The massive Great Wall once protected the Chinese from invaders of the north. That was before the Chinese became invaders from the south.
Prior to 1985, travelers spent most of their morning just getting to the wall at Mutianyu. After the drive from Beijing came a long hike. But now a cable car -- at 100 yuan (about $15) round trip -- runs up the side of the foothills. In a few minutes, you are at 3,000 feet above sea level (Beijing is at 120 feet).
Exhilarating, exciting, friendly
From the moment I set out westward -- the air cool, winds from the north in Mongolia -- I felt exhilarated, like standing in the Acropolis of Greece or amid the mighty ruins of Central America, southeast Asia and Great Zimbabwe.
I imagined soldiers and shouts of sentries through the centuries, of vast armies from the north popping over mountaintops to face the mighty stone wall.
I walked for more than an hour, through watchtowers and past crenulated parapets, with merlons, which, according to my guidebook, allowed marksmen to shoot at enemy soldiers on both sides of the wall, a task that might occasionally have been necessary, though, I suspect, disappointing.
Fellow wall walkers were a mix of Chinese and foreigners. I heard English, Hebrew, German, and French. Strangers offered me snacks and swigs of water (which I declined as I carried my own). What we had in common were nods of understanding and smiles of satisfaction.
On the way back to the cable car, I checked off another item on my Bucket List, which Morgan Freeman described in the movie as "things to do before I kick the bucket."
Planning a tour
From Beijing, the Great Wall can be an easy and inexpensive day tour. Buses make daily trips. For a private car, driver and guide from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m., I paid about $160. The tour was arranged through Destination China by my hotel, The Opposite House.