China was not on my ‘must visit’ list. Not even close. The place just didn’t interest me.

Everything I knew about the country (which wasn’t much) was gleaned from high school history classes, pop culture references, and my walks through Toronto’s Chinatown. In short, China meant the one-child policy, Mao, underage Olympic gymnasts, dim sum, a billion people, and Kung Fu (Panda or otherwise).

However, when I was planning my jump from Asia to Europe flying out of Beijing became the cheapest and smartest option – and hey, why not check out the Great Wall cross another World Wonder off my list? Apparently, according to other travelers, the ‘why not’ was the Wall is insanely crowded, oppressively hot, and at the end of the day – it was just a wall.

Primed with such enthusiastic reviews, I landed in Beijing without high expectations.

***

What do Las Vegas and Beijing have in common, you ask? Everything is built on such a grand scale that the entire city functions like a mirage; distances stretch and you walk endlessly. What looks to be a couple blocks up the road ends up feeling like a fool’s errand.

I’M GOING TO MELT TO DEATH.

I’m internally screaming bloody murder, while trying to maintain a calm exterior. What I thought would be a nice day trip to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City had turned into a marathon. A marathon taking place on the surface of the sun. Sure, I’d heard the phrase ‘the sun beating down’ before, but this was the first time I truly felt abused. I had been to Nicaragua in August, walked in the Peruvian desert, and scorched the bottoms of my feet on the beaches of Vietnam – but Beijing’s heat took the cake.

However; when I looked around the streets were still filled with people. This wasn’t a city that cowered inside air conditioned spaces. Thousands of people were still out walking the vast expanses of Beijing, armed with their wide brimmed hats and ever-present selfie sticks. People watching is always one of my favourite parts of travelling, but it reached new heights in China. I loved observing everyone, their mannerisms, the different social norms and practices. All of my best pictures of China are of it’s people.

***

“No. No. Yes! Two.”

I’m standing inside a tiny 4-table mom and pop restaurant, while the owner pulls various vegetables out of the fridge. Mushrooms, lotus root, eggplants, cauliflower, bok choy, are all presented to me one by one while I decide which ones to add to my basket full of ingredients.

Thanks to the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin and he speaks no English, we’re using the tried and true language of nods, shakes, and hand gestures. He whisks away my basket of produce and meat selections to the street-side barbecue. With a couple more points and nods I order an ice cold beer, and a plate of dumplings.

While I’m waiting I can see the man and his family eyeing me with interest – it’s not the sort of place that gets many tourists. My food returns to me, and it’s a mountain of perfectly grilled, spiced to perfection, mouthwatering deliciousness. I devour the plate in the most unladylike of fashions, something I can tell is appreciated, as looks I interpret as Huh, she really likes it! spreads across their faces.

I return to the same restaurant twice more over the next day and a half, bringing other travellers from my hostel with me. By my third visit I’m greeted with a smile of recognition as an ice cold beer appears in front of me free of charge – a thanks for the spike in business. I no longer need the parade of vegetables, he knows what I want. It’s familiarity that’s a little odd considering the short time line, but feels great.

***

I don’t know why I thought the Great Wall would be flat. You know, just a nice little stroll. Maybe it’s because the famous, restored, and crazy busy section of the Wall that most tourists go to is, in fact, pretty flat. But this isn’t that part of the wall. This is the ‘secret’ tour, one that promises you will be the only people there.

And its true. We are.

After the first 10 minutes or so, there was no one else. The 5 of us were completely on our own for the next 3 hours, tackling the steep inclines of the wall as it snakes up and down along the valley, while we cook alive in the sun, willing ourselves to reach the next tower and it’s promises of cool shade.

Who the hell brought perfume on this hike?

And then I see them. Flowering trees, lining both sides of the Great Wall, giving off the sweetest scent. It stops me in my tracks and I turn around. Here I am, on the Great Wall, and it’s deserted except for us. I can see it snaking between the endless green hills, and the reality of the moment hits me. It’s the dream, the mental picture you envision when you imagine walking across the Wall – and I can’t believe it’s real.

And in that moment I know I will return to China someday – to see more, experience more of its magic, and understand more of its culture.

***

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BEIJING TIPS:

Don’t be stingy on your hostel
China is cheap, but it can also be lonely if you aren’t in the right hostel. This is one country where a couple extra dollars a night can make all the difference in your experience. This was one of few times when I actually chose to stay in the highest rated/most popular hostel in town, Leo’s and I’m glad I did. I met so many amazing people, and their secret wall tour was the highlight of my visit.

Make sure you qualify for the 72-Hour visa
If you plan to take advantage of the 72-Hour visa free window, make sure you read the restrictions and know what proof you’ll have to provide. You must be flying into Beijing from a country that ISN’T your home country, and flying out to a country that also ISN’T your home country, and have a confirmation of said flight.

Eat the damn duck – and everything else.
Yes, eating Peking duck in Beijing is touristy as hell – but it’s so delicious and worth it. Pick a place bursting with locals, and get ready to point at pictures in the menu, unless your lucky enough to have a fellow traveller who speaks Mandarin. One thing I will note after eating amazing food for three days is that the North American version of ‘Chinese food’ is a complete insult. From amazing duck, to a hole in the wall BBQ joint, to the most amazing spiced roasted eggplant I’ve had in my life (I managed to eat 3 of them in 3 days.)

Embrace the lack of internet
Not having access to Facebook, Google, Youtube, or Instagram means your phone is basically useless to you. If you’re staying for longer periods you can purchase a VPN to hide your phone from Chinese censors and still use these apps, but if you’re only there for a few days embrace the internet-free zone. It means a hostel full of engaged people who aren’t staring at screens – which makes for amazing conversations and makes a three day visit feel more like seven.