We were already excited about seeing The Great Wall of China before we got to Beijing, but the fact that it was voted the current number one world wonder just a few days before we visited it only added to the excitement. Its fair to say The Wall played a huge part in our agreeing to a 25 hour train journey for just a 4 night stay in Beijing, so with that in mind, there was no pressure on The Wall to deliver as one of the most impressive sights of the entire trip!! No pressure at all...
We decided to book our visit to The Great Wall through the tour company operating at our hostel, the price seeming fair and the section they were offering to take us to being highly recommended by our guidebook.
The section of wall at Badaling
is the closest to Beijing at just over two hours drive time, but sadly this means that it is also the most visited spot and the crowds there are said to be ridiculous at times, with the many bad reviews in various guidebooks and websites talking us out of going there. There are a few other options for seeing sections of The Wall within 3 hours drive of Beijing, and for driving the extra hour we were told we would be suitably rewarded with a much quieter and more personal experience. And so after coming so far to see the Wall in the first place, we decided that the extra drive to enjoy a more peaceful viewing space worth be well worth the effort. Of the spots available to us, one was regarded as being only for the most serious of hikers, as this section has many un-restored parts of wall where you have to scamper up some pretty steep inclines to get to the next tower, and so we passed on this and went for the more gentler sounding Mutianyu, which is a two kilometer section said to wind its way through lush green undulating hills.
Apart from the cable car there causing me some pre-journey jitters, we were happy with this choice, and met our tour guide at ten the next morning ready for our adventure.
We headed out of Beijing busy city centre towards the suburbs, passing through the Olympic village where work is well under way for the upcoming summer Olympics of 2008. The very iconic 'Bird's Nest' stadium was clearly visible from a large distance, its unique shape and design standing out in the mostly barren residential area around it. The swimming pool for the games has a unique 'bubble' like exterior, its blue facade making sure it will be one of the signature building of the games. Other buildings rising from the village were the telecommunications building where thousands of reporters will broadcast on a daily basis, and a little further out the new tennis stadium which looked very impressive in its size from the outside.
Apparently table tennis is scheduled to be played in Tian'anmen square, which is a bit of a laugh considering its checkered history! Soon we were pulling off the comfortable motorway up more treacherous roads as we wound our way through the lush green countryside towards the Wall. Our guide told us that we could choose from a different section of wall to the one we had originally picked if we wanted, and we couldn't understand why he was giving us this choice at the last minute, but we decided to stick with our original choice after reading that his alternative was a non-restored section of wall where a lot was left to the imagination. We were glad we did stick with our original choice when it finally clicked why he was offering us the change, as our book said that the alternative option had free entry, whereas the section we had paid to go to was around 6 Pounds per person to see, so for the 4 of us going on to his alternative section of wall he would have pocketed himself a tidy 24 Pounds! You've got to watch them all the time, the chancers!!
Within minutes of arriving we were delighted with our choice, as the description in our guide book of rolling green hills was well deserved and perfectly accurate.
We started the ascent up some steep stairs and then had the option of walking to the top, a grueling 50 minute walk up some pretty unforgiving steps, or a cable car that would have you up in eight minutes. Luckily I was feeling brave enough to give it a go and we jumped into a ski slope-like cable car that pulled us up the precipice. The height was extremely daunting as we climbed a near vertical face to get to the Wall, with me deciding to tuck myself deep into John's shoulders rather than take in the amazing views. We safely reached the top and started exploring, utterly blown away by the stupendous views around us. There's not much I can add to the scene that isn't told in the pictures we took, other than to say that it was as least as impressive as it must look, a really brilliant experience to just walks its length and gaze at the mountain views.
The wall itself is impressive in its height and width, about twenty feet across and sometimes up to 40 or 50 feet high in some of the more unforgiving terrain, and around its watchtowers. The watch towers and the guard houses that dot its length were also very impressive, each being quite large and undoubtedly taking great skill and determination to build. But its most definatly the sheer scale of the wall that is its greatness, and watching it snake over the mountains shapes and folds until it disappears miles into the distance was a really awe inspiring sight. Even more awe-inspiring is the thought that it continues on its unstopped march across China for 4000 miles, an awesome distance that is very hard to comprehend. The section we were walking was built around 700 years ago in the 13th century, although many other sections are considerably older.
We walked along its expansive length for around an hour or so before we decided we best head for our bus home, which we had a couple of options of getting too. One was to walk down, but this didn't really appeal to us or the Swedish bloke from our bus group who had joined us for the trip down. We instead headed towards a cable car station in the distance, where we could catch a car down or use a toboggan slide that the government have installed. It was always unlikely that I would get me in another cable car, but when we noticed that these cars had no exterior walls, and instead left you exposed to the elements with your legs dangling hundreds of feet up in the air... there was no chance. We instead jumped on the toboggan which the government cleverly put it to utilize the incredible steep drop down the mountainside, and we teared down the hillside at massive speeds until a nervous Japanese girl up ahead forced us to come to a virtual stop and cruise down behind her like Sunday drivers.
What a spoil sport!
Exhilarated at the great experience, we set off towards home and a hard earned rest. We stopped on the way back for some more tea from a traditional tea room, no scams this time, just an honest sampling session and traditional demonstration that was informative and tasty. We also stopped at a silk factory that made extremely high quality silk products, and although we would have liked to take home some of the top quality quilts and blankets that they produced there, the price was well out of our range. We got back to our hostel by 7 and rested our weary legs after the miles of walking that day, and the verdict is definitely this:
Whether the Great Wall of China is the worlds 'official' number one world wonder or not, it is an absolutely brilliant place to visit and experience, and it was one of the very top things we have done on this trip, if not the best.
We both agree that even on it's own it justified the expensive train ticket we forked out for to get here, and the 25 hour journey we endured to walk its famous length. Nuff said!!