The weather behaved today and gave us a gloriously sunny day as we headed out for a morning on the Great Wall. We wanted to avoid the touristy Badaling section of the wall, densely crowded with battalions of tour groups and hawkers. At the same time, mindful of the fact that I have Lil Red (my 7-year-old daughter. She wore a bright red hooded winter jacket throughout the trip so it’s pretty apt to call her this!) with me, we could not do as much hiking in the wilder sections of the wall at Jinshanling or Jiankou. The happy compromise was Mutianyu.
Here you are spared the worst of the voracious hawkers who accost you with Mao tees and Great Wall mugs, and you don’t have to compete with everyone and his third cousin for a panoramic shot of the Wall. For us, the chairlift up to the Wall and the luge downhill from the Wall are also attractions in their own right already.
The Wall is clearly a must-see for any visitor to Beijing. The question is, which section of the Wall is best, and how do you get there. There are day tours of course. But often these will bring you to Badaling, let you spend an hour there and then whisk you off to the nearest jade factory or silk showroom. Having gone on the Groupon tour, I am wary of these ‘excursions’ and I think my time is too important to waste on these thinly veiled excuses for kickbacks.
Public transport is possible but a hassle so I did the next best thing – hire a car with a driver. Trawling through Tripadvisor and other online forums led me to Johnny Yellowcar. “Is his name really Yellowcar?” my kids would whisper in wonder to me throughout the day. Well, actually it isn’t. He’s actually Mr Zhang but Johnny is probably easier for non-Mandarin speakers to manage. Johnny doesn’t actually drive a yellow car though he did drive a taxi for years. Actually he drives a super-clean, non-smoky, almost-new Honda Odyssey which seats six of us comfortably. Johnny is fluent in English but because we could speak Mandarin, communication was not an issue.
He is very prompt in answering emails and flexible in planning our time. He picked us up from the hotel at 8am and by 9am we were at the Wall. He waited patiently for us while we spent the better half of the day up on the Wall, then brought us for lunch before heading for the Summer Palace. His services are not cheap – we paid RMB1000 for the day. But we had his car at our disposal for an entire day out of Beijing, and the lack of hassle is truly worth it.
It cost us about RMB55 per adult and RMB30 per child for a combination ticket that included the chairlift up to the Wall and the luge ride down. There is also a cablecar that you can ride up to the Wall.
The chairlift glides above the treetops and valleys to get to the top of the Wall. For about 10 to 15min, you dangle your legs in the air high above the ground, immersed in silence and in awe at the Wall looming up toward you and the ridges and hills spreading away in all directions.
Up on the Wall, we decided to head right and immediately this goes into a steep uphill climb. The kids were great – no one complained. After a while we all spread out with me being the slowest and taking up the rear. I had to stop and catch my breath so many times – thanks to my couch potato days but also because the view was simply phenomenal.
The children full of enthusiastic energy and agility, scampered upwards with ease and confidence. Some steps were so large and so steep, you had to literally haul yourself up, clambering on hands and knees. But the kids just took those in their stride – literally. Little Miss Red in particular, just danced her way up the Wall. She showed no fear or hesitation, sure-footed and steady even at the wild Wall.
It was cold on the Wall and there were even patches of snow but the sun was out so that helped. There was no crowd at all. You might meet the occasional hawker selling drinks and snacks but these were rare.
There were steep sections but the effort is worth it. Just take a break and look far and imagine how it must have been hundreds of years ago. Far beyond the Wall, the hills roll on into the distance, rising and falling away gracefully like the graceful curves of a velvety brown gown. Like a pale brown snake, the Wall curls up and down the hills, following the ridgeline until it disappears into the sky. The view you see would not have changed at all in the hundreds of years the Wall has stood. Through wars and changes of dynasties and revolution, the Wall still stands.
Think about how it was built and think about how it was hoped the Wall would keep out the barbarians – in fact the Wall was not such an effective deterrent. In many cases, it was easily breached by small bands of raiding parties since its sheer size and distance prevented frequent surveillance and guarding. Some just resorted to bribing the guards. In far-flung outposts, who would know or care? Standing there high above, with just the wind and the silence, it was easy to close your eyes and envision the past and empathise with the lonely isolation of the soldiers appointed to guard the Wall over the years though the heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter.
While the First Emperor Shih Huang Ti was credited with building the Wall, he never lived to see it completed. It was a gargantuan task that took several dynasties and hundreds of years and the work of hundreds of thousands of labourers before it could ever be completed. And even then, at any point in time, there would always be sections where the Wall would fall into disrepair. The sections we stand on are largely Ming contributions and not Qin.
Mutianyu was a restored section of the Wall but we went all the way to the point where the restoration ended. Beyond that was the wild Wall, crumbling in spots, mostly without balustrades, overgrown with branches, brambles, weeds and stretching as far as the eye could see. While Lil Red and her brother were eager to go further, right to the watch tower where we could see some people standing, I wasn’t so keen. To get to that point had already taken us about an hour, and we were mindful that we had to make our way back and down to where Johnny was waiting to bring us to lunch. Plus I wasn’t sure how safe the wild Wall was for the kids – the drop was steep on both sides.
A picnic on the Wall from a stash of donuts, bread and maki harvested from the breakfast buffet took place at one of the signal towers of the Wall. All that climbing up and down easily worked up a good appetite. Nothing like sitting under the wide open sky, on a structure that is centuries old and munching your donuts! Homer Simpson would have felt right at home on the Wall with us that day.
Going back downhill was a lot of fun. The luge or toboggan came with single seats or doubles. I sat with Lil Red and whizzed off. Or rather I tried to.
According to the speed demons of KH and my 9-year-old son who took the luge behind me I was a snail and hampered their manic rush downhill. I actually thought I was already pretty fast because hampered by my large camera bag, and with Lil Red in front, it was hard to control the brake but even then I was accused of luge-hogging!
We have a small luge in Singapore but that is nothing compared to this one. It took about 15 to 20min to luge all the way down and we passed curves and bends and even over a flag-lined bridge with heart-thumping views. Exhilarating doesn’t even begin to describe it. There are men stationed at various points on the route exhorting you to slow down but you can choose to ignore them at your own peril of course.
I almost wanted to buy another ticket for another go on the chairlift up and then luge downhill. But lunch was calling and so was the Summer Palace so regretfully, we gave it a miss and went in search of Johnny.
I end this post with a note to say that Johnny took us to a Chinese no-frills fast food joint in the middle of an unknown village somewhere between Mutianyu and Beijing which sold braised beef noodles. The food was cheap (RMB6 a bowl) and really good too! I could never find it again on my own but if you ever get Johnny Yellowcar for a driver, ask him.