The steps are sometimes narrow, sometimes wide and flat, at other times so steep that I have to haul myself over them. My breathing becomes more labored as I concentrate on one step at a time, in a spiritual journey. At the end of a head-spinning turn, there’s a cool watch tower made of thick stone slabs, offering respite. The top looks deceptively close, and the swarming multitudes bottleneck around steep corners, sometimes pausing to catch their breath, or to get a glimpse of the spectacular scenery. It’s definitely one of those ‘once in a lifetime moments’, walking the same path that millions have trod on…for centuries! I am on the Juyong section of the Great Wall of China. To reach here, we have toiled sweat and blood! It’s the Labour Day Weekend, when the entire place is swarming with locals and tourists, and we have trudged seven kilometers to the base of the wall, past abandoned tour buses left stranded on the roads. It’s all been worthwhile- I get my first glimpse of the serpentine Wall, stretching away as far as the eye can see. Breathtaking is the only word that comes close to describing it.

The Wall reminds me of a slithering serpent or dragon with grey scales, that winds up and down, defying gravity and seems to go on forever. This is not any ordinary landmark. Like the dragon, the Great wall has a mystical aura- to me it symbolizes China. The great wall is not just a wall- there are forts, passes and cunningly engineered watchtowers, sprinkled over this mammoth structure. This structure seems to complement nature, even enhance it. There are different sections of the Great wall, each with a different kind of appeal to the tourist. There are the touristy sections like Badaling, or the wild adventure sections like Simatai. If you are athletic, you can run on the Great Wall and write about it (an Englishman did) or drive along the Great Wall throughout China, like New Yorker journalist Peter Hessler did, and write a book about it. The parapets have been put to many creative uses by the Chinese in recent years- as the venue for rock shows, even as a catwalk for fashion models.

Though we think of the Great Wall as one single structure, it’s thought to be a series of disjointed segments, built over different time periods and scattered all over Northern China! The Mongols were a source of harassment to the Chinese. They would ride into their villages and rape, pillage and plunder and then go back to their homes and relax. The great Wall was mainly built to repel these marauders, but paradoxically, the wall failed as a defense due to the human element- the guards were bribed to open the gates! The vision of a continuous wall belongs to first emperor of China, Qin Huhang (the same one who had the terracotta army built for his afterlife). He commissioned about three thousand miles of changcheng or ‘long wall’ made of hard packed earth. The successive dynasties added to the wall, and the Ming dynasty in particular consolidated the different sections, and added stones and bricks to this earthen wall. During the Cultural Revolution, the pillaging of the wall for building materials was encouraged, as the wall was looked upon as a reminder of a dark, feudal past! According to the present law, it’s illegal to carve names or remove bricks or stones from the wall, or build houses against the wall.

I wonder about how massive a challenge the building of the wall must have been. Imagine carrying heavy bricks on this steep terrain, in the cold winter, with the wind howling. The scale of the project defies comprehension- the planning, finances, and logistics. How did they communicate before radio, telephone or internet? Our guide, Henry, says that they used smoke signals. The fuel used was animal dung and the signals were picked up and passed on by each successive beacon tower. We see traditional weapons of yesteryears displayed at one point. We see the famous love locks, where couples attach locks with red ribbons to a long chain and throw the key over the Wall, as a symbol of their undying love. Reminds us of similar Indian customs at temples where threads are tied on trees. Agile teenagers, frisky children, polio afflicted patient and old wizened seniors ascend the steps, each to their own pace in a fulfillment of a life’s dream.

The Great Wall is tourist hoopla. There are stalls selling the ubiquitous ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ T-shirts, key chains, souvenirs of all kinds with the image of the Wall, medals and plaques certifying that one has climbed the wall and even a photo-op with traditional costumes. My son opts for a costume like Genghis Khan. With a long sword in his hand to keep the marauders away…. Swathed in a colourful Ming period costume, I pose against the iconic structure, only to be jostled by a mob of tourists all wanting a picture with me! In China, you have to accept the bizarre fact that a perfect stranger has a right to get in the frame with you. The silver lining of the trip- as we leave the Great Wall, it comes to life with lights. Our guide tells us that we are indeed lucky; very few people see the wall lit up! The jagged ribbons of the wall and towers look ethereal, and seem to be a fitting finale to our odyssey. It’s not every day that one gets visit a wonder of the world. I did and I have a shiny gold medal to prove it- it was mine for just ten Yuan, and five hours of hard work!

Published in the Deccan Herald, Bangalore