate the steepness of those steps.

Be sure to get at least one cheesy photo of yourself as a souvenir. Believe me, Mom and Dad will want to see it.

And, as the light begins to fade behind the mountains and you descend to the bottom of the Wall once more, make sure to get one last photo of the majestic Great Wall as it curves off into the distance.

And when you get home, be sure to cross it off your bucket list. Because, let's face it, who doesn't want to climb the Great Wall of China??

Have you climbed the Great Wall? If so, what was your experience like? And, if not, is it on your bucket list?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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