I’d done a lot of research on the Great Wall before leaving, and had a good idea of which section I wished to visit. Hiking from Simitai to Jiankou was my first choice, but it was closed. Jianshanlong was my second choice, but only if I could find a reasonably-priced tour heading there. Mutaniyu was third – possible via public transport (ergo no expensive tour), but potentially difficult as it involved changing multiple buses in a country where I neither speak nor read the language. But hey, that’s half the fun right? I figured I’d give Mutaniyu my best shot, because the last thing I wanted was to have to settle for the over-touristed, heavily reconstructed Badaling section.
The next day, I woke up and headed for Badaling. After sleeping on it, I decided it was better to give the easy option a go given that I had a very limited timeframe. I was pretty exhausted already, so the last thing I needed was to worry about getting lost outside of the city limits. Getting lost inside a city is one thing – worst case scenario I could call a taxi to take me to the nearest subway stop, and with Beijing having an excellent MRT system I’d have no trouble getting back. But out by the wall? I wouldn’t know what to do.
I arrived at Huangtudian station, five minutes late for the first bus yet two hours early for the next. I bought a drink and settled down to try and use up some of my mobile data. My first purchase upon landing in Beijing was a SIM card with 3 GB of data – but it wasn’t until when she was handing me my change that the salesperson reminded me “No Facebook, No Google.” How could I have forgotten – the Great Firewall of China. I’d forked out NZ$40 to have limited access only to pages the government either a) did not consider threatening, or b) did not know about. The good news (no pun intended) is that the Chinese government had no qualms with the New Zealand media, so all of the major sites were available. The bad news (pun actually is intended here) is that the New Zealand media basically exists to provide updates on whatever reality TV show is playing at the moment.
The worst part of this was not being able to let my friends and family know that I was able to successfully pass through Chinese customs without issue.
“Do you have anything to declare?”
“Free Tib…. I mean, no ma’am.”
No access to Google meant no access to my Gmail account. Most other providers require a verification text for me to register – not an option on my new, highly-controlled SIM card. I was reticent to use suspicious search terms like “unverified e-mail address,” “disposable e-mail address,” or “how to get past that bloody firewall.” However, once again Untapped came to my rescue. Because Untapped is connected to my Facebook account, I can ask it to post photos on my behalf – usually of whichever craft beer I’m enjoying. My reviews were a bit longer than usual during my time behind the firewall.
“Yanjing – Probably the most drinkable beer I’ve had here. BTW, today I went to the Summer Palace!”
After a couple of hours, the train pulled in. Everyone rushed to the gates, which remained locked for half an hour. I managed to get near the front of the “queue” – in reality an anarchic stampede – which put me in good position to run for the train as soon as said gates were unlocked. After outrunning the masses, I got to the front of the train and claimed a window seat before anyone could stop me. Success!
Apparently the bus is faster, but I like trains. Being on a rail line means very little other traffic – instead of looking out the window to see the vehicles in the next lane, I can actually see the scenery. They’re a lot more comfortable than buses, and as there is less flexibility in where trains can go it’s a lot easier for illiterate foreigners to work out which goes where. The train only took fifty minutes in the end – most of it through the more rural outskirts of Beijing. As the train started following the length of the nearby hills, we turned a corner and there it was – the Great Wall of China. We were passing Juyongguan, the Water Pass. We weren’t going to stop until Badaling, but even through a train window I was awestruck. I knew the wall wasn’t as big as the name may suggest to a kid reading about China for the first time, but the iconic nature of the wall is such that the emotional impact of seeing it with my own eyes had a greater effect than I expected.
The train parked to allow the driver to play basic rules and regulations over the loudspeaker. At least that’s what I think they were saying – by the time they started playing them in English, one of the train conductors used the opportunity of a captive audience to try and make a few side dollars selling toys to the passengers. A few parents handed some yuan over, whereas I rushed for the door as soon as it was open.
Originally, I’d planned on walking from tower 1 to 12 on the north side, but by following the crowd I’d accidentally found myself in a queue (again “queue”) for the shuttle bus leading to a cableway. I knew the cableway would drop me off by the 8th tower, but I figured with a little backtracking I could make sure I’d seen everything – as well as an elevated view from a cable car!
I headed towards tower 12, hoping that as not every visitor would want to go all the way I’d have a better chance of escaping the hordes. Thankfully I was correct – most people stopped the eighth tower, and by the time I’d reached tower twelve I was completely alone. Badaling is often criticised for being too crowded, and by the cableway it definitely was. But all it took was to press on a bit further, and I got the exact Great Wall experience I’d been hoping for.
I headed down, making sure I’d taken in all the towers (and plenty of photos) before reaching the bottom. I got on a shuttle bus, which went directly to the railway station… then kept going. At first I figured that I’d gotten on the wrong bus (again, my inability to read Chinese) but given the loud arguing between the driver and a few other passengers it seemed I wasn’t the only one. The bus dropped us off at a carpark where most of the passengers got in their cars, whereas those of us relying on the train decided to walk back along the highway. I managed to get the last seat in the waiting room as I hunkered down for two hour wait. Several taxi drivers approached me, offering to take me to Beijing – but I figured the price (especially for a tourist!) would be too step, so I stayed in my seat. Eventually, one of the drivers tried one last time with an offer too good to refuse. Three Chinese passengers had asked him to take them back to Beijing, and I was welcome to pay the same price for the last seat. Fifty yuan – about ten bucks in New Zealand. An absolute bargain!
Another reason why I’d selected Badaling was the proximity to the nearby Ming Tombs – these weren’t a must-see on my itinerary, but they were there so why not? In the end I was having such fun trudging around the Great Wall that I’d lost track of the time, and the Ming Tombs were closed by the time I’d reached the train station. So to add some variety to my day, I decided to head to the 2008 Olympic Games complex instead. I’d been to other Olympic sites before – Sydney, Rome, and both Athens sites – but I was truly impressed with what Beijing had created. At the very north of the precinct was a forest park, full of well-marked walking and running paths. I’d decided to walk around the forest until it was dark enough for the Bird’s Nest Stadium to be lit up, and completely by chance found myself at a place called the Sunset Pavilion… just in time for sunset. This was a great opportunity to give my new camera a spin, but nothing could do the sunset justice.
Unlike the ghost town of the 2004 Athens site, Beijing’s Olympic park was full of life. Between the forest and the stadium was a long plaza full of people riding bikes, doing tai chi, or taking outdoor aerobics classes. I walked the entire length, taking in the sounds of people enjoying life and the impressive lights displays on the nearby buildings. This was modern China, and it really contrasted to everything else I’d seen so far. That being said, I still preferred the less-developed parts of my hutong.
Today had been a good day – not only because I’d checked off a pretty major bucket list item, but somewhere along the way I began to feel comfortable. It almost felt like the locals were opening up to me – people would actually smile at me, or say ni hao or even hello when passing me on the street. When I think about it, what likely happened was I became relaxed and people responded to that. Not many of us would want to approach a grumpy-looking foreigner, but as I adjusted to the culture shock I would have begun to carry myself differenly. This is what the locals would have responded to.