The key to successfully climbing the Great Wall of China is to do it in a way that’s crowd-free.
China is the most populated country in the world. There’s a lot, a lot of people over there, like 1.3 billion of them. As a first-time tourist in China, I visited the most-trafficked tourist attractions which are not just the busiest places in the country but also some of the busiest places in the world. Case in point: The Great Wall, which attracts over 10 million visitors annually.
My mission was to avoid something like this:
I wrote about this before, but one of the many reasons why China travel never initially appealed to me was because of my negative impression of large crowds and general lack of respect for personal space. While these are stereotypes, they definitely hold truth. The touristy cities in China are jam-packed and evade lines and push you around. If you’re caucasian or black or blonde or anything other than asian-looking, you’ll have one local or another shove their smart phone or camera in your face. Why? Because you look different. And guess what? You may even feel like a celebrity at first, but then it just doesn’t stop. It’s a Complete. Invasion. of. Space. This is all part of the China experience.
My goal was to visit a part of the Great Wall where I might actually be able to walk more than 5 steps. I quickly learned this is quite possible as long as you avoid the most accessible and restored parts of the wall, Badging and Mutianyu. There is a great resource for planning your Wall visit which can be found here.
I signed up for a tour to the section called Jinshaling. The tour van picked me up at 6am from my hostel in Beijing and we were there by 9am.
Jinshaling was a great choice. I had such a positive, crowd-free visit to the Great Wall. The Wall was great, the experience was great, my group was great. It was all great.
There were a couple of interesting things about this experience as well.
The first were the local ladies waiting for us at the Great Wall. When our van was pulling up, a group of ladies started pointing at our faces through the windows of the vehicle. I didn’t know what was going on at first, but later realized we were being marked. They were claiming and distributing us between themselves as personal customer targets. What did that mean for me? It meant that I had a petite, middle-aged Chinese lady following me for half of the day. She was trying to get me to buy a Chinese hand fan and a t-shirt that said, “I Survived the Great Wall.” What’s impressive is how much she actually climbed with me even after I told her I wasn’t interested. In retrospect, the sales tactic was pretty brilliant. Climb on the heels of a tourist’s feet whilst loudly repeating the same sales pitch for hours. There were others in my group who gave in and bought a fan from their ladies just to make them stop and go away.
The second interesting occurrence happened on the drive back to Beijing. Our air-conditioned van broke down on the freeway during rush hour. The tragedy for me was not the broken vehicle or our later-than-anticipated arrival time – I had all the time in the world to kill. What killed me was the lack of air-conditioning for 1.5 hours on a hot, summer day in June. Some of us were getting pretty worked up and restless about the heat situation and decided to push our van down the side of the buzzing freeway while the driver tried to jumpstart the car. I contributed by documenting the whole thing. An hour and a half later, another van came to rescue us.
All in all, this was one of those you-gotta-be-there-to-appreciate-it kind of experiences. The Great Wall is one of the most impressive and ambitious projects ever accomplished by man. I only visited a tiny fraction of what this world wonder is all about; the entire wall is over 5,000 miles long, according to Google. I even read about a dude named Braam who ran some 4,200 km or 2,609 miles along the wall in 98 days. That’s over 3 months of continuous running, and it wasn’t even the whole wall. Insane.
If life ever brings you to Beijing, go to Jinshaling and climb this thing.
The local ladies have a little sales strategy I like to call “buy to ditch the pitch.” I swear they’d hike and chat you all the way to Mongolia if you let them.
A man sells beverages on the Great Wall…
We are channeling our inner Kung-Fu-Pandas by doing some group Kung Fu.
Our van breaks down on the freeway. We all assume our roles – the guys push the van and I document everything.
All in all, a great day at the Great Wall.