Some of the most amazing moments of our lives can be captured in a single photo. These photos often tell a powerful story, and everyone has one. In late July of 2016, I embarked on a journey to the abandoned section of the Great Wall of China. The day that followed was completely unexpected, and its a day I will never forget. Behind this image is the story from that day, a day of adventure, danger, excitement, and accomplishment.
I woke up early on that morning. The sounds of the city waking up stirred me from sleep, and I sat on the edge of my cot and listened through the small crack in my window. My budget hostel was tucked away in the quiet backstreets of Beijing's Hutong district, an ancient part of the city that is filled with small and interesting alleys that have existed for thousands of years. I ventured outside onto the already busy streets before grabbing a steamed bun at a nearby street stall before heading on my way. I was headed to the unrestored section of the Great Wall of China, and had quite a day ahead of me. Despite being a several hour trip, it wasn’t difficult for me to find a taxi that would take me to the small town at the base of wall. I explained to the driver in broken Chinese where I needed to go. He scoffed and chuckled before saying “okay, we go”. And at that, we were on our way.
I was nervous. There were only a few outdated articles online talking about hiking the abandoned and unrestored section of the Great Wall of China. Hiking this part of the wall was not only considered extremely dangerous due to damage it has suffered over the years, but also incredibly illegal. Multiple people had lost their lives hiking here over the years, and countless others arrested for trespassing. Although I contemplated these things, the idea of experiencing such a huge part of human history took precedence. I was willing to take the risk.
The taxi dropped me in the center of quiet Chinese town at the base of the wall. I was hoping to ask someone for directions, but I soon realized that I was the only person around. It was a foggy day, but luckily I could just see the outline of the wall on the ridge of the mountains to my left. There were no paths leading from the town to the wall, so I forged my own through the dense terrain that separated me from the amazing spectacle that stood before me. It took me an hour to reach the wall and I was already drenched in sweat, but it was worth it.
Reaching the wall brought emotions I had never experienced before. Stretching as far as my eye could see, the wall instantly grabbed every bit of attention I could muster. Curving smoothly and mysteriously through the mountains like a snake, every inch of the wall was something of wonder. It seemed to stare back at me with a sense a wisdom I’d never seen before, and I could feel the power behind it. The textures and rugged state of the wall spoke to its history, and reflected much more than just a beautiful scene. A piece of ancient greatness spanned across the horizon before me, and I took immense pride in that moment.
As a photographer, I could hardly contain myself. I took hundreds of pictures before starting the 6-mile hike. My goal was to reach the restored section of the wall before sunset, where I would catch a taxi back to the city and enjoy a beer at my hostel before settling down for the night. But, upon starting the hike, all of this became unsure. The state of the wall was despicable, and my progress was much slower than I had anticipated. Much of the wall was in complete shambles, and several of the guard towers were not passable without climbing very steep sections of the wall. I trudged onward, dedicated to make it to the restored section of the wall before nightfall.
After hiking for a few hours I approached one of the most dangerous sections of the wall. I had read that several lives are claimed here every year. The fact that I hadn’t seen a single person on the wall that day really put this number in perspective. This section of the wall was built into a vertical cliff. At least, it had been. Over the years, the wall had completely fallen off the side of the mountain, leaving only the sharp and treacherous rock of the mountain behind. (You can see this section of the wall in the image). You cannot bypass this part of the wall, and you must climb it using only your hands and feet. A small slip or mistake would land you in the rubble hundreds of feet below, and nobody would be around to find you. At the time, I didn’t grasp the danger of the situation. Although a bit tired, soaking wet with sweat, and slightly dehydrated, I was still in a state of awe from being in such a historically significant place. I made it to the top without too many issues, but soon found myself incredibly tired. I had underestimated the length and difficulty of the hike, and had run out of water a few hours before. By this point I was dehydrated, hungry, and the fog started to block my view. A storm was quickly approaching, and this section of the wall in the rain is a death sentence. I knew I needed to get off the wall before the storm hit, and the clock was ticking.
I picked up my pace and started making decent progress. The rest of the wall was not as dangerous as the section I had passed, but the fog was starting to dominate the landscape. I couldn’t see the wall in the distance, and I had no idea how much farther I had to go. If the wall wasn’t such an easy path to follow, I would surely have been lost. The sun was beginning to set as well, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to find a taxi that could take me back to the hostel. I had the option of camping on the wall, but I didn’t bring the proper supplies and it was quite cold due to the altitude. I had no choice but to continue on.
It took me another two hours to reach the restored section of the wall. After 8 hours full of emotions of all sorts, I had conquered the Great Wall. I was greeted by a group of surprised Chinese tourists, who proceeded to praise me before giving me a bottle of water. They gave me a Chinese flag to hold, and snapped a few photos of me before heading on their way. I was feeling an immense sense of accomplishment, and despite being exhausted beyond anything I had experienced before, was on top of the world. I had done something not many others have, and I had the photos to prove it. To say this day was tumultuous would underplay the true depth of emotions I experienced on the wall, emotions that made that day as special as it was.
It is days like these that keep us feeling alive and hungry for what life has to offer. Experiencing emotions outside of our everyday demeanor takes us to a world outside of the mundane, and allows us to thrive. I keep this photo close to me, because it represents all of these things. It’s a day I’ll never forget, and one that I’ll always try to match.
What photo represents something to you? Post it in the comments below and tell me why!
More photos from that day: