Sitting on the wall outside a hotel I’m not staying at when it’s 6:30am and -8ºC. That is when you start to question your choices. You suddenly start to wonder whether it’s all that impressive, if it will be worth the numb butt cheeks, the melodramatic thought that you’ll never be warm again. But here’s the thing: it’s the Great Wall of China, and it’s totally worth the early start to get there when virtually no one else there.

If I’m perfectly honest, The Great Wall is the primary reason I am in Beijing, if I was going to all the hassle of getting a visa I wanted to see it.

I’m not usually much for organised bus trips, the idea of listening to ‘old people’ puts me off, but I found a ‘small group tour’ which is aimed at a slightly younger market. As it turns out, there were only three of us, all guys in our mid-late 20s, one Californian, one Canadian and yours truly. Perhaps my preconceived ideas about bus tours are as stupid as I know they are.

The Great Wall of China

The part of the wall we were on – Mutianyu – is, like most in this part, on top of quite a large hill. It looks unimpressive below. When our guide, Kevin, asks if we’re all fit enough to manage the 1,000 steps from the gate to the wall we all scoff and say of course. Turns out 1,000 steps takes you up a fair way and the wall, close up, is bloody enormous! And because it sprawls along a series of hills, it’s up and down the whole way; walking the direction for the best view first we stopped about ten times, the steps seemed steep and never ending. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up some more. Up until you have to pause for breath, legs suddenly aware how few stairs you normally climb. And it’s not even 10am.

By the end of three hours on the wall, my phone informed me that we’d climbed up the equivalent of 159 floors.

Steps, Great Wall of China

The wall itself has a history stretching back more than six millennia, starting out as mounds of baked earth separating the seven states that would one day be unified to become China. But what we think of today as the Great Wall is mostly the result of the Ming Dynasty (as so much of ‘China’ seems to be). It took 200 years of building, mostly consisting of ‘national service,’ which sounds oddly similar to slave labour.

Toboggan, Great Wall of China

How does one get back down from the wall? Well, there are options here too. Chair lift, gondola, or – utterly bizarrely and of course the option we chose – toboggan. Yup, toboggan. I did something similar on a school trip once, but essentially it’s a sledge with runners and a break shooting down the hillside in a metal version of what you’d think of as a bobsled track. Utterly unexpected, something that I have no doubt would be quashed by EU health and Safety regulations (my ‘brake’ was questionably effective and some of the welding had seen better days), but one of those ridiculous twists in life that are great fun and make for a good story: How do you get down from the Great Wall? Oh, by toboggan…

Garlic Broccoli

We stopped for lunch in a local place a few miles away from the tourist centre at the Great Wall to try a couple of dishes. The first was essentially broccoli, steamed with rock salt, chilli and garlic, which was incredibly more-ish (and an amazing way to eat more broccoli, I’ll have to work out something similar sometime), the other a “local take on a chicken dish you probably recognise as a relation of Kung po chicken”, but obviously so much better. It was all washed down with liberal amounts of warming jasmine tea (although the exercise had negated much of the cold) and a local beer that sounded like a great reward for our morning’s endeavours, but in reality was little more than carbonated water. A delicious meal, devoured greedily. Apparently the lady seemingly in charge of the place thought we had excellent chop stick skills (there was a clear tone of surprise that ‘aliens’ survived without a fork or a spoon).

Mountains, Great Wall of China

It was, all in all, probably one of the best days of the trip so far. The Great Wall is a stunning feat of engineering. Despite the haphazard variation in size, angle and quality of the steps, it seems unbelievable how old it is (although much of the visitable sections have been restored), or its use. The landscape on the ‘other side’ is dramatic, rugged and breathtaking; peaks jutting out all over the place, but with a clear succession of watch towers on top of them. I dread to think what human endeavour (and sacrifice) went into making such a barrier. Because of this it seems flippant to ponder the need for it – but also kind of inevitable – for I am sure if you could overcome the landscape here then a wall, no matter how well guarded, is not going to pose an insurmountable problem. Status? Ego? Power play? Because it’s been worked on for the last five generations of your Dynasty? I guess we’ll never truly know, but in the mean time it is indeed an utter wonder to behold, more so when you realise we saw less than 1% of it.