Beijing – The Great Wall of China

Everyone has a bucket list.  If they don’t, they should.  Today fulfilled one of those items for me.  As a matter of fact, I hired a guide months ago for Beijing.  It was the very first thing I did after we booked the cruise.  There was just no way we were coming all the way to Beijing and not seeing the Great Wall of China.

A word or two about our tour guide:  of the five that I contacted, Mr. Ping was the only tour guide that would pick us up at the port in Tianjin.  All of the others wanted us to take a train into Beijing and meet them there by 9am.  With the schedule we had, this just wasn’t possible.  Mr. Ping was incredibly flexible and we were really glad to find him. In fact, he even changed dates for us at the last minute when we realized the ship itinerary had changed.

The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, which is about 3 hours from Beijing by car

We were up at 5am and down in the area waiting to get our ticket to disembark by 5:30am.  We knew we had to get off the ship asap since it was going to take well over 3 hours to Jiankou, the “Wild Wall”, which is an unrestored area of the Great Wall.  We then planned to hike through several miles of the unrestored section to a restored area of the wall in Mutianyu.  In total, this would be about a 6 mile hike.  Everyone was incredibly excited to get going!

Freddy taking a break on one of the steeper sections of The Great Wall

I’m not going to waste time complaining about the hours it took for us to get off the ship.  Let’s just say that it was frustrating and we didn’t get to go ashore until after 9am.  I kept Mr. Ping up to date all morning and he was there waiting for us.  We quickly got into the van and started on our way.  Unfortunately we had to change our plans due to the time constraints.  We would head straight to Mutianyu and walk to the unrestored wall (this cut about 40 minutes driving each way) and just see a portion of the unrestored wall before returning the same way we’d come.

A quick family snapshot at the beginning of our Great Wall hike

The drive was long, but interesting.  I didn’t take any photos because we didn’t really see many buildings or other structures of note.  We were surprised by the well-kept roads.  There were cameras for detecting speeding about every 750 meters, so people keep to the speed limits.  Many of the car makes were familiar, but most of the models were not.  We had to pull through what looked like a toll area at least once or twice to show ID.  Mr. Ping jokingly said it was to make sure we weren’t criminals. 

People didn’t speed, but the traffic rules are different here.  It’s hard to explain unless you experience it, but driving on the wrong side of the road toward oncoming traffic is just part of a normal day. In fact, we’ve seen this type of driving in just about every asian country in which we’ve traveled.  In a pinch, two lanes become three (even if the paint markings on the road don’t show them as such) because people seem to make room for others to pass or change lanes.  This “making way” happens mainly because people are going to pass whether you want them to or not…even when there are other cars coming in the opposite direction, so those who are facing each other head on simply make room for one another to pass in the same lane.  Fred made a joke about the driving in the Philippines being similar:  how the steering wheel, the gas pedal, and the horn are all one needs to drive “properly” there.  The horn is used to let people know you’re there and it’s used often.  This type of driving seems prevalent in Asia.  Strangely enough, it doesn’t make me anxious at all.  It’s just a different set of unfamiliar rules & it seems to work for everyone here, so why worry? Right?

Local women making fresh dumplings at the restaurant near Mutianyu

Anyway, since it was getting close to 1pm by the time we got close to Jiankou, Mr. Ping took us to a local restaurant to get lunch.  The place was packed with locals (good sign).  We were shown some cold lunch options, but once we spotted the workers making fresh dumplings on a large table next to the kitchen, the choice was easy to make.  We picked out several different types of dumplings and sat at a large table, which had a portable heating element on it.  We were given a large pot of water and Mr. Ping started heating it up immediately.  Once it started boiling, in went the dumplings.

Mr Ping adds the fresh dumplings to the boiling water

We weren’t sure we’d be able to finish all of them, but we were wrong!  Every single one was gone before we got up from the table.  The kids and I all agreed that they were the best dumplings we’d ever had.  Fred, being as picky as he is about food, didn’t try them.  More for us!

After lunch, we headed straight for the Great Wall, which was still about 20 minutes away.  I enjoyed seeing the local towns.  We noticed that a few of the shop signs had English, but Mr. Ping said that this was only common in areas that catered to tourists.  Other areas away from the Great Wall would not have signage that we could read.

A sign at the entrance to The Great Wall

Once we got to the parking lot, we walked across a local roadway to the visitor’s center.  There was a huge map on the wall that showed how to get to the Great Wall, which would require taking a shuttle bus and then looking for the entrance to the tram.  We decided that we’d take the tram up the mountain to save time.  Otherwise we’d need an extra hour to climb up and we were already feeling like the schedule was tight enough.

The shops and restaurants on the walk to the shuttle bus are really nice.  It’s a beautiful area.  Aside from the language and a few decorative decisions, the pedestrian street reminded me of places I’ve been in the USA. Some of the trees were a vibrant yellow when we were there. That was the place where we decided to leave Mr. Ping.  We’d meet him back there later.  We headed to the shuttle and up to the tram on our own.

Mr. Ping planned to wait for us in the shopping area

While we were standing in line for the tram, Kyle told us that he was feeling anxious about the tram and being high on the wall.  Sometimes his fear of heights is an issue; today happened to be one of those days.  I just said a silent prayer and hoped for the best.

Instead of walking uphill for 45 minutes, we decided to take the tram
A view from the tram at Mutianyu heading up to the Great Wall

As we got closer to the Great Wall, all four of us were truly impressed.  It’s an incredible sight to behold – even on days like today when the visibility isn’t the best.

a view of The Great Wall from the tram

There were a lot of people on the Mutianyu Great Wall.  I can’t imagine what the really touristy areas are like during the busy times of year.  We left the tram and headed for the first tower, taking in the views on all sides.  We had to wait our turn to get through the smaller walkway that leads through the tower.

Freddy stops to pose for the camera at the first tower
A view of a portion of the wall from the first tower on The Great Wall in Mutianyu, with Fred in the foreground on the left.

It was a really great day in terms of the weather.  It was that in-between, perfect temperature that allows you to wear a jacket if you want to, but you don’t really need one.  It’s just right for hiking, especially uphill, and if you take a look at our path ahead, you’ll see that we had quite a bit of uphill to do!

Heading in the direction of Jiankou from Mutianyu on the Great Wall
The Great Wall at Mutianyu, with the large uphill section in the distance

There was more smog than I’ve ever seen the day we were in Beijing.  It made for really poor visibility.  I didn’t take a photo, but on the way home in the late afternoon, the sun was still fairly high in the sky.  It appeared to be a strange color that reminded me more of the moon than the sun.  In the photo below, I snapped the view of what should be the valley below.  Good luck seeing it.  I know I couldn’t.

The smog was really terrible while we were in Beijing

We spent a lot of time wondering what it would have been like living as a soldier and guarding the wall during the time that they used it to protect themselves from barbarians.  It must have been a really hard life.  Now, the worst part about being there is just being patient to wait your turn to walk through a tower…and hoping that you brought enough water so that you don’t get too thirsty.  People were all so polite to one another.  There were a lot of smiles and kindness passed around throughout the day.  It feels more like an area that brings people together, foreigners and locals alike, rather than one that is for protection from outsiders.  It’s strange how something so massive and with such a particular function (such as this large barrier of protection used by armed forces in the past) can be transformed into something so different by the passage of time.  I just love that, don’t you?

Kyle waiting for his turn to walk through one of the towers

As we reached the end of the area of the Great Wall in Mutianyu, we reached the steepest incline of the day.  This is where Kyle started to get anxious about the increasing heights.  We were quite high up at this point.

Starting up the steep area of the Great Wall

It did help to see the princess.  Every wall with towers should have a princess and we were lucky to see this one 🙂

There is always a princess in the towers

Here’s another view of the incline that we were climbing.  You can see just how steep it really is, along with another view of the heavy smog.  Just about everyone was stopping approximately every 50 steps or so to take a break.  It was an intense climb, but very doable.

Another shot of the crowd heading up one of the steeper inclines.

Kyle, Kayla, and I had our own reasons for stopping every 50 steps.  To help Kyle to conquer his fears, he decided that he could hold onto the wall with one arm and go up 50 steps each time with me, beside him, holding the other arm.  Kayla was close by as well.  It was still tough for him, but he was determined to do it despite his fear and we were going to help him get through it one way or another.

Kyle being brave and conquering his fear of heights – with one of his sure-footed helpers alongside 🙂
The climb to the last tower before the start of the Jiankou wall.  You can see Kyle taking a mental break before attempting this part.  Fred was already on his way up!

The very last part of our trail was a really steep incline up to the top of the last tower.  Kyle was terrified, but was not about to let this last part defeat him. No one pushed him;  he had his own reasons and was truly determined.  He wanted to finish it.  He took a few minutes to gather himself and then slowly made his way to the top, where we sat down in the middle of the tower and all of the people there, hugging one another & waiting for his fear to subside.  I was so proud of him for making it.  It was a moment I doubt any of us will ever forget.

another shot of the smog in the valley below

After we reached the top of the tower, we could see the start of the “wild wall” at Jiankou, but for some reason it was closed off and there were actually guards keeping anyone from heading in that direction.  I’m not sure why.  We were also getting short on time, so we decided to head back.  We had to retrace our steps all the way back to the tram.  Kyle was little worse for the wear on the way back.  We simply counted 50 steps again at first, then 100, and then he was able to go without counting at all.

Heading back down the tram – Kyle is still in one piece

We saw a few fruit and nut merchants on our way back to the area where we were to meet Mr. Ping.  Fred got some almonds for himself and some walnuts for me, since I’ve been losing too much weight on the cruise ship.  With my dietary restrictions, I’m mainly eating plain grilled fish, fruit, and salad.  We also picked up a fridge magnet.  We’ve been collecting them haphazardly.

Vendors selling fruit and nuts at the end of our trip

Once we found Mr. Ping, Fred was hungry because he hadn’t eaten any of the dumplings earlier in the day.  We stopped at a place on site and he got some Kung Pao Chicken.

waiting for Fred’s Kung Pao at a Chinese restaurant in the shopping area at the Great Wall

I was interested in the elaborate gold frog by the cash register in the restaurant.  Mr. Ping said it was a money god.  I don’t know anything more than that, but I thought I’d share.

the money god by the cash register at the Chinese restaurant

After Fred’s late afternoon meal, we headed to the van and went directly back to the ship.  We were really tired, so we slept as much of the time as we could.  Mr. Ping was listening to a comedy talk show that had singing and laughter mixed in at various times, so it was a little tough to doze.  He had been up since 4am though, so none of us wanted to complain about the noise…or the cigarette smoke, for that matter.  Overall he was a great tour guide and I’d recommend him to anyone coming to the area.  He speaks very good English and is a great source of local knowledge.  If you tend to get carsick though, bring some dramamine.  He can be found online at www.mutianyugreatwalltours.com