The Great Wall of China
“You are not a real man until you have climbed the Great Wall” (Mao Zedong)
“The Great Wall of China is the only man made object visible from space” (Urban Myth)
Both quotes often heard in relation to this magnificent piece of history and architecture, sadly both are myths. Although the one about being a man can be forgiven with poetic licence. After climbing just some sections of the wall I felt less like a man and more like an asthmatic with one lung removed.
The Beijing smog had returned in earnest over the last two days and was clogging up my tobacco filled lungs, this along with the ridiculous gradients along some portions of the wall had me wheezing and gasping for air. Some are at a sheer 45 degrees and it is not an uncommon sight to see people sliding on their rear ends as gravity gets the better of their shoe grip on the downward slopes, mine included.
Which Section of the Great Wall is Best?
There is only one wall, but there are many different places you can choose to climb and view it. Your choice will depend if you are fussy about seeing the wall in its original state versus a restored section, whether it bothers you that you will be with thousands of other sightseers or prefer relative solitude. Most importantly is your budget, as there are many exciting things to do. You can go to a trekking tour, camp overnight on the wall inside an old lookout post or even fly over the wall by helicopter. If you want to do a low cost D-I-Y trip to the wall, like our tour of Beijing, and you have a tight itinerary then your choices are fairly limited. The determining factor is how easy and cheaply it is to get to the section of wall you want to visit as only a few are serviced by public transport.
The Badaling Section of the Great Wall
After prevaricating for a while we decided on Badaling. It is by far the easiest to get to and by dint of that fact will be the busiest. It will require the least effort to get up there as it is serviced by a cable car to get you to the main wall before you begin tackle the steep gradients of the wall itself.
We had considered the Jinshanling to Simatai walk but these were only accessible by private taxi or tour groups and we decided it would be better for us to share this experience with the Chinese rather than a bunch of other tourists. Despite the horrific pictures of visitors cramming the wall and packing the ramparts, we’d just have to see if our decision was a worthy one.
In the end we enjoyed every minute of our day at Badaling. Yes it was packed to the battlements in the main sections leading from the cable car, yes there were lots of Chinese tourists around, but for us this made the day even more special. It was also the cheapest way of doing the wall, although the cable car and wall entrance fee will set you back 125 Yuan (for the return journey) the train (or in our case the bus -see below) cost us only 12 Yuan each way. Not bad to see one of the great wonders of the world – even if it can’t be seen from outer space, unless of course you have access to the zoom button on the spy satellites.
Where to catch the bus from Beijing to Badaling Great Wall? Don’t get the Train to Badaling.
We had planned to get to Badaling by Train and checked the times both on seat61 rail blog and on the CNVOL website. All stated there were early trains and we set the alarms for stupid o’ clock in order to get to the wall, hopefully just ahead of the main tourist buses.
We arrived with 20 minutes to spare and clutching our Beijing transport cards we lunged for the ticket machine only to be told the first train to Badaling was not until 10:45am. Some three hours away. We learnt later that they only run the early trains during weekends and peak season. We were really angry, to say the least.
Luckily for us there was a Chinese family there who were also hoping to get the same train. The railway staff member spoke not a word of English, but thankfully this family had heard us mutter Badaling so they gestured for us to follow them. We knew not where.
In the end we literally ran in through the Beijing subway, caught a train to the local bus station (Deshengmen) and by 9am we were aboard the 877 bus to Badaling. This family were lovely and when they were using their carefully honed crowd manoeuvring techniques through the subway and lost us, the mother would wait until we caught up and beckon us to follow. You can also get the 919 there too from Deshengmen bus station but when we caught this bus back we found it took a bit more of circuitous route and took about 20 minutes longer.
The Badaling Experience
Given the delay in our changed mode of transport, we arrived at the exact same time as the morning tour buses rolled into the enormous parking lots, so it took us about an hour from leaving the bus to actually get on top of the wall. We also had to stop for breakfast as our enforced transport change had prevented our plan to snack at the rail station. Be warned the food and drink prices here are ridiculous, we ate in a non western cafe and while the food wasn’t too bad they charged us nearly $4 US for a cup of three in one coffee. If I wasn’t such an addict I would have refused, and if we hadn’t ended up rushing we would have filled our backpacks at the convenience store at the station.
We shrugged our shoulders and joined in with the rest of the crowds eagerly awaiting their first glimpse of the wall. It was really exciting as you had gotten small glimpses of the wall from bus window on the way here and it is even more magnificent in real life. A bit of queuing was in order though, first to buy your cable car ticket and wall entrance tickets and then to get onto the cable car one hour of our lives in queues.
When we emerged on the wall I was a bit overwhelmed not by the sight of the great structure but the thousands of people shuffling up to the first main viewpoint. It was a crowd haters nightmare. The good news is though if you keep on walking up and down a bit it quickly thins out as most tour groups only get a very limited time on the wall before they are whisked off to some tombs and some local craft shops on their way back to Beijing.
As we were doing it ourselves we had all the time in the world and ended up staying on top of the wall for four hours, some walking up and down its ridiculous steep walkways and stairs and at other times just sitting on the wall taking in the sights. This always ended up with us having our photos taken with at least half a dozen Chinese. They seem to get as much pleasure getting a westerner in their holiday snaps as we do an Asian person.
What was really lovely to see here among the crowds is that a visit to the Great wall for the Chinese seems to be a very important family affair, often three or four generations of families were together clearly delighted to be visiting this place. I suppose for the many elderly we saw that thirty years ago they had never dreamt of visiting this place so far from home. Now with the reforms these things are possible. It was a very pleasing sight and made our hearts warm.
By the time we got back to Beijing city we were both knackered (and my back was killing me as the steep wall had trapped a nerve) the weather had been warm and kind, but the pollution was having its effect so we snacked locally for dinner that night in one of the Chinese cafes.
We went for the barbecue and tried our hand at some of the offal on the menu and you know what it was all bloody good. We feasted on chicken hearts, lambs kidneys, liver, chicken wings and some bits of beef - we were not sure what part of the cow but they definitely tasted beefy. They were covered in wonderful spices and barbecued just outside the cafe over charcoal. We kept going back for more until John tried some kind of cartilage and that was the offal that broke this travellers taste buds. We called it a night after that. The meal with a few beers costs us less than $5 US dollars and all services provided with the now familiar Chinese smile.
A lovely day with the Chinese and some of their very special sights. Lots of people moan about how busy Badaling is, in the end once you get away from the entrances it is not really so bad, so if you are short of time, cash or energy to make it to some of the quieter sections of the wall, don’t despair you will have a great experience here and may even get to meet some of the locals. We are told the weekends are even busier here at Badaling so if your only day in Beijing will include weekends then maybe you may want to think about other sections. I am not sure I would have liked it to be more busier than it actually was, but for us we managed to gain some solitude and it was an amazing experience.