You’re in China. Maybe you’re off exploring the Tibetan Plateau, or tasting beer in Qingdao, or lazily drifting down the Li River, admiring the emerald green karsts of Guilin. None of that is going to matter to your family or friends when you get back home, though. The number one question they’ll have for you is, “Did you go to the Great Wall?” You don’t want to disappoint them by answering incorrectly, so you had better squeeze it into your itinerary.
You’ll be glad you did, though, because (loathe as a I am to use this phrase) the Great Wall really is a must-see. However, famous as it is, figuring out how to go about seeing it can be a little confusing. It’s not as simple as telling your taxi driver, “Please take me to the Great Wall.” First, he probably has no idea what you just said. Second, the Great Wall is long – really, really long – so you’ll need to know what specific section of the Great Wall you want to see. There are several options, each offering a different experience. Because of its proximity to Beijing and because it’s been completely restored, Badaling is the most popular section for tourists. It’s the most accessible, but as such, is also swarming with vendors who follow said tourists around, grabbing their arms and yelling at them in Chinese until they just buy something out of exasperation. There’s another section very popular among hikers, which connects Simatai and Jinshanling (about 10 km, but it’s tough going). Simatai was closed for restoration, so we weren’t able to attempt this hike. Instead, we decided to go to a section called Huanghua, which is officially closed to tourists.
Notice I said, “officially.” Unofficially, you can climb all over it, in exchange for a small fee paid directly to the locals who own the land. The reason these signs exist is to discourage people from coming to Huanghua and to encourage them instead to go to one of the other sections owned by the Chinese government, which will then charge them a much higher fee to see essentially the same wall. Technically, you do run the risk of being fined by the authorities if they catch you, but we never had the impression that we might be caught, or that the police would even bother. There’s a restaurant (English menu) as well as a few souvenir vendors set up near the entrance, so it’s not like it’s a big secret that tourists are coming to Huanghua.
The great thing about Huanghua is that it hasn’t been restored and looks properly old and weathered, right out of the Ming Dynasty. Most of it’s in good shape, but you had better watch your step in some parts:
Another advantage is that even in the middle of the day, you don’t have a lot of company. Apart from the four of us, there were only a few other groups climbing. That meant we could take lots of unobstructed photos of just ourselves and the Wall and the mountains beyond. But it’s not so bad getting stuck behind a Chinese family, especially if they take a liking to you and the grandma decides to give you several cucumbers, some hard-boiled eggs, and a tomato.
You’ll also have a chance to appear in their family album:
No matter what section you choose, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll leave feeling disappointed. The Great Wall is an attraction that fully lives up to its hype; not only is the wall itself an engineering marvel, but the backdrop is fantastic, and the views would be worth the two-hour taxi ride from Beijing, wall or no wall. Most importantly, though, the Great Wall is truly unique; quite a few times on our trip, I would fall into the bad habit of comparing some new site or experience with ones from places we’ve already been. “This city looks a lot like Osaka,” I’d say, or, “I saw something similar in Chiang Mai.” It’s a feeling common to anyone who’s seen and done as much as we have in such a short period of time. Sometimes I even noticed myself enjoying a place less than I ought to, because all I could think about is what it reminded me of. The Great Wall is one of those rare, incomparable places – there’s simply nothing like it.