Grappling with Greatness at the Great Wall

After four days in Beijing, we were ready to get the hell out of the city and head for the hills. So on the morning of our fifth day in China, we did precisely that and set out to visit one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall.

Although our hostel offered daily tours to various parts of the Wall, we decided that we would do our best to make our own way to the section in Mutianyu, which is accessible via public transportation from Beijing, but being slightly farther than the Badaling section, reportedly experiences but a fraction of the visitors. Getting away from the crowds sounded like a good idea to us, and after consulting this post over at GQ Trippin’, we decided that if we could make our way to the Wall by bus, not only would we save a lot of money, but we would be fairly bad ass as well.

Which is how we found ourselves rising well before the sun on the day of our outing, in order to make our way to Dongzhimen bus station in a bid to catch bus 867, which departs at 7 am. Unfortunately, we failed to take into account the fact that although Beijing’s subway is quite extensive, it is ALWAYS packed (even at 6:30 am), and any time you have to transfer trains, you will generally lose at least 5 minutes to the time it takes to travel between lines… all to say that you should always assume it will take you a minimum of 30 minutes to get anywhere, even if you happen to only be traveling a handful of stops. We also didn’t precisely know where exactly to find bus 867, as it is actually not marked anywhere within the station, and all we had to go on is that it would leave from an area outside the station proper. Huffing and puffing, we managed to find a sign for the bus at 7:02 am.

The country around the great wall
The country around the great wall

We’ll never know what happened to the 7 am bus – perhaps it left right on time (or knowing China as we do now, possibly even earlier), but it soon became apparent to us that we would have to settle for catching the 8:30 am bus instead. As we prepared ourselves for the long wait, I spotted another foreigner wandering in the area, looking about uncertainly. Figuring that there is always safety in numbers, I approached her and asked if she was heading to the Great Wall. Turns out her name was Roberta, she was Italian, and she was (as is every foreign person who arrives at Dongzhimen station, it would seem) indeed hoping to visit Mutianyu, though she was even more lost than we were: she had actually asked someone working at the information counter in the bus station which bus she needed to take, and they had told her 936, which is wrong! When we told her that we actually did know how to get to the Wall, we agreed to band together and make our way as a group.

We passed the time waiting for the bus, swapping stories about all the things we had experienced in China that had absolutely befuddled us thus far, all the while fending off a dishonest tout lady, who first pretended she was going to take the bus, but then after reading the sign posted (which was only in Chinese, naturally), proclaimed that bus 867 did not actually go to Mutianyu at all, but instead to a waterfall. But as chance would have it, her husband happened to have a van that could take us to the Wall, and for only 420RMB (~ $70 USD) for our group of three. Although Roberta seemed willing to entertain her, I knew that price was far too high, and though the lady kept trying to get me to name a lower price, I knew that if we procured her services, I would worry the entire time about being scammed. When we tried asking other Chinese people waiting for the bus (or even bus drivers and station workers) whether 867 would in fact take us to Mutianyu, we were abruptly brushed off or ignored. With limited (read: non-existent) Chinese language skills, we have really had to put ourselves at the mercy of others, with the unfortunate truth being that at least in Beijing, there is not much kindness going around these days. In situations such as these, it is completely understandable that we would want to latch onto the one person who actually spoke some English, but we knew from reading about common scams in China, that anyone who approaches you speaking good English should be dealt with with caution.

Ultimately, we decided to stick to our guns and just wait it out in the hopes that the right bus would show up. The worst that would happen is that we’d have to try our luck with bus 916 (which we had avoided because it involves having to transfer to taxis prior to reaching the Wall, and we didn’t relish having to haggle over fare with them), or would head home, tails between our legs, in order to take the hostel-guided tour the following day. Thankfully, it did not come to that, as after 2 hours of waiting, the 8:30 am bus to Mutianyu showed up… at 9:10 am.

The 2.5 hour ride to the Wall was fairly uneventful – we were lucky enough to nab seats, and I spent most of it dozing. Due to the high number of clueless foreigners on the bus, when we arrived at the parking lot for the Wall, our driver very nicely showed all of us where we should wait for the return bus. Of course, unlike Dongzhimen bus station, this stop had a HUGE sign written in English, that clearly indicated when the buses would leave for Beijing. Why they couldn’t have something similarly obvious at the starting point of the trip is beyond me, but seems pretty much par for the course here in China. The important thing is that we made it, and it only took us 4 hours and cost us $3USD per person to do so.

The chairlift up the hill
The chairlift up the hill

The previous day, we had stocked up as best we could on snacks to fuel our time up on the Wall, but there were plenty of vendors flogging fruit and meals, and yes, there really is a Subway there as well. We haggled over some bottled water (paying 6RMB for 2, rather than the original 10RMB) and then considered our ticket options. For those hardy and/or masochistic individuals, hiking up to the Wall is a possibility; the lady selling tickets told us it would take 1 hour, which I was dubious about as it looked incredibly steep. Knowing how much I loathe hiking but am also generally unwilling to back down from a challenge when it is set in front of me, Tony wisely made the executive decision that we should just take the cableway up to the Wall and then take the toboggan down at the end. Since we had always been planning to take the toboggan, and that cost 60RMB (~$10 USD) on its own, opting to add in the cableway only cost us each another 20RMB (~ $3USD). These tickets had to be purchased separately from the tickets to the Great Wall itself (which cost 40 RMB and 20 RMB for Tony and myself, respectively (I was able to finagle a student discount!)), but we reasoned that since we had made it to the Wall cheaply using public transportation, we could afford this splurge. In the end, this was absolutely the right choice to make, as the ride up on the ski lift-style cableway afforded us some pretty stunning panoramic views of the Wall, and we were able to conserve our energy for while we were actually on the Wall itself.

The wall
The wall

And believe me, you’ll need plenty of energy on the Great Wall. Clinging to the undulating curves of the mountainous terrain, at points, the Great Wall has inclines so steep, you find yourself pulling yourself up it hand-by-hand, as though ascending a ladder. If you are going to see the Wall in any real way, you aren’t going to stroll or walk. No, you are going to have to climb.

Not even the steepest stairs that day
Not even the steepest stairs that day

So it is not at all hyperbolic of me to say that visiting the Great Wall took our breath away, because it quite literally did. The cableway dropped us off at Tower 6, and we decided to work our way back towards Tower 1 before tackling the rest of the wall. Apparently there are parts of the Wall that are considered far more challenging, but I found that Mutianyu was more than enough for me. There were parts that were so steep, it was actually fairly incredible they even let people climb on it at all, and some portions are really so perilous that rather than take in the view, you stare at your feet instead to ensure you avoid any false steps.

And what a shame that is, because the view really is spectacular. The mountains surrounding the Mutianyu section of the wall are gorgeous climb so high and span so far, you feel as though you are nestled deep in an impenetrable valley. It is the kind of sight that stirs the poet that resides deep inside us, and when Tony remarked that the view called to mind visions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for him, I couldn’t help but agree. Though I am no fan of the books or films (sacrilege, I know!), seeing the tawny length of the Wall snaking through the vibrant green mountains around us, regularly punctuated by watchtowers as far as the eye can see, I was reminded of nothing so much as of a slumbering dragon.

The view from the wall
The view from the wall

Although the section of Mutianyu that is open to visitors has been restored, it has been done excellently, allowing you to easily imagine how magnificent the serpentine structure would have looked in its prime. And the fact that even the unrestored segments of the Wall—some of which are impossibly old—are still standing never mind in fairly good condition is a testament to the craftsmanship and skill that went into constructing this architectural masterpiece; if portions are crumbling and quietly being reclaimed by the earth, it only serves to heighten the sense that one is in the presence of something truly ancient. Scrabbling our way up to Tower 1 with little more than a banana and a bottle of water was hard work enough, and it was all too easy to appreciate the back-breaking labor necessary for feeding and creating this beast, and I couldn’t help but feel humbled and impressed by the determination, grit, and vision the entire endeavor required. It is not hard to see why the Chinese are immensely proud of their Wall, as standing upon it, any man or woman will surely feel a surge of greatness course deep within.

Given how disappointing and lackluster we found the preservation efforts at the Forbidden City, we were absolutely thrilled to find the Great Wall did not disappoint. It truly is a remarkable sight, one that Tony says managed to live up entirely to his expectations and was exactly as he thought it would be. I personally knew I did not have the stamina or the inclination to traverse the entire Mutianyu section, but I knew that whether we walked 100 feet, or 100 times that, nothing could take away from the fact that we were actually standing on this monumental piece of human history. For me, it was enough to just be there and give myself completely over to the moment. Though it had taken us a considerable amount of time to make it here on our own, I felt our efforts were well rewarded, as not only do I find it hard to imagine any other portion of the wall having such a perfect symbiosis of Wall and surrounding countryside, but the number of vendors on the wall were minimal (and those we encountered were actually very sweet and nice), and though it we never felt as though we were the only people on the Wall, the number of fellow tourists was so low as to be insignificant.


To top it all off, we got to take a bitchin’ toboggan down from the wall! Some might consider it a blight on the Wall, but miraculously, we felt that even with this ridiculous concession, the Mutianyu section really didn’t feel kitschy or overly touristy. When you are on the Wall, nothing else matters… and when it is time to leave, the toboggan ride down is SO MUCH FUN! Sure it may be unnecessary, but I defy anyone to ride it and not have a huge grin on their face by the very end. It was the icing on what proved to be a particularly delightful and satisfying piece of cake.

Visiting the Great Wall was definitely one of those travel experiences that I know I will forever look back on with awe and amazement. For budget or DIY travelers, the Mutianyu section is an excellent selection, as it’s enough on the tourist track that you can get to and from it inexpensively via public transport, but is not so convenient that it is swarming with people like ants on a stick of candy. Although we struggled with Beijing and really didn’t like much about the city, if for nothing else, our trip to the Wall justified and salvaged the time we spent there. Hell, even if you were to travel all the way to China and this was all you saw, I’d say it would be a trip worth taking. It is an exhilarating and inspiring place, one that tethers us to the world and its fascinating history in the most visceral of ways. As it would seem, the rumors are true: the Great Wall really is great.

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12 comments Leave a comment

  1. I think that chairlift would have freaked me out!! I’ll have to make sure I’m in really good climbing shape before I ever venture out to the Wall!! 😀

    Glad you didn’t go for that lady’s scam. Ugh. Did your new friend stay with you the whole time?

    Jan. 4 2013 @ 10:30 am
    1. Amanda author

      There was another chairlift elsewhere that wasn’t the “skilift” style, but more of a cable car type contraption. Perhaps that would be less terrifying for you?

      But it’s probably a good idea to be in tip top form when tackling the Wall, because it really can get brutal in stretches. Our friend Roberta stayed with us for a portion of the Wall, but she wanted to whizz through it faster than we did, so we parted ways. It was one of those traveling friendships that you know will not outlast the day, which was perfectly fine! We really enjoyed hanging out with her while waiting for the bus, and then at the start of the Wall, but it was nice to also just get to see it by ourselves as well.

      Jan. 4 2013 @ 9:24 pm
  2. Oh I’m so glad you went to Mutianyu.. that tobaggan was really bitchin’.. LOL. Btw, our bus was late too! I don’t think we missed it, just running on China time I guess. Looks like you caught a wedding too!

    Jan. 4 2013 @ 12:09 pm
    1. Kieu ~ GQ trippin author

      Yes, the toboggan was AWESOME! I’m so glad we read your post – once we did, I knew exactly where we needed to go! 🙂

      Who knows, maybe we didn’t miss the 7am bus either! China time is so confusing sometimes (since we really did see buses & trains leave early about as often as they left late!)…

      Jan. 4 2013 @ 9:25 pm
  3. I’m sorry, but that tobbogan looks AWESOME! Kitchiness be damned!

    Jan. 4 2013 @ 12:49 pm
    1. Carmel author

      It was amazing & we have no regrets about taking it down whatsoever. So. Much. Fun. And it seriously doesn’t detract from the rest of your Wall experience, since, as you can see in our photos, you really can’t see it once you move away from it.

      Jan. 4 2013 @ 9:26 pm
  4. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to see in China was the Great Wall, but after seeing those stairs??? No thank you! I’ve got this little issue with heights and those would freak me out. But it does look gorgeous. Thanks for taking pics so I don’t have to go. 😀

    Jan. 4 2013 @ 8:59 pm
    1. softdrink author

      Tony hates heights as well, but he was ok on the Wall, so you never know, you might be ok! But I admit that the stairs were pretty freaky at times and were my least favorite part. Still, the Wall is gorgeous, so even if you just hiked up to it and then sat there and stared for a few hours, I doubt you’d consider it an opportunity squandered. However, you’d have to brave the rest of China to get there, which I suspect is not your cup of soda, so at least for now, I’m glad you feel satisfied with the pictures! 🙂

      Jan. 4 2013 @ 9:28 pm
  5. What an amazing experience! Michael has been to the Great Wall and when I asked him about it he said, “It’s amazing, but those stairs are not stairs.” He agreed that it’s a really treacherous climb/experience, but well worth it. I hope I get to go one day!

    Jan. 6 2013 @ 1:22 pm
    1. Lu author

      Yeah, I was not prepared for those stairs! Kudos to those who walk the entire wall (or huge sections of it), but I knew that wasn’t for me. Didn’t matter though, because just being there really was fantastic!

      Happy 2013! I am really enjoying seeing what you have been tackling each day in January!

      Jan. 6 2013 @ 7:26 pm
  6. Great pictures and account of the Great Wall. I soooo want to go there someday (hopefully soon)! Your comment about the bus made me smile because I encountered the same thing in Bangkok. I was right on time for a shuttle bus only to see it just leaving and despite running after it, it wouldn’t stop. I must admit I wasn’t used to things like that being on time! 🙂

    Jan. 7 2013 @ 7:06 pm
    1. Gina author

      I was actually shocked to find that in China, transportation generally did leave on time or sometimes even early (especially trains)! I really thought things would perpetually be late there, so I guess that bus to the Great Wall being so late was oddly comforting as it reinforced my expectations… 😉

      Jan. 8 2013 @ 8:01 pm

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