Time to tick a monster off the bucket list. At 8 we were up for breakfast (which at 15 yuan a head, isn’t badly priced – even if it is just steamed bread, rice, egg and a toaster that attracts more than one cockroach). At 9 we were in the bus, and heading out of the city – although one of the seats in the bus was broken, and would constantly go all the way back if leant on, much to the dismay of the girl behind it.
It took just over an hour to get out of the city (which is a pretty interesting tour in and of itself), and another half hour to get to the Wall. There are multiple sections that tourists can visit, but Lily had recommended we go to Mutianyu – as it was relatively close, and not as crowded by tourists as the nearby Badaling section.
Once you’ve parked and gotten closer to the ticket booths, the first thing you notice is the market. Its a touristy area so there’s no surprise there – but its an absolute nightmare if you’re a soft touch. You need to take constant care of your money, and can’t show any mercy. Everybody marks the price up – you shouldn’t be paying more than 10-25% of the original price – but getting the price down is equal parts terrifying and nauseating. The shopkeepers will also quite happily fleece you given the chance – one of our tourmates got scammed on a bottle of water – ended up paying 5 times the price expected since the woman refused to give the money back (and it was only through feverent arguing that she hadn’t ended up paying 10 times the price).
There are 3 ways to get up to the wall, and 4 down. The three shared are Cable Car, Chairlift and stairs, while you can also toboggan down. Some wanted to climb the steps to the Great Wall, but Lily warned that could take a good 40 minutes, and as we also wanted to see the Olympic Park today, we were on a deadline. Instead she recommended we buy a combined ticket for 80 yuan, go up by chairlift, then toboggan down. We all agree (and I give a little weep as I hand over yet more money – I’m supposed to be on a 200 yuan-a-day budget and the Great Walls taken me to 240 already).
Going up by chairlift was definitely the right choice though – it took the better part of five minutes to get up the hill, and meant we were fresh to conquer this:
I know that the wall has been restored, and a lot of it has been refurbished so its not like the collosseum and an ‘original’ relic, but I don’t think that takes away from just how impressive the Great Wall actually is. This is one of the wonders of the world that really is as good as the photographs and stories you get.
What you never quite realise till you get there however, is just how steep some of these stairs are. Parts of this wall are borderline sheer drops – with stairs that reached my knees. Needless to say a good chunk of us would collapse after hiking up these cliffs just to catch our breath.
(Got to give my body credit though – considering the lax regime of the train and little to no training I’ve done in the past weeks, it may tire easily, but it also recovered pretty quickly too. Just needed a few minutes and I could keep going.
The only downside, was just how hot it got. All I had heard for weeks leading up to China, and even from Ricky himself, was layers, layers, layers. How cold and windy it would be, how there would be snow on the mountains, how you’d want the base layer clothes. Instead, it was a beautiful sunny day with almost no wind. Everyone’s hats, gloves, and scarves were in their bags, and jackets were in hands as we tried to beat the heat. It seems every time we prepare for cold weather, we get bright sunny days instead.
Some of the group had sped on ahead, so when I reached one end of the wall, I couldn’t find any of them. But did see a sign saying ‘No Entry’, right next to a dirt path…that people were heading down. Given that the locals were ignoring the sign, I decide to follow too.
It’s part of the wall that hasn’t been restored – not sure if it’s part of Mutianyu or one of the connecting parts that hasn’t been. But it’s been left to the wild, meaning its covered in trees and dirt, with crumbling edges and no health and safety whatsoever. But its a completely different experience to doing the refurbished parts, and means you can get photos like this:
As expected, the whole group ended up at this section, and Lily took some group photos with China’s greatest landmark in the background. But while we were here, we also discovered another popular photo opportunity…one of our tour mates. The tall blonde female tour mate.
Every 5 minutes someone came up asking for a photo with her! And those were just the ones who asked – we caught plenty sneaking photos when they thought she wasn’t looking. Lily explained that many of the tourists here were Chinese from rural areas, and this girl was probably the first blonde westerner they’d ever seen. Thankfully for her (and her husband) it never got too overwhelming – though it was quite humourous to see people ignoring this incredible landmark for a random stranger.
We started heading the other way after that, but with the exception of 2 members who were clearly part rabbit and cheetah, it became clear we were not going to make it all the way to the end and back in time to see the Olympic Stadium. We decided to keep going as long as possible, maybe stopping to eat along the way, and then head for the toboggans. I ended up breaking off from the group and trying to catch up with the forward 2, only to pass them on their way back and keep going. Pass a great arching point (kind of like a skate ramp – couldn’t help but run up and down it), only to discover another set of sheer drop steps. Even if I did get up them, it would take so much out of me I’d probably have to go straight down them again to make it back. So I sadly accept it as a lost cause and head back to the group, frightening the daylights out of one member who didn’t actually spot me coming back – apparently I’m very quiet (back home 3 friends, 2 parents, a brother and one ex-university roommate all burst into laughter).
I would have liked more time on the wall, but by the time we hit the toboggans we’d been there over 2 1/2 hours and seen quite a large chunk of it. It was definitely worth the trip – and the icing on the cake was the toboggan down. Its just a small sled-like thing with a level for speeding up and braking, and its some of the best fun I’ve ever had. The ride down is fantastic – only downer is the men waiting at certain corners to yell at you for going too fast. When we were back on the ground I was ready to pay the chairlift fee again just so I could come down that way again!
Lily herded us back into the market, and we all ended up stopping at a pancake stall she recommended. Ended up having a chocolate and apple pancake, which was very nice for the price, before everyone started doing some shopping and perfecting their haggling.
It was clear very early on that the husband of my blonde tour mate was by far the master in our group. Too many of us (myself included) are too weak willed to get the price down. Made worse by the fact that the Chinese will not let you go. They will chase you down the street if they have to. He helped me get a t-shirt down to 70 yuan (though after a day and looking at my finances, wish I’d been a little more savy and just walked away). Three of the group went in and did a group haggle for glasses and t-shirts (all 3 of them had fallen in love with t-shirts that read ‘I HEART BJ’) while I did a little haggling of my own and got some pretty adorable Matryoshka panda dolls. Don’t think I got her down to the lowest she would have taken, but I was happy with the price (and besides, what better souvineer for the Vodkatrain than a Chinese style Russian doll?).
On the way back, I decided to be the bigger man and take the faulty seat, sitting sideways as to not annoy the person behind me, and we arrived back in the city in time to wander round the Olympic Park.
It was getting cold and foggy, so the layers were back on while we wandered round the 2008 square. One of the group really wanted to climb the stadium, which Lily said was impossible (found out later, its not) and go swimming at the Water Cube (which I’d love to do, but comes with a 200 yuan price tag so will have to do next time I come to Beijing). Also had a ton of the awesome little tourist kites going – you can see them in the photos going in the air for miles, though not sure how well they’d handle British winds. Also got the ‘I Heart BJ’ photos here to the trios amusement, and again, Blondie was photographed and filmed…although a good chunk of that might just have been the Chinese filming the crazy westerners antics.
By this point we had to start heading back to the hotel, and we had to say goodbye to the first of our tour group. She was heading off on another tour that very evening, so had to leave early. It was pretty awful to say farewell – I’ve been on a lot of group tours but I think due to the size, we’ve all bonded really well. Losing anyone hurt, and it made me pine to go to the acrobat show with everyone. I really didn’t want to waste any chances to spend time with them. Unfortunately, I was supposed to meet Ricky. I hoped he wouldn’t mind meeting up with some of his other friends (who I knew he was meeting anyway) and we could spend tomorrow together. Then I found out he was actually leaving tomorrow morning…
However, since Ricky’s a great guy, a few expensive texts later (and gratuitous use of Lily’s phone’s email), we agreed to meet after the show, and Lily managed to wrangle me another ticket.
So glad I changed my mind about going. I’m sure I could have made it on my own, but with the group, Lily was able to get a discount and upgraded us to the more expensive seats at no extra cost. And the show was fantastic.
There was hoop jumping, contortionists, chair balancing, a frankly incredible display of upper arm strength along with bowl balancing, a silk act, and at the end, 2 pretty incredible bike acts. The first had a good dozen people perched upon a moving bike, while the second is actually a world record holder.
The record is: Number of People on Motorbikes in a Steel Cage.
Every time another bike came out everyone just roared in approval. Although when the last 3 came out the general consensus was ‘where the hell are they going to go???’ (answer, just drive around in a circle under the main one). Today was by far my favourite day of the trip.
Afterwards, Lily took us to Houhai before saying her goodbyes. I managed to catch up with Ricky who decided to stick around Houhai with us and talk Beijing and food. We ended up in a bar with a fairly expensive menu – but had a saving grace of pizza – which at least 3 of the group were desperate for. I wasn’t that hungry, so ordered a starter: Lotus Flower Cakes with Goose Liver.
The Lotus Flower was lovely – did not enjoy the goose liver. Bought on recommendation of Ricky, who said he really liked them, but they were hit and miss when ordering in restaurants. I ended up splitting them in half and just eating the flower.
Went walking through the little alleyways one again, although it was pushing 22:30 at this point and so a lot of places were closing up. When we got back on the main road, everyone decided it was probably best to call it a night. The only issue was exactly how to go about it.
Ricky ended up being the mastermind again. He was going in the opposite direction, but stuck with us and warned us away from black (unlicensed) cabs, until a yellow van from a billingual school drove up. Everyone was a little wary of just hitching a lift from a random stranger, but Ricky explained it was pretty common, and helped us haggle a good price back to the hotel. I said my goodbyes (with a hug) and promised to see him soon. Promise I intend to keep too, 2 1/2 years is too long to go without seeing him.
Woman in the van had a little trouble actually finding the road she needed unfortunately. Thankfully, by this point most of us could remember certain landmarks and could point her in the right direction. Probably the first time in history people have said they owe their safe return to a Gynacology hospital and a Golden Jaguar.
Tomorrow, since its the last full day for everyone, its decided we’ll set off early and all do Tianamen Square, The Forbidden City and the Hutongs together. Gonna be another heavy walker.