The following commentary was originally published in The Daily Iowan.
By Jordyn Reiland
BEIJING — There wasn’t just one word to describe it.
I was paralyzed with fear after each step I took up the uneven stone path. The challenge of actually making it up didn’t look nearly as daunting from the entrance as it did several steps up the perpetual mountain.
I was over the moon. After all, it was the Great Wall of China, something so many people told me I had to see before I left the country. Who goes to China and doesn’t visit the Wall, they’d say. It was never a matter of if, but when and I decided, Why not go shortly before I left the country. I would go out with a bang, a grand finale.
But what if I couldn’t make it to the top? Would I stop and give up? It’s not like the walk back down the jagged path was any more comforting.
Could I quit?
No, I couldn’t quit.
It was a milestone; making it to the top would be a culmination of everything I’ve accomplished here.
It was literally breathtaking. The air was clear but thin, and each breath was harder and harder to come by as the elevation increased. I tried to look as far as I could and search for the farthest point of the wall my eyes could possibly see, keeping in mind it stretched for more than 13,000 miles.
OK, OK, OK, I repeated out loud several times to persuade myself that I wouldn’t fall off the wall or have a heart attack, or both. I clutched my water bottle tighter and tighter, and my legs grew weaker and weaker. This was probably the most I had climbed in a long time, and my body wasn’t well prepared — both mentally and physically.
But I continued on the path alongside the crowd as many had done before me and many more would do after me. I took a second to assess what my climbing peers were doing. Some were small children on a field trip, jumping and screaming, some were families stopping every few steps for a photo, and some were much older couples shuffling up the path. This took me back to when my great grandma told me she, my great grandpa, and her mom climbed the Wall, and it immediately put a smile on my face and gave me the gumption I needed to finish what I started.
If they could do it, I could. And I did. I made it, after a few stops to catch my breath and a dozen photos taken on my iPhone to ensure I documented my journey.
I stood at the top examining everything that surrounded me and reflected on everything I accomplished up to that point. All the things I saw, the food I ate, the awkward encounters with unfamiliar people, and the countless times I was stuck in the rain without my umbrella.
I came to China eight weeks ago with absolutely no idea what to expect. I edited stories that were published in an international paper and even had a byline. I made friends I hope to keep for a long time, and I even learned the tiniest bit of Chinese even if I’d probably forget it the second I got home.
Soon, I would step down from the mountain and take the carts to the bottom and head back on the train to Beijing to finish what was left of my time in China. Soon after that I would board my plane home and this trip would be a collection of memories and photos I’d print out and hang in my cubicle at The Daily Iowan. I would say goodbye to China Daily, goodbye to Beijing, and goodbye to China, a place I explored for nearly two months.
I hesitated for a moment before I began my journey away from the wall and took a few more seconds to make a promise with myself.
I could never forget the time I was literally on top of the world.
And I wouldn’t.
Jordyn Reiland spent the summer interning for the China Daily in Beijing. She is a student of the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication and works for The Daily Iowan. Read all of Jordyn's entries from her column documenting her journey in China.