What No One Tells You About the Great Wall (One of Many Quirky Encounters in China)

Some people may have known that I recently traveled to China a few months ago. It was a “spontaneous” decision in choosing China as my next destination (but was a rather planned out trip). I had traveled to a few other places before, but every time it had been based around an academic purpose. This was the first adventure abroad that I chose to embark on, for the simple desire to just travel. And I could not have been more thrilled!

After 36 hours of straight travel (via a bus to New York and a 14 hour plane ride to China) and only two hours of sleep, the itinerary of our first day in Beijing consisted of climbing the Great Wall. Despite feeling sleep-deprived, I was stoked that I was finally going to be able to cross this gem off my bucket list. For years, I had dreamed of visiting one of the great wonders of the world, but I could not believe that at 24 years old, I would make this a reality!

My adventure on the Great Wall was nothing less than memorable! However, I had no idea what I would be “getting myself into” (as with most of China, I have to admit). As a lover of lists, here are some of the quirky encounters I had (and that many Western tourists face) that no one had told me (but maybe should’ve known)…

  1. Be prepared to be in great shape (or rather do some intense hiking)

Now my naivety as a young, “newbie” travel may be showing its true colors here, but I had no idea that one of the most popular tourist spot for the Great Wall would be so daunting. Being from New England, I have had my fair share of hiking excursions (and encounters with steeper trails in less than ideal conditions). However, with the location being right outside of Beijing and close to several factories, the air quality for this extreme physical activity was less than ideal. Honestly, out of all the places we visited in China, I would have to say I needed a face mask the most at the Great Wall, with the smog being so thick, it was difficult to see the mountains across the highway (of course, I did not wear a mask the entire time I was in China, for better or worse). These elements, along with the very uneven, crumbling steps and amount of local and global tourists sure makes for an interesting hike upward (especially if you’re clumsy, like me).

It's a long way to the top (if ya wanna rock n roll...sorry I had to!) but it was worth every minute of it!
It’s a long way to the top (if ya wanna rock n roll…sorry I had to!) but it was worth every minute of it!

2. Also be prepared to be treated like a celebrity and have your picture taken. A lot.

This initially came to me as a shock when I first arrived to China. Prior to leaving the bus, our tour guide informed us that often times, the Chinese will approach Westerners they think are attractive (or in some cases, rather odd looking) to have their pictures taken. I figured being an American with very bright, red hair would attract some attention in a country that does not have a lot of ethnic diversity. However, I was floored how “bold” many Chinese people are…

One of my first encounters I can recall is having these two women approach me and my friend, pushing me in between them to have several selfies taken. It was almost as if they have never seen someone with red hair before (and perhaps they hadn’t until then)! I just couldn’t believe how comfortable they were with doing this. It’s as if an American would come up to a Chinese tourist in the United States and maneuver them around to have a “selfie” taken with them!

Hanging out with my new BFF's!
Hanging out with my new BFF’s!

My personal favorite, however, was when this young mother approached me and placed her young child right in my arms. Here I am, with only two hours of sleep, trying to balance on a steep incline on the Great Wall with a kid in my arms! She did not even care that most of the Great Wall was not even in the background of the picture!

This will always be one of my favorite pictures (and memories) of this trip!
This will always be one of my favorite pictures (and memories) of this trip!

3. As with most of China, you’ll feel the pressure of local merchants to buy every souvenir in sight.

Of course I wanted a little token as another way of “documenting” this epic adventure. I ended up buying an authentic “I Climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt, as well as a miniature snow globe. When climbing back down, you’ll be bombarded by vendors and street merchants, eager to make money off tourists. I wish I had learned how to say “don’t want” in Mandarin (a rookie mistake to say the least). My strong recommendation is to not even respond to them and turn the other way (a recommendation taken by our travel guide, a native of Beijing). Just by speaking to them gives them an inclination (no matter how small) that you’re slightly interested and boy, will they be persistent until the cows come home (my friend on this trip learned that the hard way, but that’s a story for another post!).

My friend bought the best souvenir at the Great Wall!
My friend bought the best souvenir at the Great Wall!

4. And if you get offered a massage after an exhausting day of hiking and little sleep…just say no!

Initially viewed as a luxurious and courteous offer that we (now, regretfully) accepted, this experience was the icing of quirkiness to our first day in China. I had heard somewhere that a traditional Chinese massage is “firmer” than a traditional massage in the U.S. I was not aware of how painful it may be to some, especially if you’re a sensitive softy like myself! Having three petite, Chinese women, who do not speak English arrive to your hotel room and pull out your limbs (after your legs are already sore from the amount of hiking at the Great Wall) is nothing short of an experience! And one I will most likely pass the next time I visit China…

Despite these quirky adventures, I would not have changed my experience on the Great Wall (and first day in China) for the world!

With my other travel buddies. We were known as "the three amigos".
With my other travel buddies. We were known as “the three amigos”.

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