If there is one thing we’ve learned on our trip it’s that independent travel is always more complicated than you expect it to be. Getting to the Great Wall was no exception. After scouring guidebooks, blogs, and websites we decided to take the train to the Badaling section of the wall from Beijing. Badaling is the most visited section of this 10,000 mile long wonder. It’s also the easiest to get to, or at least it is supposed to be.
We took the subway to the Beijing North Railway Station only to discover that the ticket counter was closed. A few signs peppered the closed ticket window instructing disappointed potential passengers to take the subway to the next station and catch bus 877 or 919 to the wall. We paid our 6 Yuan to take the subway back the way we had come. Outside the station we asked a guard which way to bus 919 or 877 (by asked, we mean we mostly pointed at the numbers written on a piece of paper and looked inquisitively at him). He said it was about three hundred meters down the street (by said, we mean he pointed down the street and said three hundred meters).
About three hundred meters down the street we found a sign that had the numbers 877 and 919 on it. There was also the time of 06:00 and 12:00 printed on the sign (by sign we mean a printed sticker stuck to another sign). Crowding around the rather unofficial looking sign was a group of Chinese tourists looking just as confused as we were. And hovering around the group were private drivers telling people that the next bus wasn’t until noon and offering to drive them to the great wall for 60 Yuan. This is all a scam. Their plan is that you will stand in line and wait long enough that they can convince you to hire them.
Fortunately, we noticed that bit by bit the herd of Chinese tourists was dispersing and decided to follow them. We stopped two of the tourists, and by the grace of God they could speak a teensy bit of English – just enough to convey that they were also trying to get to the Great Wall and that they seemed to have an idea where the actual bus is. We also teamed up with a Costa Rican who is studying Chinese. Between a Costa Rican who could speak a little Chinese and two Chinese girls who could speak a little English we managed to find our way to the bus. If you ever decide to take the bus to the Great Wall from Beijing, follow these instructions exactly. When you get to the roundabout, you will see herds of buses. They are running constantly, not just at 06:00 and 12:00. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Safely on the bus after paying our 12 Yuan, we began our trek into the mountains of China. Once outside the city, you begin to catch glimpses of the wall. Our anticipation rose with each passing hill. By the time the bus stopped in front of the gatehouse we were awe struck. The sheer magnitude (Pop! Pop!) of the wall is stunning. Once you climb onto the wall and look out to see it stretching and curving over and around the mountains on and on beyond sight you ask yourself, “How?” A great work on this scale would not happen in our age despite our technology and wealth.
The view is only half of the experience of the Great Wall. The other half is the hike. And this hike is a serious one. If you have problems with heights or slopes or stairs then you should probably just appreciate the view. If you want a good workout then keep on walking. The slopes on sections of the wall are so steep that handrails had to be installed and people were still slipping and falling. I adventurously slid down the rails then waited patiently at the bottom of each slope as Nikki timidly took tiny step after tiny step, never looking up from the ground. Really, the Great Wall could make a good Tony Hawk level. If the slopes don’t wear you out then perhaps the stairs will. The stairs are not uniform in height. One stair will be only an inch or two and then the next is around 18 inches. By the end of the day, our legs were burning. The soldiers who patrolled this wall years ago must have been in amazing shape.
The Great Wall is absolutely worth making a day trip for anyone who goes to China. It is one of those sights that pictures can’t do justice to. It’s just too big. Also, it happens to be perhaps the most appropriately utilized wonder in Civ V. By which I mean the game bonus lines up with real life almost perfectly. In the game the wall slows down enemy invaders by forcing them to spend more movement points in your territory than normal. In real life the wall was basically the same thing. The wall wouldn’t stop an army and wasn’t really designed for that. However it does make raids more difficult since the invaders would have to carry any loot over the wall or perhaps around long sections of it. To do this rapidly raiders would have to carry off less loot or their horses would get too tired. Thus the whole prospect of raiding China became less profitable, thus fewer raids. In the end, of course, the wall wasn’t enough to stop the Mongols or the Manchus, but there is no denying that it is still a really big wall.