August 25, 2012
The Great Wall of China is a must-see on the itinerary of anyone visiting Beijing for the first time. And so it was on ours. The Great Wall extends from the east coast of China across Beijing like a pearl chain strung around China’s shoulders. It doesn’t go across all of the present day China map which includes Tibet, but stops short a little past halfway across China (see maps). A few breaks in this massive wall have occurred over the centuries but the Great Wall is still intact in large parts, which is amazing considering that the current version was built up 700 years ago (in the 14th century by the Ming dynasty) and parts of it even date back to 200 BC (from the Qin dynasty rule; not much of that old wall remains).
From Beijing, there are three entry points to the Great Wall — at Badaling, Mutianyu and Jinshanling. Badaling is the closest at 30 minutes away and also the most crowded and touristy. Mutianyu is the second closest at an hour and half’s drive but much less crowded and more scenic. Jinshanling is the farthest away, a 2-1/2 hours drive.
We chose to go to the Mutianyu section. As can be expected from a wall built for defense purposes, it sits across the top of mountain ranges. You can only get up so close on the road. One can either hike up or take a ropeway (ski-lift) the rest of the way to the wall. We wanted to reserve our energy to hike on the wall, so we took the ropeway. We bought a round-trip ticket; the other option was to buy a one-way ticket up, and ride back down on a tobbagan! That looked thrilling but I didn’t have the stomach for it and we had to consider Saachi (our 2-year old) as well. Next to the ticket counter is a designated shopping area where we bought some wide brimmed hats before setting out. Have I mentioned yet how hot it was that August afternoon? Incidentally, the shopkeeper quoted us the price for the hats at 270 RMB each, but our friendly guide/driver Tony told us not to pay more than 20 RMB! I ended up paying 30 RMB each. It was shocking, but we got used to that scale of bargaining pretty quickly.
The ropeway ride started out very dramatically. The ski-lift doesn’t stop at all but keeps moving along its path at its slow pace. Two men on two sides just push you onto the path of the seats, shove you in, and bring the safety bar down! And off you go!! All very nerve-jangling for someone used to gentler ways, but that’s the only way to get on the ropeway!
Once at the wall, what surprised me at first sight was the width of the wall! It’s not just a wall, it’s really a paved path about 10′ wide. The path is walled in on both sides and has steep steps open to the sky for the most part. To an architect’s eye, the steep risers that are often twice as much as the treads seem to throw all building norms to the winds. The steps are not always straight, they seem to have settled in parts, and got skewed horizontally in others, probably because of centuries of slow shifts in the mountains on which they rest. There are some gentler sloping patches in between and every hundred feet or so, there is a covered station.
From the entry point at Mutianyu, we could either go left or right. To the right is a steep climb that takes you to a logical end of that wall section at a guard station high up on a hill before you hit a broken area of the wall, and you have to backtrack your way back to the entry point. The left takes you, if you are up for a longer walk, to another ropeway that you can take to come down without having to retrace your steps. We went right this time because we didn’t know all this before we went, but I think the next time, we will go left! To head right, we saw an unlikely looking narrow dirt path winding down to an entry point.
The hike up was grueling because it was so, so hot and the steps were steep! We took frequent breaks and downed a lot of Gatorade. There were vendors at strategic points. Right when we thought we couldn’t walk up anymore, there would be someone selling cold drinks and chocolates out of an icebox. It was all totally worth it. The view was good, would have been spectacular on a clear day, and you had this amazing sense of history walking on those ancient, worn-out stones. In spite of the heat exhaustion, we kept going, and finally, made it to the highest guard station! It was a good feeling. Going by the graffiti carved out on the wall by people from all over the world, I would imagine a lot of people shared our sentiment!
The hike back down looked so steep that I got a serious attack of vertigo and just froze a couple of times. But finally, I had to gather my wits and make my way down one step at a time. Especially watching George (the husband) carry Saachi down those steps inspired me. By the time we were done, we were covered in a grimy sweat that felt sandy and greasy – probably thanks to the cocktail of pollutants in the air. In spite of the heat and what I took to euphemistically calling the ‘morning mist’ all day, it was an exhilarating experience overall. Now, am waiting to do this again on a clear day!
Notes to self for next time:
- Best time to visit is Fall (Sep. end – Nov. beginning)
- Check pollution levels before heading out
- Carry lots of Gatorade
- Bring a wide-brimmed hat