Two Sundays on the Great Wall of China

categories: asia travel

Every time I travel to China, I try to visit a different section of the Great Wall.  This past summer I had the opportunity to visit two different sections of the Wall on two successive Sundays.  I was very fortunate to have experienced the rare treat of having two back-to-back Sundays in Beijing that featured both comfortable temperatures and clear, sunny skies.  These were perfect days to visit the Wall.

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The first section I visited was Jinshanling.  This is the one the furthest sections that can be visited on a day trip from Beijing.  Using a personal driver, my family and I started our journey around 8 AM and traveled northeast on a newly built, uncrowded highway.  The journey took about two hours, and we did not experience any of Beijing’s famous congested roadways.
At the entrance to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall there were about 50 cars, a few small buses, and a few vendors selling supplies and souvenirs.  It was not easy to find the ticket office.  In fact, we walked past it on our way to the entrance and then had to backtrack to get our tickets.  The admission cost 65 CNY ($11) each (65 CNY during peak season, 55 CNY during off season).  To access the Wall at Jinshanling, you must either walk about 4 km up a looping access road, climb a short but steep pathway directly up the Wall, or ride a cable car.  We opted to spend about 40 CNY ($7) for the cable car.  The cable car did not actually take us directly to the Wall.  We still had to navigate a short trail and then climb a set of steep stairs into one of the towers of the Wall.

One of the great appeals of Jinshanling is that this area of the Wall is only partially restored.  There are no hand rails or easy access areas.  This area is often known as the “Wild Wall,” because many parts are in their natural state of disrepair.  The walking was very rough and very steep in areas.  A good number of stairways had missing steps and missing bricks.  It was difficult to walk on a dry, sunny day.  I suspect that on a wet day, it would be treacherous.

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As the day went on, we found that in many areas we were walking the Wall by ourselves.  Over all we saw only about 100 people spread over various areas of the Wall.  A few people were making the trek to Simitai, but most of the people were hiking around the Jinshanling area.  The only negative part of the experience were the local farmers trying to sell advice and hawk souvenirs.  Travel guides warn about them and describe them as a minor inconvenience.  They were definitely a distraction, but eventually they left us alone.  In all, we spent around four hours at this section of the Wall just walking, taking photographs, and enjoying the views.  It was peaceful and thrilling at the same time.  As the afternoon became warmer, we made our way back down.  It was a great experience, and I ranked it as my best visit to the Wall.

On the next Sunday, we took some visiting friends to Badaling for their first trip to the Great Wall. What a difference a week makes!

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We knew that Badaling would be crowded so we asked our driver to pick us up at 6 AM.  We ran into a little traffic in Beijing and then experienced heavy traffic on the Badaling Expressway.  Most of the congestion was caused by large trucks navigating their way through the twists and turns of the expressway as it ascends the hills and passes north of Beijing.  After a stressful ride, we eventually made it to Badaling around 7:30 AM.  By this time, the area was already crowded.  Badaling is unique in that visitors are able to access the Wall at a low point and then ascend up the towers and ramps by either going east or west.  Most people head east and try to make it up to the 8th Tower.  This is the highest in elevation in the area.  We purchased our tickets and opted to take the cable car up to Tower 7.  The cost for admission to the Wall was 45 CNY ($8) each (45 CNY during peak season, 40 CNY during off season).  The round trip ticket for the cable car was another 60 CYN ($10).  By the time we arrived at the cable car at 8 AM, the wait to get to the top was already 45 minutes.

The cable car ride was very scenic.  We approached the Great Wall from the north face and departed the cable car at a station inside the mountain.  To get to the Wall we had to walk through a long tunnel.  From this point it was only a short, but steep walk up to the high point at Tower 8.  Unfortunately, there were thousands of people on the Wall also trying to make it to Tower 8.  In fact, the remainder of our morning was spent trying to push our way through crowds.  There was a lot of shoving and dodging umbrellas that were used for sun protection.  Congestion became very intense at the various towers up and down the Wall as visitors navigated steep steps and wedged through narrow door openings.  After we reached Tower 8, we descended the Wall to visit a few of the lower towers.   One attraction we saw on the way down was a toboggan ride.  We thought about getting on it and riding down the Great Wall, but were unsure if we would be able to get back to our original bus stop.  After about two hours, we decided to descend the Wall by the same cable car we road up.  By this time, the wait to get down was about one hour.  Eventually we made our way to the parking lot and our waiting driver.  We were exhausted by the crowds and chaos of the day, and we reflected that it would be at least 5 more years before we would feel the need to revisit Badaling.

On the ride home as my family and friends fell asleep, I began to ponder, “Where should I take future visitors for their first visit to the Great Wall?”  Most likely I will have to make this decision again, and it is important because for many of my friends, this may be their one-time dream trip.  As we descended the hills south of Badaling, I began to weigh my choices.  There is no doubt that the views at Badaling are spectacular and dramatic.  The Wall threads across the mountains east and west, descending into valleys and reappearing on various hilltops.  The incredible scenic beauty along with its proximity to Beijing and accessibility are the main reasons most people go there.  In fact, if you need easy accessibility, then this may be your only choice.  On the other hand, the crowds can be outrageous creating a circus-like atmosphere.  No matter, how much you read about it, you cannot actually understand how crowded and crazy it is until you have experienced it.

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A location like Jinshanling also has great views, but they are not quite as dramatic as Badaling.  Yet, at Jinshanling, you see both a restored and authentic Wall.  You also experience the freedom and peacefulness of being on the Wall without thousands of visitors and vendors.   In addition, you can actually walk on the Wall for a very long distance and climb through the towers.  On the other hand, it is definitely less accessible.  In fact, if you are not up to strenuous walking or scrambling up steep steps, you would find it impossible.

Choosing the best place to see the Great Wall is genuinely a tough choice.  I have visited 6 different sections of the Great Wall and I can genuinely say that I have thoroughly enjoyed all of them.  Each section provided a unique experience and different challenges.   After much reflection, I think my choice to take our guests  to Badaling for their first experience was the right choice.  I would do it again.  This was their only Wall experience and they were awed by their visit.  There is also something about the masses of people moving along the Wall that make it feel like a pilgrimage.  The views are genuinely spectacular and the restored Wall is impressive to see.  They were tired after their visit, but they had no complaints.

In the final assessment, choosing the best place to see the Great Wall is a matter of personal preference.  Everyone has an opinion about why their choice is the best.  The truth is that regardless of which section you choose, you can and will enjoy your experience.  Just remember to research your trip, be prepared, and adjust your expectations.  These three actions will help to make your choice the right choice and your visit to the Great Wall forever memorable.

Two Sundays on the Great Wall of China

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by Barry Kramer

Barry S. Kramer is an elementary educator who developed a love of travel after attending an educational technology conference in Beijing in the year 2000. Since then he has returned to China eight times to experience many popular attractions, national parks, and out of the way places often not visited by Westerners. He has also traveled to Russia, Japan, Tibet, northern Africa, Europe, the Middle East, as well as many places in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. His travel partners are his wife, Liping, and his daughters, Liz and Jessica.



2 Responses to “Two Sundays on the Great Wall of China”

Richard

Says:

Why would you go on a Sunday?

beijing

Says:

Based on my experience, I would prefer to go to Jinshanling section as I can walk to see the wall in wildness. Badaling section is always packed with Chinese tourists.

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