We only had one day off in Beijing and I was determined to use it to see The Great Wall. The most popular spot to visit the wall near Beijing is Badaling. After hearing about it from some of the troupe who had been there before, namely that there are American fast food chains there, I decided I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to risk seeing the Golden Arches or Colonel Sanders while taking in one of the great wonders of the world. Also, I wanted to be able to hike from one point to another as opposed to having one spot to wander around.
After a little more research, I found a 7 mile hike between Jinshanling and Simitai. I read that the hike would take 4 hours because there are many ridiculously steep steps to traverse. This was just what I was looking for. I wanted it to be long. I wanted it to hurt. I wanted it to be seared into my brain so deeply that even when I’m 85 and senile and talking to lampshades, I’ll be talking to them about this awesome day when I hiked the Great Wall.
The problem, I thought, was going to be convincing other people to do this with me. It was early February and hovering around freezing in Beijing. I could understand why people wouldn’t want to venture out for that long in that kind of weather. But luckily 7 others decided to join me in the end.
I believe there are busses that will take you to those destinations, though perhaps only during the warmer months, but we were having a hard time finding them. With so little time to plan (we got in at about 10 the night before and headed straight to an Irish Bar (quelle suprise) to meet some cast members of Riverdance (no, there was not a dance-off)), we decided to give in a hire a couple taxis. Taxis are extremely cheap in China, even in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. If you are short on time and have a few people with you, it’s not a bad option. It was two hours there and back, and I believe it was about 800 or 900 RMB which it about 120 dollars, divided by four that’s $30 a piece to get to and from the Great Wall. Not bad.
The landscape became more and more mountainous as we drove further north from Beijing. After a couple hours I was scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the wall. At first glance, it looked treacherous, like perhaps-we-made-a-mistake-and-we-should-just-take-a-few-photos-and-turn-back treacherous. I was beginning to fear a mutiny but I learned quickly that it was not part of our hike.
After being dropped off we quickly made our way to the wall. We had gotten kind of a late start (remember the Irish bar from the last night?) and we figured the sun was going to set around 6, leaving us about 5 hours. We couldn’t have asked for a better day considering the time of year. It was about 40 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
As we were walking through the park to the wall, we noticed some other people had joined us. A woman came up to me, speaking very good English, explaining that they were local farmers. Her name was Shirley. She explained that they were going to join us on our hike of the Great Wall, that they were going to “help” us. “Help us what?”, I asked. “Help you climb!” Hmmmm…I was not interested in anyone helping me climb but I thought they wouldn’t be with us for long. How naive of me.
It just so happened there was one farmer for every one of us. Coincidence? Of course not. As they assisted us up particularly steep paths and offered to take photos of us, they were also attempting to endear themselves to us. Shirley kept saying, “You’re so nice! I’m so glad I’m your farmer! Can I take your photo? So pretty! You know, my corn crop was very bad this year…..” You get the idea.
About 20 minutes in we were trying to hatch a plan on how to lose them. One of the dancers, Nessa, whose farmer seemed to be the oldest there, decided she was going to try to make a run for it. Oh, silly tourist…these people have obviously been doing this their whole lives giving them freakishly strong legs such that, even at 70 years old, Irish dancers can’t out run them.
After the failed getaway attempt, I asked Shirley how long, exactly, they were planning on helping us. “The whole way!” she replied. At this point it had become clear that the only way to gain our freedom was to buy it. Oh yes, I have failed to mention till now that they just happened to be carrying huge bags full of souvenirs. I gathered the troops and explained that unless we bought their crap, they were going to be attached to us for the next 4 hours. Everyone agreed to buy something so we engaged in the customary haggling process, bought some souvenirs and left the farmers behind. I am now proud owner of a “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt.
After we left the farmers, we didn’t see a soul till we got to Simitai. We had the wall to ourselves. It was almost surreal. If you’re ever thinking of visiting the Great Wall I would highly recommend this hike. There are passages that are incredibly steep that will leave you huffing and puffing and your thighs burning but they aren’t impossible.
While it was difficult, someone who is reasonably in shape could do. There are patches in the middle that haven’t been well kept up but there was nothing that seemed dangerous.
As I was walking, I would force myself to stop and try to be very conscious of what I was doing. “You’re on the Great frigging Wall of China. Take this in!” It’s like I was afraid I wouldn’t fully realize the beauty and grandeur around me and I’m not sure one can, though there is probably a permanently, fully-conscious Buddhist monk out there who would disagree with me. But it was beautiful and it was grand and it did hurt and I will always remember it and the lovely people I was able to share it with, even Shirley.