I could feel the sun’s intensity pierce through the thick folds of the course coach window curtain, and knew that the SPF 55 I’d slathered on earlier that morning just wasn’t going to cut it.  In defeat I pulled the curtain aside to reveal the lush countryside of Beijing’s outskirts.  As the bus climbed higher and higher up Yanshan mountain, my anticipation spiked as well.  In about a half an hour I’d be walking along the Middle Kingdom’s ultimate defense structure, the Great Wall of China.  

I had been weary about the idea of an organized group trip, figuring we would probably end up in a crowded, touristy section of the wall, so I was pleasantly surprised when our bus finally rolled to a stop in a nearly abandoned parking lot lined with a few peddlers selling t-shirts and chopsticks.  The Simatai is a section of the Great Wall located on a secluded strategic pass called Gubeikou.  This segment is the only one to retain the original appearance of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.  Although the loose pebbles from the crumbling architecture and the steep stairways present some treachery, the untouched wall and the isolated scenery combine to create quite a breath taking experience. 

A few enthusiastic members of our clan opted to hike the entire way to the looming wall above.  I decided to see what kind of photographs I could snap from the view of the cable car that hoists visitors halfway up the mountain.  As I rocked my gondola by moving from seat to seat searching for the best angles, the trees below my feet shrunk with perception with each foot of height the cable car gained.  


At the end of the line, the cars passed by a concrete slab where an indifferent woman stood waiting to open the side doors of the individual buckets.  Once my door was opened, I stumbled onto the concrete, my body still moving with the inertia of the car, which only slightly slowed down to release its passenger.  At this point I had another option of laziness, I could take a train all the way up to the wall, or I could hike what was a 40-minute walk according to the man who ran the cable car.  I decided I could use the exercise and began my trek.  After about two minutes, I was joined by a rather haggard looking woman peddling fans and information books on the area.  She persistently followed me all the way to the top, offering her hand when the trail steepened and asking questions about the States.  When I rejoined the rest of my fellow travelers, I realized I was not the only one to receive this kind of treatment.  Several other women had attached themselves to the arms of my friends as well.   They continued their sales pitches until we reached a certain tower and they came to an abrupt stop.  Later that day, I learned the government only let them peddle a certain section of the wall.  I suppose that was a lucky break for me, considering I was about to waste my money a tourist book that I had no hope of understanding, simply out of pity and annoyance. 


I would buy my useless souvenir later on when I passed a man selling triangular straw hats near the end of this section of the wall.  My sister and I had joked about me buying one of these on my travels, but I had held out to get one until the Great Wall trip because I had heard they were the best quality.  Once I perused through the selection, I decided upon one with what looked like some kind of local plant growing out of it.  Au natural if you will.  Sporting my new purchase, I wandered back the way I came hoping to find a familiar face to accompany me in a cold beer before dramatically ending my Great Wall adventure with an exhilarating zip line ride down from the Wall, across the width of a river where visitors catch a boat back to the parking lot. 



To my delight, Chris and Dennis were only moments behind me, posing for photos of themselves scaling the Great Wall.  Once we had cold beers in hand, we situated ourselves at a little table at the edge of the Wall and looked out at its infinite majesty.  Thinking to ourselves that this should be a moment to be commemorated, we purchased three medallion necklaces each depicting the animal of our year of birth: the snake for Chris, the ox for me, and Dennis got a monkey (not necessarily because he was born in the year of the monkey, but just because he liked it).  The lady selling them carved our names and the date onto them, and strung them onto red yarn.  From then on, we would refer to them as our friendship necklaces.    

Fully loaded with the strength of our new medallions, and a bit of liquid courage from the beer and altitude, we confidently walked towards the entrance to the zip line, which turned out to be nothing more than an old man at a table waving passers by down to a small platform from which riders were launched.  We were a bit hesitant about the safety features of the zip line, and were only slightly reassured when we read a sign saying the Inertia Ropeway had in fact passed some kind of safety test. 


One by one we donned the threadbare harness, frantically adjusting the straps to squeeze our legs in tightly.  Once the carabineer returned to the top of the mountain, each rider was quickly clipped in and a worker squatted to demonstrate the proper form for riding, and swoosh, they were off. 

I made sure to watch a few people ahead of me to make sure I had the technique down.  I watched a friend shrink with perspective as their howl echoed across the canyon, as I waited in anticipation for my carabineer to arrive.  Just as I was about to be clipped up, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to see the man who sold us our tickets gesturing to me to take off my hat before I left.  I only had a moment to swing the hat to a hanging position around my neck before I was on my way.  With one hand clenching the rope holding me up and the other on the record button of my camera, I was off. 


The ride was beautiful, and not too fast, so I could take in the surrounding scenery.  I was about halfway down when I heard a tearing noise.  I turned back, and watched as the top half of my hat spun like a boomerang down to the river below.  I landed on the boat dock below with a twinge of disappointment in loosing my new headwear, but still reeling from the exciting ride.  


As my friends and I rowed towards the shore, I told them about my hat and they suggested I ask for a replacement from the peddlers in the parking lot, (after all they all sell the same things, and who’s to say I didn’t buy my hat from their tables).  I tried this with one of the female peddlers who sold the same hat, claiming faulty craftsmanship.  This led to the standard banter I had come to expect from haggling with peddlers, and ended with me giving her 5 ding dongs and the broken crown from which to create a new hat in exchange for a new straw hat.  Success!  

Shortly after we’d all done our last minute souveniring we climbed on the bus and exhaustion set in.  Another great day of Chinese sight seeing ended in a much deserved nap on the bus ride home.