“So,” I said to Jeff. “What do you think of this wall?”
“It’s nice,” Jeff said.
“Pretty…. great, right?”
I think we had this conversation multiple times. I couldn’t seem to help myself. Also, I was suffering from a case of ‘the unreals.’ That’s not a thing, I just made it up, but it refers to the fact that when you go somewhere really famous (or, for that matter, meet a celebrity or something), it suddenly feels that instead of really standing there, you must be in a movie of your life or something. Your brain refuses to think this could possibly be happening so it makes you feel like it isn’t. That’s the unreals. Go ahead. You can start using it too.
So there I am, on top of the Great Wall. I know, right? The Great Wall is such a massive part of history and popular culture. It’s not even just the most famous object in China, it is one of the very most famous structures in all of the universe (unless any extraterrestrials want to prove me wrong?). I felt similarly that time I met Henry Winkler.
Everybody says similar things about visiting the Great Wall: don’t go to Badaling because it’s way too crowded and touristy. Go to Jinshanling or Mutianyu instead (Simatai is popular but now closed due to earthquake damage). But we didn’t want to hire a super expensive cab or tour guide. We were going during the week at just-past-peak season, and we had a handy guide to visiting gleaned from information on Seat 61. So we chose to go the easy and cheap way: by train to Badaling.
And it turned out to still be amazing and incredible and enjoyable. What do you know?
We were able to get away from most of the crowds, such as they were, by going the opposite way from the cable car. We often use our legs instead of other means of transportation, since they work pretty well most of the time. The other side had all the lovely scenery and amazingness of being on the Wall, with less people jostling around you. Still, someone tried to take a picture with me while I wasn’t looking. But that’s just China…
The point is, you can still get a lot out of seeing the Great Wall at Badaling, without the time and money expenditures that it takes to get to the parts that are farther from Beijing (don’t get me wrong though, seeing the beautifully crumbling parts of the Wall would surely be incredible).
I am not sure why but one thing I didn’t know as a child learning about the Great Wall is that it’s all up in the mountains. You will have to do some climbing to see much of the Wall. It’s worth it though, to get on a high part and see the rest of the thing snaking off into the distance.
Another thing I never knew about the Great Wall is that it is not, strictly speaking, one gigantic wall. It wasn’t all built at the same time and it is not even all connected. Different emperors built walls as needed to protect against the particular invasions they were facing. Most of what’s there now was a reconstruction of earlier walls built during the Ming Dynasty.
Overall, the Great Wall of China is definitely one of those must-visit places. To the point where I met someone who was in Beijing for a couple weeks, didn’t go see it, and wasn’t planning to, and I almost couldn’t stop myself from saying “How can you leave Beijing without seeing it?” But I said nothing, because, to each his own. Everyone travels differently and that is okay. I will at least never tell you that I am judging your travel style.
If you, like me, don’t want to pass up a great opportunity to see a world wonder, here’s some info on visiting the Great Wall at Badaling:
- Getting there: You can take the train or the bus from Beijing. The train runs fairly often, takes about an hour and a half, and costs 6 RMB each way. On the way there, get to Beijing North station well ahead of the time you have scoped out on the Seat 61 website. Realize it wasn’t enough time to avoid a line. Wait in front of window 8 til they open back up. Sit around in the waiting area for an agonizingly long time, then sprint for a seat when they open the gates. Or, own a Beijing SmartCard and avoid the ticket line entirely. The bus, on the other hand, costs 12 RMB, and more info can be found here.
- Admission: 45 RMB in high season (April through October), 40 RMB in low season (November through March)
- How much time do I need? Allow yourself at least a couple of hours on the wall itself. Add in time getting there and back (at least 2 hours) and potentially a bit of time to have lunch (there is a Subway sandwich shop at the base of the Wall, in case you were wondering). I would budget at least 5 hours, perhaps a bit more.
- Other stuff to know: The Wall is on the tops of some mountains! This means that there may be some climbing involved. You can take a cable car to get to a flatter section of the wall which is 60 RMB round-trip. You should still be prepared for some walking. The Wall is open from 6:40am to 5:30pm. Bring decent shoes, water, your camera, and please don’t forget your sense of wonder.