The Holiday Inn Express may be a modest hotel ($70 a night in a pricey city), but the beds are terrific and we had a great night’s sleep. Breakfast was a minimal affair; some watermelon chunks and a couple of hardboiled eggs. But the driver was right on time and we were away in a very nice vehicle driven by an excellent driver who knew the backroads and could avoid a lot of the traffic headache. He also knew the outside dimensions of his vehicle as if it were a second skin and we made the trip to Mutianyu in under two hours. We figured were going to do plenty of walking that day so we took the gondola ride to the top of the wall to begin our hike.

The wall is built along the top of a ridge; several hundred ridges in fact, as the wall winds its way across 7,000 kilometers of China’s northern and western borders. Originally built around 200 B.C. of stamped mud, it was expanded during the Han Dynasty and again under the Jin in the 12th century A.D. However it was unequal to the task of keeping Genghis Khan and his Mongol troops from conquering China begining in 1206 and continuing until the death of his grandson Kublai Khan in 1294. After the restoration of imperial China in the Ming Dynasty, 1367 to 1644, the wall underwent an extensive repair and rebuild, this time with more substantial building materials of rock, brick and mortar. It is this wall, some sections of which are nearly 650 years old, that has survived to the present age. Although nowhere near as artistic or inspiring as St Paul’s in Rome, which was finished at around the same time, it is impressive not only for its massive size but also for the beauty of its natural surroundings.

The gondola let us out at tower 14, and faced with the decision of either going uphill to the left/west, or downhill to the right/east, we chose uphill, figuring that once tired it would be better to go downhill. The rebuilt sections are wide enough for six to walk abreast, and the crowds were minimal at this hour, so we strolled easily, without jostling, admiring the view from each watchtower and the audacity and perseverance it must have taken to build such an enormous fortification. In addition to the watchtower, there were cannon placements and gun/arrow slots all along the wall.

Pam and Moochi had run out of steam by tower 18, the last row of very steep steps proving too much. Shelley went on to tower 19 and took some videotape of me doing Tai Chi on the wall before she went back. I struggled on past tower 20, onto a stretch of unrestored wall. This is where it gets a little tricky, with no restraining wall and the ground dropping steeply away beneath a crumbling trail. I contented myself with one more kilometer before I too allowed discretion to overrule my enthusiasm for exploration. With a week of walking through Beijing and Shanghai before me, I did not want to risk twisting an ankle for the sake of amateurish bravado and bragging rights.

Back at tower 14 we considered our options. We could return the way we came, or we could go on by exploring the wall to the east. Moochi was pooched, and went back down the hill, but Shelley, Pam and I went on downhill, which given the wear on our quads and calf muscles, was a lot harder than it sounds. We soldiered on, treasuring the rare flat sections of the wall and enduring both up and down sections as they afforded the better views. It really is a spectacular setting and we enjoyed every vista to the max, pinching ourselves as we went that this was in fact us who were walking along the Great Wall of China!

At Tower 4 we caught the slide to the bottom. That’s right, a tacky metal slide like you would find at Wonderland, with a tacky plastic toboggan that had a joystick handbrake and nothing else. It was wild and it was fun and I don’t care if it was comically out of place; we all enjoyed it! Our driver was waiting for us at the bottom, eager to be on the way to beat the Beijing traffic. But we were in no hurry to leave and bought a few souvenirs for the grandkids before we bundled back into the car for the trip back to Beijing.

Rather than go back to the hotel, we had our driver drop us at the Bell and Drum Towers just north of the Forbidden City where we got a bite to eat on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the square. Suitably refreshed, we explored the little shops around the square where Pam and I found a wall hanging for that bare space above the television at a Chinese art shop. Then we headed into the hutongs, the little alleyways that line this side of town, bordering one of the many ponds and little lakes that dot the city. The ladies bought some scarves and we wandered until we could walk no more and then grabbed a taxi for the ride back to our hotel. It had been an amazing day!