Beijing Bucketlist: The Great Wall (Chángchéng)

The Great Wall: said to be China’s greatest engineering triumph, ranked #1 in Lonely Planet China’s ‘Top Highlights’, and inspiration of hyperbolic metaphors the world over (I imagine). When planning our trip to Beijing – where the most robust stretches of Great Wall remain – a detour into the countryside to walk on the thing itself was irresistible… and our expectations were high!

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Bucketlist #4 – Mùtiányù Chángchéng (慕田峪)

First a bit of background. The original wall was begun more than 2000 years ago during the Qin dynasty – a defensive structure designed to keep the Northern “mongol hordes” from invading central China. Thereafter it was built brick-by-brick by tens of thousands of slaves, upon the command of a succession of all-powerful Emperors.

Significant additions and renovations being made during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century, and in it’s prime, the Great Wall snaked over 20,000 kilometres from East to West China along what was historically the Northern boarder. You may have heard that it is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space… a claim which has been subject to debate over the years. Having never been to space I don’t feel suitably qualified to weigh in on that issue; however, I can’t argue with the fact that on some days, you can have your feet firmly planted on the thing and still not get a glimpse of it…

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So I guess we were lucky…

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The Great Wall VIP Experience!

It won’t have hurt that we avoided Golden Week – China’s annual week-long national holiday in October and one of the only opportunities that most Chinese citizens get to take a vacation… In 2014, it was estimated there were 16 million visitors in this week alone!

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image borrowed from http://www.chinahighlights.com/greatwall

The majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty, and there are a number of stretches open to visitors, ranging from wild and perilous ruins to painstakingly restored tourist-friendly reproductions. We chose to visit Mùtiányù; a popular and recently renovated 3km stretch which was easy to reach from Beijing (about 90mins by car from our Hutong hotel) and boasted incredible mountain views, Ming-era guard towers and – wait for it – a toboggan ride! (i feel dutifully ashamed that I held equal excitement for the toboggan as I did for the wall).

I hadn’t given much thought about how we would come to be standing on the wall until we arrived at the cable-car station – which was complete with impeccably clean public toilets, a rarity in China, therefore worth a shout-out. Our ascent exposed craggy brown mountains and scraggy brown trees, a harsh, windswept landscape stark against the blue sky and intersected by a snaking line of stone.

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At the top we hopped off the cable car, turned left along the wall, and started to walk. It was still early morning but the temperature had already warmed up and before long we’d shed our coats, then sweatshirts, and started to stare in amazement at people around us wearing black overcoats, heavy down-filled jackets, and even woolly hats!

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Every now and then we passed through a watch-tower, a dark little warren of damp corridors, narrow stone staircases and arched windows which framed the mountains beyond. In one watchtower a sheet of white fabric had been pinned to the wall, and inscribed with the colourful autographs of thousands of people who had passed through before us.

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Our visit to the wall was in early April, and the cherry blossom trees were flowering. When I look back on these photos (non of which have even glimpsed a filter), I am so grateful for the beautiful weather, it really did make for a special day.

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Approaching lunchtime with rumbling stomachs after a good walk, we joined the (not-insubstantial) queue for the toboggan and read the safety instructions with care:

  1. All drivers and passengers use the toboggan run at their own risk.
  2. Passengers below mustn’t ride: suffer from high blood pressure, heart sick, heart functional disease, epilepsy, mental disease, drinker and mother to be, permanent disability have difficulty getting about, old and weak.

After the obligatory debate with my parents about whether they classed as ‘old and weak’, I got into my buggy and shot off to a brilliant start with the brake fully released and calls from the attendant to SLOW DOWN! as I approached the first corner (#toboggangoals). Unfortunately a group of 6-or-so hefty Russians had decided it would be a super idea to stop half way down and take a group-selfie; cue screeching breaks and a hard stop seconds before I smashed into the back of them. They eventually got going again and I managed to pick up speed, hurtling down to the bottom. Aside from skiing, it’s honestly the best way to get down a mountain!

If I had to pick one highlight from our Beijing Bucketlist adventures, it would be the Great Wall. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, you would expect it to be impressive; however, I find that sometimes the excitement of visiting places with such lofty credentials is accompanied by a New Year’s Eve kind of anti-climax… this was not the case here. The Great Wall took my breath away and I could have walked along it in awe for miles and miles (had I not really needed to eat lunch). If you get the chance to visit, grab it with both hands – and let me know if you agree!

NB: you can read my first Beijing blog here.

– Emma

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