Off the Beaten Track – On the Great Wall

Imagining myself climbing the Great Wall was my ultimate symbol of being in China. Being too exhausted from traveling to go there in 2005, I finally turned it into reality. 

Highlights:
  • Finding my own way to the Great Wall by public transport
  • Finding myself a scam victim for the first time since several years of traveling
  • Finding forbidden-signs and ignoring them
  • Finding lost places en masse: Parts of the wall, watchtowers, etc.

After I moved for the first time since weeks into a hostel room, I met a little group of travelers who would leave for the Great Wall next morning. So punctual as a German, I came to the meeting point at 7am the next morning – only to find that the Dutch guy was already waiting for me. All of the group were dedicated to go by public transport (as I hate organized tours, they kick in as the last option only – like in Mongolia).

Following our guidebook, it proved to be fairly easy going by bus and taxi, despite what hostels and tour operators make you believe. We had decided to go to Mùtiányù and from there to the wall. Mùtiányù’s part of the wall has been nicely restored and therefore is a little touristy. However, it is far beyond Bādálîng when it comes to tourists stepping on your feet. The great con is it’s good accessibility.

Instead of 280 Yuan (34 Euro) for an average tour operator we went to the Great Wall – Mùtiányù section – for as little as 97 Yuan (12 Euro) – including the entrance fee. From bus terminal Dongzhimen it is possible to take the direct bus #867 (only until October) or #916 to Huáiróu and from there a private car or cab to the Wall (15 Yuan p.p.). The way back is just the other way around.

What I read about our trip beforehand: Scammer sometimes try to lure tourists off the bus before the stop in Huáiróu in order to then take you to the wall for an “slightly increased” fare. Being aware of that warning and having a Chinese with us we did exactly that: Leaving the bus early. “How stupid” the gentle reader may think now… But it was one of the most profound scams I had experienced on all my travels: Being told to leave the bus one station earlier because the main terminal was supposedly closed by a guy in the official uniform of a conductor! Nobody of us thought that this could be scam – not even our Chinese fellow traveler Ree. After leaving the bus and seeing nobody was following us besides him, I was about to jump back on, suddenly remembering the warning – as the door went shut (I still think the driver has to work cooperate with those guys). Luckily, I was so enraged about that *peeep* (bad person) that I went off with the group right away, not listening at all to the scammer. When he – walking besides us all time, bargaining about the price – finally reached 20 Yuan and my anger had ceased a bit, we agreed on him taking us to the wall. No tip or smile was rewarded besides those 20 Yuan though…

Once there we skipped the many hawkers lingering alongside the road as it winds up as well as the cable car entrance and chose the walking path instead. After maybe 2 minutes walking through a very nice piece of wood we finally came back into the sun and beheld the Great Wall for the first time. I was amazed how high and wide it was. I often looked at pictures and always imagined it to be not as high nor as wide (I guess because I could not imagine such a long construction being built a centimeter higher or wider than absolutely necessary).

The bold group: Ree, Rogier, Gerrit und Gunnar

The bold group: Ree, Rogier, Gerrit und Gunnar

We walked a while on the wall, always trying to get away from the crowds as much as possible. That proved difficult on one of the ancient wonders of the world however… We saw on our excursion one part of the wall spin away from the main part however. It was closed, at least that was what the signs said – and there was no official way onto that part. A Ming watchtower was the only connection to the restricted part.

Being lured by this abandoned part, we finally decided to use exactly this tower as point of entrance: Jumping out of one the windows we went quickly away from the restored part and were soon out of sight. It surely was a great decision: Climbing over partly collapsed parts of the wall we discovered it how it likely is on most of it’s length: Highly overgrown by dry bushes with a thick layer of soil laying on it’s rampart.

We enjoyed our hike greatly, admiring the views and the skill of old Chinese workers having built this huge fortification. We came across a vastly destroyed watchtower where we stayed half an hour. Seeing another watchtower high up on a neighboring mountain peak I wanted to go there. The wall leading to it took such an extreme climb along the mountain that I wanted to experience how anybody could have fought on that steep surface. We finally made it up there and found the tower being in great shape besides some rubble inside. Climbing on it’s rooftop we had the best view over the surrounding valleys you could imagine. They sure knew where they put the wall and it’s towers.

Leaving no rubbish behind, we made it down safe and sound, found our bus back home right away (after bargaining drivers down to the recommended price to take us to the bus station) and sat tired but very happy in our hostel’s common area before dawn. Only a day, but what a wonder to finally behold!

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