Hitting the Great Wall
Hey ferocias! I have to admit, out of all the things I saw in China, the Great Wall was the one that I was most excited to write about upon my return to America. In my mind, the Great Wall is right up there with the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, and the Parthenon in Athens. The fact that these places were built at a time when such a marvel was seemingly impossible, and somehow remain standing, for better or worse, to this day, is simply amazing. Needless to say, I would recommend to ANYONE that they put the Great Wall on their must-do list when visiting China.
First, the nitty-gritty reality: visiting the Great Wall successfully is not exactly an easy task for the beginner traveler. While a lot of the Great Wall runs fairly close to Beijing, getting there can be tough, climbing up and down the mountains isn’t easy, and many mistakes can (and have) been made by foreign travelers who didn’t do their homework. However, with the proper knowledge and planning, you can make a trip to the wall run smoothly.
First and foremost, pick which section of the wall you’d like to visit. While the wall is some 5000 miles long, there are really three main areas that are fully restored, safe, and accessible enough for travelers to choose from: Badaling, Mutianyu, and Simatai. As I previously told you, my two friends and I were lucky enough to be staying with two China residents, and they explained the pros and cons of all three different locations with honest thoroughness that proved to be invaluable information. After a quick travel huddle with my friends, our choice was clear: CHOOSE MUTIANYU! I recommend that everyone does the same! You may be tempted to visit the wall at Badaling, as that site is well restored, has a gradual and easy climb, and is located quite close to Beijing. However, the scenery at the Badaling site isn’t as good as Mutianyu, and it’s also the most popular section to visit, so the area is much more overrun with huge amounts of tour groups and merchandise hawkers than the others. Simatai, for the experienced traveler, is a good option, but it’s quite far from Beijing (factoring the traffic getting in/out of Beijing, it can take 4+ hours each way) so going there will basically take up your whole day, plus it has a reputation of being very steep, physically demanding, and tiring. So, that leaves Mutianyu: far enough from Beijing to have considerably less crowds than Badaling, beautifully restored, and situated on an absolutely breathtaking swath of dramatic green mountains. I was VERY thankful to have this insider info from our China-friends!
Also, it must be said that getting to the Great Wall can be challenging for some travelers. The average traveler gets to the Great Wall from Beijing, as that’s the closest city. Unfortunately, there are really only a couple bus lines that run from Beijing to the wall, and like most buses in Beijing, chances are that unless you got on the bus first, you will be standing the entire ride as the seats fill up FAST. If you’re a NYC subway commuter, you’d probably be used to this standing-room-only crowded traveling condition, but I’d wager a bet that most Americans wouldn’t find it pleasant to ride this way for over an hour. Also, many travelers fall into some traps: at these bus stops, it’s said that you’ll encounter unofficial taxi drivers who aggressively promise a ride to the wall, and then charge foreigners outrageous prices and deliberately take a long route there, or “transit workers” in fake uniforms who aren’t actually legit and lie about the buses being ‘full’ or ‘not running’ in order to get you to resort to a scam-cab… these are just two of the scams that reportedly happen everyday. I can’t stress enough that you must do your homework before traveling to tourist sites in China so as not to be taken advantage of! Basically, just head straight onto the bus, ignoring any offers of “rides” to the Wall, and you’ll be fine. It’s really only the tourists who did no preparation/reading at all that fall into these traps.
Once again, I consider myself QUITE lucky, as our friend who is a Chinese citizen got a rental car from a legitimate Chinese company in Beijing,
and we simply drove ourselves to the wall. Couldn’t have been easier! The ride to Mutianyu was a little long (between 2 and 3 hours), but totally worth it. When we we finally got to the wall, I must say, I was shocked at how steep the surrounding mountainous landscape was. While it might be common knowledge for some that the wall sits high atop mountains, I honestly had no idea! The base of these mountains that the wall sits upon are lined with tents and stalls of vendors hawking their wares: don’t be offended when they yell in your face to try to get your attention, it’s just the Chinese way of making a sale.
We breezed past this loud gauntlet of fruit, water, and t-shirt yell-ers, and came to a fork in the road: to the left was a cable car that brings travelers up the mountain directly to the Great Wall itself. To the right, an ominous looking forest footpath leading up the face of the mountain for brave pedestrians who enjoy a good climb. Being that we are young strapping travelers, and that we lucked out with BEAUTIFUL weather that day, we opted
to hike up the mountain to the wall rather than take the cable car. If you are up to the physical challenge, it’s TOTALLY worth it. It honestly doesn’t take as long as you’d think, and you meet some interesting travelers along the way. Also, standing atop the wall is great, but standing atop the wall while experiencing that adrenaline-high that comes after climbing thousands of feet? PRICELESS.
When I first stood atop the wall after our climb, and looked at the STUNNING view of the mountains of northern China, I was in heaven. Here I was, at one of the most amazing human achievements on Earth, viewing one of the most dramatic landscapes on the Earth’s surface, virtually as far away from my home as I could possibly be. This is what travel is all about folks!! After catching our breath, we continued along the wall for awhile, viewing the inside of the watchtowers, climbing up and down the ancient stone steps, and trying our best not to imagine tumbling off the side, despite the less-than-safe original guard stones that still line the path. Like I said before, the Mutianyu site is much less crowded than Badaling, and even though it was a Saturday, we didn’t really ever feel like it was ‘crowded’ on the wall
. Actually, I didn’t really see ANY tour groups, which is EXTREMELY weird for a tourist destination in China. And that is a blessing, as tour groups in China are loud (the guide carries a megaphone), slow,
lumbering masses of people that are hard to navigate around. Instead, we saw small groups of travelers like ourselves, as much in awe as we were. We didn’t feel crowded or rushed, and spent a good couple hours on the wall just taking in the sights. Amazing!
For the trip down the wall, we opted for the cable car, and let me tell you, that ride was surprisingly much scarier than climbing up the mountain had been. The cable car, for lack of better word, LAUNCHES you off the side of the mountain, at a seemingly breakneck speed that can’t be legal for a cable car in most countries. One of my friends started running her flip cam right before the ride started in hopes to capture a relaxing memory of the mountain scenery: instead what she got was 30 seconds of girlish screams of sheer terror. As we flew down, my mind turned to horrible visions of the car careening to its doom, the cable snapping and whipping us into oblivion, and other grisly deaths. We began wondering if the t-shirt vendors at the base of the mountain sold any “I fell down the Great Wall” shirts in addition to their standard un-inventive “I climbed up the Great Wall” option. After all, this was China, the country where safety standards are, well, a bit “relaxed” compared to what Americans are used to (for what it’s worth, if you are near a construction site, of which there are many in Chinese cities, keep a safe distance unless you are wearing a bike helmet… an item which, of course, I didn’t see once in China. And while I’m on this tangent, don’t be alarmed if you see a un-helmeted toddler dangling precariously on the frame of his mother’s bike as she zips through city traffic… happens everyday!). Thankfully, the ride slowed down, and we made it down the mountain in one piece, slightly frazzled, but not bruised or battered!
Overall, the experience of the Great Wall was amazing. To be in a spot that you’ve seen pictures of your whole life, but never actually thought you’d see in person, is too cool to put in words. The government has done a great job of restoring their national treasure which they clearly take a lot of pride in. And the relatively peaceful and stunningly scenic Mutianyu location is a nice change of pace if you’re staying in a large Chinese city. It’s a MUST for any China traveler!