By: Lucy Dabbs, Georges P. Vanier Secondary School, participant of the 2017 Beijing International Education Exchange (BIEE) Summer Camp.
People surrounding you, pressing in on all sides, hot bodies brushing against one another. A sea of orange shirts soaked with sweat, people speaking different languages all around you. You are standing on a steep incline, on stone steps about a foot high and half a foot wide. Somebody trying to squeeze past on your left knocks you off balance, your heel goes off the edge of the step and you waver backwards. You catch yourself just before you teeter into the person behind you, a glance over your shoulder showing a bad potential for the domino effect if someone were to fall.
Your feet anxiously want to move, you move your head from side to side in an effort to see past the crowd but it's hopeless. Humans crammed together like sardines, congested on the stairs. You're stuck, on a staircase a metre wide with 700 people in orange shirts.
Suddenly, a memory comes to me. I'm at my high school, the bell has rung and the hallways have flooded with students. Pushing and shoving and trying to move forward to no avail. I become a rocket, zooming between the he students, weaving in and out of the spaces and speed walking through the hallway.
I start to pick my way between the crowd while maintaining the climb upwards, right, left, left, right. “Scuse me, oops, sorry”. It's working, I'm making progress, finding the empty pockets and filling them. Soon, the crowd thins and I am free. I climb up the last few steps and then stop, taking some breaths in the hot, thick atmosphere.
I turn around, one hand propped against the ancient stone wall for support, and survey the hilly slopes fading into distant blurs. Stretched out among the mountainside, like a dragon curving and morphing with the mountain: the Great Wall of China.
It was an exhausting climb that borderline gave me heat stroke, but it was worth it. I walk solo at a brisk pace, because sticking with a group is too difficult. I make good time walking once I escape the crowd, and manage to make it to the tallest tower. I am so high up that the valley below where our buses are parked is not visible through the hazy air.
I took a few cringy selfies, but for the most part I ask others passing by to take a photo of me, and many times I take their photo too. Most of us up that high are by ourselves. I find this a good way to meet some of the hundreds at the camp I still haven’t talked to. What's a better conversation starter than sharing the experience of the strenuous and exhilarating journey up the Great Wall.
I would say "Great job, you're almost there! Where are you from?" as I pass fellow climbers. Most are in orange shirts, but some have taken them off or were from other places too. I talk to people from more countries than I can remember, and a few I walk alongside for a while.
This is a different section of the great Wall than I visited three months ago during my last stay in Beijing. This section is definitely more tourist oriented, and a lot more steep. The initial section of stairs that was so narrow was a major cause of congestion, especially when 20 busloads of campers were unleashed all at once.
I noticed there were bathrooms and even a gift shop in one of the towers, taking away slightly from the authentic ancient vibes of the wall.
On my way back down I recognize some people I'd met from around campus, including the Indiana dudes from my VR class. I join them on the descent, talking about and we walk down together.
Downhill is a lot nicer and faster, though we have to leave the nice breeze of the higher places. Our legs are shaking, having climbed stairs I can only guesstimate to be in the thousands, hundreds of feet in the air. We make sure to drink lots of water, and remind each other too.
At the gift shop in one of the towers, I meet up with more people from the BC group, who are buying snacks and souvenirs. We discuss our experiences and how far we climbed, until we make it back to the bus at 11:40, right on time.
As soon as I get on the bus I flop into the seat, too exhausted to move. But it isn’t over yet! The buses take all our groups to a nice restaurant in a large jade shop, where the food is actually quite good. I enjoy multiple dishes, including the sweet pork, Thai peanut chicken, watermelon, and more. I hadn't realized how hungry I was until I started eating!