September 2013, at the age of 41, was my very first overseas holiday and of all places in the world I chose China. Yep China. I signed myself up (alone) for a women’s only trekking adventure to the Great Wall of China, mostly staying in home stays in small villages along the Wall. And given it was my first overseas holiday, it’d be fair to say I was naïve and trusted highly in the organization I travelled with. And trust I did; when they advised not to research the places we were visiting so as not to spoil the adventure, well … I didn’t. (This would also be a good place to mention that history was not my best subject).
It was our third morning of trekking and it started like all the others; we woke at our homestay in Mutianyu (approximately 70 kilometres northeast of Beijing), we ate breakfast, packed our packs, thanked the family who had kindly cared for us the evening before, secured our backpacks and congregated on the dirt road outside to continue trekking along the Great Wall.
But this particular morning was quite different for me. As I stood there waiting for everyone to get organised, one of the other group members points to the distance and shouts with excitement “Look, I can see the Wall, there’s the Wall”. We all stop and look in the direction she’s pointing and at this moment my state of mind shifted from excitement and anticipation to dread, doubt and disbelief. Not only did the Wall appear to be 10’s of 100’s of kilometres from where I was standing, but it also appeared to be touching the Heavens. Now this is where my history knowledge is lacking; little did I know the Great Wall of China was built on the very top of mountain ranges. So that morning, and many following that, before we began to walk the Great Wall, we first had to climb the mountains to get to the Wall.
So, we made our way from the village to the base of the mountains and began to climb and climb I did. I had completed a significant amount of training prior to leaving Australia and considered myself to be quite fit, however, this was a tough climb; steep winding tracks, muddy and slippery from rain the night before, thick shrubbery and it felt like we were climbing forever. I had to stop often to catch my breath and there were many times where I just didn’t think I would even reach the Wall. But I did and when I reached the top and climbed up onto the Great Wall of China I felt exhilarated, excited and empowered. Then very quickly I felt minuscule, almost irrelevant.
Why? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, at that moment the full extent of the Wall’s history hit me, I was surrounded by rugged mountain ranges on all sides that tapered out to flat plains with no signs of civilization except for the one man-made thing in sight, the Wall. A Wall that was constructed by hand, using the natural materials surrounding me, over some 2000 years ago, taking 22 centuries to construct fully and spanning over 20,000 kilometres.
But secondly, and most immediately, the dread, doubt and disbelief I felt before leaving the village overwhelmed me once again and continued to overwhelm me every time I was faced with the next climb. Remember I mentioned the Great Wall of China is built on the top of mountain ranges? This meant we were, in fact, climbing up and down mountains when walking the Great Wall. So, I had a choice, I could let myself be overcome by the fear and anxiety of the task ahead, or I could back myself and keep going. I chose that latter and used different strategies to keep the anxiety and self-doubt at bay; I used deep breathing techniques, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, I used positive self-talk, I stopped to appreciate the beauty that surrounded me and practiced gratitude for the support and friendship of the amazing women with me. And although none of this was easy, I completed that day’s trekking.
That night I realised; the Great Wall of China is a lesson in confidence.
And these are the lessons in confidence I took from trekking the Great Wall of China: