Poon Chian Hui
BARELY 10 minutes after I stepped onto the Great Wall of China, I noticed a young Asian man and his friend walking from the opposite direction, huffing and puffing.
They were, presumably, returning from their excursion on the Mutianyu section of the famed monument.
As they trudged up the granite steps, I overheard the young Asian man saying dolefully to his friend in English: "My only regret in life... is that I didn't go to the gym."
I was tickled.
It was not as if the Great Wall were a precarious mountain. It could, perhaps, be described as a giant footpath.
There are handrails, shallow steps along most inclines and the weather, in the middle of November, was comfortably cool at 8 to 10 deg C.
After a while, I wasn't so tickled anymore. Off came the winter coat - I was sweating, and my boots felt heavy.
The Mutianyu section, while less popular than the Badaling part of the Great Wall, is said to be more challenging.
Built over 1,400 years ago on an ascending mountain ridge, it has few flat paths. You either go up a slope, or down.
Signboards advise tourists not to "run and chase", though I saw a young boy accelerate uncontrollably down a slope.
The father was alarmed - "Slow down, you'll fall!" - but the kid thought it was fun.
The exertion was not in vain, however, for the scenery was serene and refreshing, with forests and clear blue skies.
Another perk, compared with Badaling, is that the Mutianyu part of the wall is less crowded.
The 2.2km section that is open to tourists also boasts more than 20 well-preserved watchtowers, which visitors can walk through or even rest in. Mutianyu is a two-hour drive from central Beijing.
The admission fee is 45 yuan (S$9.30) per adult.
My family also bought tickets for the chairlift ride (100 yuan for a round trip) to get us up onto the wall directly.
Otherwise, we would have to hike up the mountain from ground level for about 30 minutes, just to reach the wall.
Those who want to soak up the view without having to walk upslope too much, opt for the cable car which takes visitors to a higher point.
There's also this newfangled thing called the luge, a big metal slide that visitors, seated in plastic toboggans, can take to "descend" from the wall.
INSPIRATION FROM A POEM
Our aim was to reach a watchtower overlooking a hillside where the phrase "Loyalty to Chairman Mao" is painted on a grassy ridge in big, white characters.
This phrase is tied to a poem that the communist revolutionary Mao Zedong penned in the 1930s, in which he wrote: "One who fails to reach the Great Wall is no hero."
This line inspired people to visit the wall to display the "Chairman Mao spirit".
The watchtower that overlooks the phrase is at the top of a long, steep flight of steps.
Panting from our two-hour climb thus far, we stopped to admire Mao's phrase from afar.
"It's too far to go all the way there," we complained.
I could see dots of colours moving slowly up to that watchtower, as a handful of visitors embarked on the vertical marathon. We doubled back.
The toboggan slide down to ground level (80 yuan for a single trip) was gimmicky but, ironically, I found it enjoyable.
The only blip was a group of inconsiderate French tourists ahead who kept stopping to take selfies despite signs warning that it was dangerous.
"No stopping!" Officers stationed along the slide yelled at the men in English.
Over the next few days, we also toured the sprawling Temple of Heaven, the majestic Bird's Nest stadium and the picturesque Summer Palace.
The big surprise was the sighting of the Nov 14 supermoon after dinner while we we walking along the Wangfujing shopping boulevard.
Despite the capital's smoggy reputation, the skies were clear and cloudless that night.
It is something you simply can't plan for in any travel itinerary.
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