Sherpa’s Challenge: A Secret Tour of the Great Wall

Sherpa’s Challenge: A Secret Tour of the Great Wall

If I were to tell you that this elderly woman led us on a 6-mile hike up a steep mountain trail and across the Great Wall of China, would you believe me?

Our fearless Sherpa
Our fearless Sherpa

Well, time to start believing, because you’re looking at the face of our fearless leader!

Despite the jet lag, we awoke at 6:30am to prepare for our much-anticipated “Secret Wall Tour.” The specialty of Leo Hostel, the tour promised to take us to an isolated section of the Great Wall, still in its natural state, and assured us that we would be the only human beings in sight.

Quite the claim, right? Having one of the Seven Wonders of the World all to ourselves sounded too good to be true…but how could we not give it a shot?

leo hostel
The street leading to Leo Hostel

After a delicious breakfast of egg fried rice (yum!), we load into a minivan with four other hostel guests – two guys from New York who are working here as English teachers, a Canadian on holiday, and a Brit who just arrived after traveling BY TRAIN from England across Europe, to Moscow, and all the way across Siberia. (Adding that journey to my bucket list as we speak…)

So it was a fun and lively group and we set off for a 2-hour drive to the north of Beijing, dodging ridiculous traffic and streets full of buses, cars, bicycles, rickshaws, donkey-carts, peddlers, and anything else that happened to be in the way!

As we made our way out of the city, the mountains grew taller and the autumn leaves brightened. I was hoping to make it here to see the leaves turn, and I was not disappointed!! The drive was gorgeous, and – as promised – we were making our way to the absolute middle of NOWHERE.

First sighting of the Wall
First sighting of the Wall

En route, the driver pulls over to pick up this little old lady (she was MAYBE 4 feet tall) standing on the side of the road. Neither the driver nor the old woman spoke any English or offered any explanation, so we just giggled amongst ourselves and thought maybe it was the driver’s grandmother hitching a ride.

Boy, were we wrong.

Moments later our driver pulls over in a tiny valley on a one-lane road with no signs of life or civilization, where we’re promptly shooed out of the van by the little old lady. At this point, we’re beginning to wonder if we’re either: a) being kidnapped and held for ransom, or b) unknowingly signed up to be part of a bizarre Chinese science experiment.

Just when we’re certain our fate is sealed, the old lady pulls out a walking stick, points to the side of the mountain, and rattles off  a few words in Chinese. As she takes off up the trail, our driver turns the van around and disappears down the road…without us.

It’s at that moment we realize that “Grandma” is going to be our tour guide across the Great Wall of China.

And WOW, did she show us up! The trail wound around for at least a mile through dense hills and valleys before we even caught our first glimpse of the Wall. She bounded up the trail like a graceful gazelle, all the while motioning for us to keep up with her. Huffing and puffing, we did our best to comply, finally deciding that she must have been a Tibetan Sherpa in her younger years, leading treks up Everest or something!

Trying to keep up...
Trying to keep up…

Since we didn’t know her name, she didn’t speak English, and none of us spoke Chinese, we referred to her simply as “Sherpa.” And like any good Sherpa, she had plenty to teach us young ones! She’d pause along the wall and talk to us in Chinese, all smiles and laughter and absolutely the most adorable human EVER. We all fell in love with her wrinkly, joyful face and the way she’d converse with us as if we actually understood what she was saying.

It was endearing.

great wall

For the next three hours we hiked our brains out, trying (and mostly failing) to keep up with Sherpa. The fierce Siberian wind was whipping in a frenzy, nearly blowing us off the wall a few times. But the sky was as blue as could be and the trees were bright orange, yellow, and red – a perfect representation of autumn in northern China.

Climbing the Great Wall of China was everything I’d hoped and dreamed it would be…and more. True to their word, there was not another living soul in sight besides us and Sherpa. We literally had this Wonder of the World all to ourselves!

At long last, with aching backs and screaming legs, we descended via another route into this tiny village at the foot of the mountains. Lunch was served in a local family’s home, and it was far and away the best Chinese food I’ve ever tasted – steaming sticky rice, stir-fried onions, cabbage, beef and peppers, pork and celery, and stewed pumpkin. It was a symphony for the taste buds…and EXACTLY what six starving hikers needed after a grueling day with Sherpa.

Although this trek with Sherpa took place back in 2009, the memory burns brightly in my mind and is still one of my favorite travel tales to share. It was my first real experience getting off the beaten path and away from the tourist traps. Yes, the scenery was incredible. And yes, it’s some pretty good bragging rights to say that you had a section of the Great Wall of China all to yourself.

But you know what sticks out of the most in my mind?


Is she still out there somewhere, leading unsuspecting backpackers across the rugged Chinese wilderness? Or is she enjoying her well-earned retirement in that little village, gazing out at the distant hills and remembering all the climbs she made? Does she have any idea the positive and powerful impression she made on me and Jeremy, and doubtless many other travelers?

There’s no way of knowing, but I certainly hope she does.

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