Great Wall: Wild toboggan ride

September 2015 Posted in Sports
Steve Ritchie with steeplechaser Genevieve Lacaze of Australia.

Steve Ritchie with steeplechaser Genevieve Lacaze of Australia.

By Steve Ritchie

Beijing, China – It always shocks me how quickly you can jump in an automobile and leave a gigantic metropolis behind. Even sprawling Beijing with its 21 million people can be rather quickly exited.

During the nine days of the World Track & Field Championships at the Birds Nest Stadium, I made it to all of the morning and evening sessions except one, when I was dealing with General Tso’s revenge for ingesting some tap water.

But on Tuesday morning of the championships, there was no morning session so I arranged a ride out to the Great Wall. I decided to go to the Mutianyu section because I heard it was usually much less crowded than the Badaling section of the Wall. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mutianyu is where Michelle Obama and her daughters went on their 2014 visit to China.

Mutianyu was just over an hour by van from my hotel, though our little group of six people was required to stop for jade jewelry shopping and a tea tasting session. Submitting to these shopping opportunities made the day trip much more reasonable in cost, and there were no high pressure sales tactics.

It turned out that one of my van mates was Genevieve Lacaze, an Australian steeplechaser who competed in the 2012 Olympics for her country. Being able to talk track and field with an elite athlete is always fun for me, and Genevieve, who attended the University of Florida and is now sponsored by New Balance, was interesting, insightful and had a great accent. She competed at the World Championships, but just missed qualifying for the finals in her event.

We passed through some beautiful scenery and some small villages on the short trip to the Great Wall. Once there, we had lunch at a small restaurant and then walked to the bottom of a steep hillside, with the Wall a few hundred feet above. I was surprised by the small number of visitors and limited commercial activity there. There were no lines and no tourist shops, which was astonishing to me.

There were two choices for getting up to the Wall and back down: walking 4,000 steps or riding up on a ski lift. That was a no-brainer, especially since you could ride down on a single toboggan!

Being on the Great Wall was simply an incredible experience. The Mutianyu section is about 1,500 years old, having been first constructed in the 6th century. It was rebuilt in 1569, and is well preserved. I tried but failed to get to all three of the watchtowers because of the steepness – one definitely “climbs” the Great Wall. On a 90 degree day with 80 percent humidity, I was dripping with sweat after working my way up for 45 minutes to the highest watchtower.

After negotiating the downhill portion, and starting up to the next watchtower, I began to feel my knees and hips in unpleasant ways. Still, I was able to climb most of the Mutianyu Pass wall, and had some great views. When it was time to meet my group down at the bottom, I was definitely ready to take the toboggan ride.

With a 15-second lesson on controlling the velocity of the toboggan, I was off. I imagined myself in an Olympic competition and began to pick up speed on the five-minute ride to the bottom. On the course’s tight curves, men began to yell at me in Chinese in quite an animated fashion. I knew they were telling me to slow down, but I was having too much fun!

Then I rounded a curve and saw toboggan right in front of me so jammed on the brake. Hard. Behind me, another toboggan was screaming down toward me, even faster than I been travelling. Toboggan bumper cars on the Great Wall! Another peak experience!

Visiting the Great Wall was the highlight of my limited touristic activities in China, but seeing the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and taking a boat ride down the canals of Beijing were all amazing, as well. And negotiating the Beijing subway at rush hour was pretty cool, too. I definitely hope to start planning a return trip.


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