It only took almost 4 months of living in China, but I finally made it to the Great Wall.
Since arriving in Beijing, I’ve heard horror stories of people’s life-long dreams being crushed as they venture to an over-crowded, completely restored Disney land of a ‘Great Wall’: the section named Badaling, no less. This is a renowned area, easy to get to from the centre of Beijing, home to dancing bears, a cable car up and a toboggan run back down – everything you’ve dreamed of, right? WRONG. In fact, I can’t think anything worse and in my genuine fear of being completely let down from first-hand experience, a big part of me had been avoiding the visit altogether. Sure, there is over 6000km of Great Wall to see, but what if it really wasn’t possible to see it like the famous brochure photos suggested; no one in sight, clear blue skies and nothing to see but the Great Wall of China winding it’s way into the distance. Even as I write this it sounds like a pipe dream, but I can assure you it is possible.
Let me introduce Great Wall Fresh, a family run business hidden in the tiny mountain village of Chenjiapu. Mr Chen, the man of the house, alongside his wife and bouncy pet dog, speak no English – a genuine blessing in disguise. Upon booking through their website, their trusted son (whose English is minimal but sufficient) will arrange everything with his father so that your stay runs smoothly once you arrive.
And once you arrive? Trust the family to provide everything you have asked for and embrace the lack of communication, it’s a special part of the Great Wall experience.
Part of the Great Wall Fresh charm is that you stay in the Chen Family home. The rooms are shared and the space is small, but the tiny details create a warm atmosphere – photographs of visitors over the years cover the walls and the middle room creates a perfect place to socialise.
Despite it being below zero with fresh snow on the ground, Mr Chen bundled us all into a van and we headed off to explore the Wall which could be seen from his doorstep. A man I guess in his mid 50’s strolled casually ahead of us, whistling to the trees with no need for gloves or a warm hat, genuinely content in his surroundings.
A few of our group underestimated the icy conditions and ultimately struggled with the ascent. This is where Mr Chen became invaluable; he cut down dead branches and made walking sticks, erecting them in the snow for the next passerby to collect. Once at the entrance to the Wall, he tied rope around the struggling shoes and continued ahead to dig steps amongst the fallen bricks. Occasionally he would let out an empathetic titter, check that no one had fallen off and continued ahead – never rushing or getting impatient with the many selfies in process.
I may not have seen the Great Wall under a clear blue sky, but for that I am thankful. There was something very special about seeing it covered in snow, the elements creating a difficult path through the ancient rubble. But what really made this experience memorable was the calm efforts of the Great Wall Fresh family. Within 30 minutes of returning home, delicious home-grown food was served up for us all to share. Along with 40p bottled beer, a pack of cards and new found friends, it really was a recipe for a fantastic evening to finish off a truly fantastic day.
As for Badaling? That will continue to remain a blurry vision that I never wish to make clear in my mind.