Where in the World is Katie O’Brien?

Katie O'Brien

Laying inside my sleeping bag under layers and layers of clothes inside a stone watchtower on the Great Wall of China, I thought I would never be warm again. My toes had been numb for over an hour, and the only form of heat I felt was the condensation from the breaths I took within the confines my small tent. I rubbed my hands together to create some friction. Three more hours until sunrise.

Being from the Northeast, I’ve been through my share of blizzards and patches of freezing cold weather. I’ve had windburn, lost feeling in my fingers, and felt the sting of warmth when the heat finally returns to frozen toes. However, the dead of winter in rural China was not something I was prepared for. 

The Gubeikou section of the Great Wall of China is still in its original state. It stretches for over 25 miles and has an ancient feel to it. Some of the watchtowers are in ruins and seem to be crumbling. Other parts of the supporting rocks are deteriorating, and most of the hiking routes are very rocky. It is still safe to trek through, however it’s extremely important that you watch your step.

After hiking up a mountain for about 30 minutes, our group of 22 stepped foot on the wall. Our tour guide set up tents inside one of the watchtowers that is still in tact. We were provided with two sleeping bags and a tent where we would stay for the night and in the morning, participate in a sunrise hike on the Wall.

I slept for maybe an hour. It was 1 degree outside of the tent and -8 with the wind chill. This is the coldest I’ve ever been in my life and there were times inside the tent where I had reached my mental breakingpoint and began to regret my decision. I tried to stay positive and remember that I only had a few more hours to go.

We woke up at 6:45, packed up our things, and prepared to hike.

I stepped out of the tower and looking across the horizon, I saw rows and rows of endless mountains, each one taller and more magnificent than the next. The sunrise created a criss-crossed haze of blue that started at the base of the mountain stretch and slowly faded to rust as the color approached the high peaks.

The faces of the nameless mountains along the Wall were freckled with snow and leafless trees that seemed to shiver in unison with me at every gust of wind. I felt cold from the inside out and was eager to begin the hike.

The natural beauty of the scenery is too much to take in entirely with just one glance. How could such fragile natural beauty exist in a place that is so unforgivingly cold? The juxtaposition of the horizon and the temperature left me feeling overwhelmed. We hiked for about an hour and I started to regain feeling in my feet. The views of the mountains from the wall were absolutely breathtaking.

It’s safe to say that the Great Wall is the most magnificent place I’ve ever been in my life. The raw exposure to the elements of the Chinese winter was the biggest test of endurance I’ve ever experienced.  The views from the watchtowers during sunrise were worth every last shiver inside that tent.