When I found out I had been accepted to the Jinhua Homestay Program, I was excited to be given the opportunity to travel to China and to Asia for the first time. Of course, one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of China is the Great Wall. While you can’t actually really see it from space (at least with the naked eye), it is still one of the wonders of the world. I decided that this would probably be my best chance to visit the Great Wall, so I added a couple of days in Beijing to my itinerary so that I could include it in my trip.
I looked into several options for tours since I had heard the sections most worth seeing were hard to get to unless you spoke Mandarin. I ended up booking tour through a random company that I found while wandering around trying to find Tiananmen Square to go on a full-day trip to the Muntianyu Section. The Muntianyu Section is considered to be one of the best sections, well-maintained and restored, but not packed. The tour also included a stop at one of the Ming Tombs, which are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
The Dingling Tomb, one of the Ming Tombs, was the first stop on our tour. This tomb is the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yijun (1563 – 1620) of Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) and his two empresses, Empress Xiaoduan and Empress Xiaojing. Zhu Yijun was the thirteenth emperor and occupied the throne for 48 years, the longest among all of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty. This tomb was built over six years between 1584 and 1590. While the top part looks pretty unassuming (at least compared to other imperial tombs), the Underground Palace is something special. After several false starts and trick entrances were found, the real Underground Palace was finally discovered in the late 1950s. In addition to housing the three tombs, the Underground Palace housed jade, silk, gold, silver and other treasures. More than 3,000 cultural relics have been found here.
After this stop, we hit the road and arrived at the Mutianyu Section. We had a wonderful lunch at a restaurant in the village below the section. I wish I could have talked to the owners and gotten their views on tourism and how it has impacted the village. After lunch, it was finally time to explore the Great Wall. We were only given two hours before we had to head back to Beijing (to avoid traffic), so I decided to take the cable car up.
The cable car drops you in the middle of the section, so I had to choose which way to go. I decided to head up since it looked less crowded. There are 23 towers in this section, and I made it my goal to make it to the end. When they recommend comfortable walking shoes for the wall, they are serious. While the distance wasn’t that bad (about 1,000 meters), there are a couple of stretches that are extremely steep (up to 70 degrees between Towers 19 and 20!).
The longer I walked and the steeper the steps, the more the crowd thinned. After a little more than an hour, I reached the end of the restored section and I was almost totally alone. It was fantastic. However, I then had to book it back to the cable car to make it back to the bus.The scenery is breathtaking and it is very clear to see why this was such an advantageous defensive position.
The next day, I decided to be adventurous and tackle the Badaling Section of the Great Wall on my own. After some online research, I mapped out a plan to take the subway to the train station and then take the train directly there. Sounds easy, right? Hahahahahah…amateur. I arrived at the train station about 30 minutes before the train was set to depart and set about trying to find a place to buy a ticket. I then spent the next 30 minutes wandering around, trying to ask various people about how to buy a ticket (and if there were tickets) before giving up and getting back on the subway to head to the bus stop. The bus stop was crowded, but there were lots of buses so it moved pretty quick. I got on a bus and an hour and a half later arrived at Badaling.
I had heard that it was extremely touristy, but I was still unprepared for what I was about to experience. Badaling averages more than 50,000 visitors a day – mostly domestic tourists. It was a hot June day, and it was packed. It was so crowded especially near the towers that I was completely surrounded and could barely move my arms to take pictures. I hate crowds and waiting in line, so it was a nightmare for me. It was not the peaceful, enjoyable experience of the previous day. This section of the wall is also suffering from overuse and isn’t as nice as Mutianyu.
I’m glad I got the chance to see these two sections to be able to compare the two experiences. If you only have one day to see the Great Wall of China, I highly recommend springing the extra Yuan to head to Mutianyu. It will be a much better experience overall.