It was pitch black and all we had was the dim yellow glow of cheap flashlights to guide us through the rocky snow. It was early February 2013, and the Beijing air was crisp and cold. It was about 9 PM, and there we all were, hiking up a hill we could not see the top of to reach The Great Wall of China. There were 20 of us in the group, and with each breath you could feel the anticipation and nervousness we all shared but didn’t speak of. We were breaking Chinese law. We were young, foolish university kids seeking adventure and we were now facing the potential of ending up in a Chinese prison. Sleeping on the Wall is not exactly legal. Yet, it was such a deeply thrilling idea, and I couldn’t say no. Could you?
When we reached the Wall with our huge backpacks and sleeping bags, I finally allowed myself to look up for the first time since we’d been hiking. There were stars everywhere. To this day, I have never seen more beautiful stars in my entire life. They filled up the sky like millions of fireflies, the kind of stars you always hear about, but never see. It genuinely took my breath away to see a black sky shining as brightly as the day, fully covered with tiny points of light. I felt so insignificant in the most amazing way.
Once all of our tents were set up in the shelter of a wall tower, we snuggled together in an effort to keep warm. It was around zero degrees and none of us had packed accordingly. With my paper-thin gloves, my fingers felt like they were going to fall off. Yet, in my frozen misery, it all seemed so worth it. I fell asleep and woke up multiple times in the night with body-shaking chills — two sleeping bags to hide me from the Chinese winter was apparently not enough. When we all woke in the morning, it was still quite dark. We had planned it that way so that we could hike in the sunrise. I desperately needed to use the bathroom, but if I wanted to actually do it, it had to be ON the wall in front of everyone (and I wasn’t that desperate). I bit my tongue and tried my hardest to forget.
The hike started slow, as everyone was still groggy and cold from the bitter chill of the night before. We picked up the pace and soon, in the far-away distance, the sun started to rise. It began to shine over the mountains ahead of us, and I felt every hair rise on my arms with goosebumps. Until then, I hadn’t realized just how far up we had climbed that night. The mountains looked like they went on forever, not a single building or sign of civilization obstructing them. All you could see were endless mountains and a tangled brick wall weaving in-between them.
When we reached our destination for the morning, we all just stared, silently enjoying the view. It was a moment of perfection we had earned, and wanted to enjoy. And as I was looking over the edge of the wall, my vision blurred. I felt sick to my stomach and could feel my eyes rolling into the back of my head. I knew this feeling, unfortunately; I was about to pass out. Here, on The Great Wall of China I was going to faint. I grabbed hold of a friend next to me and ducked my head in-between my legs. The feeling didn’t pass, and somehow I managed to be surprised about it in the moment. But I was tired, hungry, with a bursting bladder and freezing — it’s no wonder my body was going to knock itself unconscious to give itself a break. Luckily, my friend fed me a banana and forced some water into my system. I eventually stood back up and started to feel like myself again. The worst part was that we still had to hike back to camp, and down the mountain.
Somehow despite my uncomfortableness, I didn’t mind. I was the most miserable I may have ever been but the fact that I was 18, traveling through China and on top of The Great Wall at sunrise, made me forget how horrible my body actually felt. I sucked up my pain and discomfort and hiked like a champ back to camp and back down the mountain. When we reached the bottom, I finally got to use the bathroom at a rest stop and, yes, it was the biggest relief.
Hiking The Great Wall of China changed my life, it allowed me to have an irreplaceable experience that altered my perception about what the world can look like. I ask every person reading this to go out and explore, no matter the risk. Go out and be brave, do the thing that may not be legal but is definitely memorable. Sleep on The Great Wall of China but look at it as not just a fun risk but as an important experience that will allow you a look into Chinese history and culture. I was a young girl studying abroad with not much worldly experience and somehow I was able to adventure through China, complete a hike that nearly put me in the hospital and live to tell the tale. Trust me — if I can do it, anyone can.