When I was a kid, I’ve dreamed of standing on the “only man-made structure visible from space” (that was what the books said, anyway). Even though this claim has long been proven to have no truth to it, I was still glad to visit (and walk on) one of history’s most famous structures: the Great Wall.
Last winter found us in China, because it’s the cheapest flight deal we could find on the internet. Nobody else was crazy enough to escape Japanese winter by visiting below-freezing Beijing. This worked to our advantage in the end, because there were no crowds!
M and I stayed in Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel, where we also booked the Great Wall tour. After extensive googling a few weeks prior, I decided they offered the best deal and least worry out of all the deals offered. Our original plan was to hike the 6-km unspoilt portions of the Great Wall, but we backed down the night before when the weather forecast reported below freezing temperatures (-6 degrees Celsius) and a chance of rain. We were already reeling from the cold in Beijing and figured we wouldn’t fare better in the mountains, so we chose the “fun” option, which was to visit the Mutianyu portion of the wall. The tour package cost us 280 RMB including transportation, entrance fees, and lunch.
At 8:30 the next morning, we departed for Mutianyu. Our guide Lulu gave a brief explanation on the origin and history of the Great Wall during the trip. We arrived at Mutianyu after two hours, and Lulu told us to be back by 1 pm for lunch.
Going up the ticket booth, there were shops on both sides of the path selling an assortment of souvenirs. We did not buy anything because there were no price tags on the items and I don’t think I can out-haggle the Chinese merchants.
After Lulu handed out our tickets, we entered and immediately started climbing the concrete stairs.
There was an option to go up by cableway and go down by toboggan (80 RMB for both), but we preferred to climb.
Seeing the length of the wall on either side was overwhelming. I can only imagine the amount of effort, time, and people’s lives that were sacrificed in order to build just that one section of the Wall. Building 6,000 kilometers of that structure to protect historical China’s northern border is just beyond my imagination.
The view of the mountains on either side is also something else entirely. It must be super exciting to study the geology of the area (I saw semi-metamorphosed granite boulders on the way up).
One thing I realized was that a great part of the Wall was made of stairs. When I imagined it from photos, I thought it was all road-like structures where chariots (or whatever transportation they used back then) could be used. Apparently, a large chunk of the wall is made up of steep stairs.
The introductory signs said Mutianyu has one of the steepest portions of the Wall, so I guess that’s the reason for all the stairs. Some of the tourists were too afraid to go down the stairs without using their butts, which made for a lot of teasing among their friends. I also had to hold on to the railings going down, I didn’t trust my steps on those steep stairs.
Also interesting were the fortresses. It seemed like it would be fun to play tag or hide-and-seek in them with the small passageways, stairs, and windows.
I’d be too scared to run around though, it’s a long fall from the windows. The view from the fortress was also very nice, both looking up and staring down!
One thing to watch out for though are the vendors. Some will just leave you alone, but others are strategically located to bar your passage.
We felt cheated when a merchant in soldier’s uniform wouldn’t let us pass and pressured us into buying his overpriced snacks. We bought a Snickers bar (it seemed to be the cheapest) so he would leave us alone. Classic tourist trap! He was smart wearing that soldier uniform, I give him that.
We tried to walk as much of the wall as we can, but we only covered one-third of the Mutianyu Great Wall, about 8 fortresses out of 22. We eventually felt cold and hungry after 12:30 pm, so we made our way down to the restaurant for the free lunch.
The food was tasty and they served generous helpings of rice, but the catch was that there were no free drinks (even house water, maybe the water source was limited or not safe?). Good thing we brought our own water as the prices were unsurprisingly inflated. After lunch (about 2pm), we left the Mutianyu Great Wall to go back to Beijing.
Bonus: Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium
The tour included a bonus stop at the Olympic Stadium. There was no entry fee and we just had to submit to the security inspection to enter. If there were few people on the Great Wall, there were hardly anyone outside the Bird’s Nest. There were just one family who were on skiing chairs(?) enjoying the frozen lake and one other group of foreign tourists walking around the Bird’s Nest. The rest were vendors on their stalls.
There was a frozen lake by the entrance, and we walked on it, jumped on it, and took photos atop it.
We were only able to see the exterior of it since we didn’t have much time, but it was really an architectural marvel from the outside. I can only wonder what it looks like on the inside (and if they were able to preserve its interior grandeur).
After gawking at the steel exterior, we made our way to the nearby Water Cube with its blue “bubble” outer wall. I personally think the Water Cube is way cooler, it looks more alive to me somehow (maybe because of the color? or the “bubbles”?).
The Cube had a lot more people outside. There were locals walking around, selling souvenirs, painting, and flying (selling?) kites. After evading a few of the vendors convincing us to buy this and that, we headed back to our vehicle and went back to the hostel.
At the end of the day, it felt good to finally visit an iconic structure that I only used to see in history textbooks. I felt really privileged to finally visit the Great Wall, to stand on it and gaze at the extensive structure that snakes onto the Chinese mountains farther than my eyes could reach, and to realize how many more marvels mankind is capable of building.