The Great Wall of China | The highlight
Writer Michael Austin sizes up the Great Wall of China.
I was curious to see how the Great Wall of China stacks up against the other iconic monuments like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. You might hate to admit it, but if you've ever been to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Little Mermaid in Copenhagen or Graceland in Memphis, your first thought was more likely “that’s it?” than "that's it!!!" I was hoping to be proven wrong with the Wall.
Before I go to the Wall, I take a few detours: I make my way around Houhai Lake and its narrow hutongs (ancient residential alleyways where many Beijingers still live) via pedicab. I move onto food next. First stop: Black Sesame Cooking School, where local chefs’ secrets are translated into cooking lessons, followed by feasts of what you’ve just helped prepare. (You can also go there just to eat.)
Later on, I head to the Wangfujing Night Market to find a whole lot of lot bugs on sticks—from centipedes and black scorpions to silkworms and sea horses, all fried to order in woks. I soothe my stomach with gallons of tea, at the modern Ritz-Carlton on Financial Street; of the 88 teas on the menu, 44 are from China. There’s another traditional Ritz-Carlton Chaoyang across town. I make my way to both lobbies for personal teatime, but my favorite experience is a tasting at the Bell Tower Tea House in the Drum Tower hutongs. Not only does it sell high-quality leaves, but I walk into a nearby courtyard hosting a live drum performance (Get it? Drum Tower?).
For my last stop before the grand finale, I head to the Yashow Market, the best spot in town for dirt-cheap replicas of casual accessories and haute couture. Vendors hawk everything from "Ray-Ban" sunglasses to "Rolex" watches, but if you want the real thing, head to Hong Qiao Pearl Market near the east entrance to the Temple of Heaven.
Finally, the Wall. It takes about 90 minutes to drive to the area I’m visiting called Mutianyu. The Badaling section is the one you see on TV, but the crowds there are overbearing and it doesn’t look that much different from Mutianyu. When I arrive in the village beneath the wall, I count fewer than 100 tourists, one of whom is “The Flying Tomato” Shawn White.
It’s not until I reach the top of the completely restored wall that I realize what all the hype is about. First of all, it’s about 15 feet wide; no one can see it from space. But it is worth seeing in person. It climbs and winds along mountain ridges, with intermittent guard houses and strategically placed holes for hot-oil pouring in times of combat. It is massive and sprawling and at any given time, you can only see a tiny speck of it. That is where the awe settles in—at the realization of the scale.
The great sites of the world, when they are behind you in your travel pictures, are instantly recognizable. But to be truly great they have to have one more quality. They have to have made you pause and marvel when you’re standing in front of them, or on them in the case of the Wall. They have to be great because of their own greatness, not just for their popularity. If they instill awe, as the Great Wall of China does, they are truly great.
TIP: You’ll need a visa to travel to China, which requires an invitation letter from your hotel or host. The Ritz-Carlton will issue you a letter as soon as you book a room with it. Get your $140 visa at the Chinese Consulate in River North. American Airlines now flies nonstop, Chicago to Beijing.