Great Wall of China at Simatai, near Beijing, north-east China
- A "must see" tourist attraction
- Deciding on which section to visit
- Getting there
- Sights along the way
- A long climb
- Down to the market stalls
- Another breakdown
- A final reflection
- Gallery with more images of the Wall including panoramas
There is no doubt that, if you only see one thing in China, it should be the Great Wall. This is the biggest monument ever constructed by humanity, anywhere in the world, and whilst it has crumbled away in places, many sections of it remain for people to enjoy short walks or longer hikes. Like the much smaller Hadrian's Wall between England and Scotland, it was built by an empire to keep marauding foreigners at bay. Both go through remote hill country, running over the summits for maximum effectiveness. This makes the Great Wall an enormously impressive sight, with so much history and symbolism behind it.
It's not surprising that so many people go on sponsored hiking trips to the Great Wall, raising millions of pounds for charity. Or that the Great Wall is included in just about every organised tour itinerary to China.
There are plenty of other places on the web to find the detailed statistics about the Great Wall. Wikipedia says that it was built from the end of the 14th century to the beginning of the 17th century, during the Ming dynasty, but was preceded by other walls dating as early as the 3rd century BC. It is an unbelievable 6,352 km (3,948 miles) long.
Like the pyramids, it must have required an enormous amount of manpower to build it, and a highly organised administrative structure to supervise the construction and logistics. Whether it was delivered on time, and to budget, we can only guess at!
Anyway, we had decided it would make a perfect way to finish our tour of China, close enough to Beijing to visit the day before we were due to fly home. And we had time during idle moments earlier in our holiday to decide which bit to visit and how to get there.
There's plenty of information in the Lonely Planet guide on the Great Wall, and it describes several sections within day-trip distance of Beijing, but is pretty dismissive of the "most artificial incarnation" of the wall at Badaling with its "fairground feel". We had heard similar stories from people who had been there, and by the time we reached Beijing towards the end of our travels we were firmly against going to Badaling.
As for which section to visit instead, we pondered over the meaning of the descriptions in the Lonely Planet guide , such as the "genuine wall experience" at Huanghua where it is "both steep and crumbling - there are no guard rails here and it's unrenovated." At the other extreme, Juyong Pass "has been thoroughly renovated to the point where you don't feel as if you're walking on a part of history." On the other hand, Simatai is "not for the faint-hearted: this rough section of the wall is very steep... the steepness and sheer drops, however, do help keep out the riffraff." We could walk to Simatai from Jinshanling, along a 10km hiking trail, "but it takes nearly four hours because the trail is steep and stony" and travel arrangements seemed tricky.
We decided that a return trip to Simatai seemed the best bet, if we could sort out the transport. We planned to visit on the Saturday, and went to Tiananmen Square on the Friday afternoon to try and find a tour bus operator who would take us there. There were a couple near Mao's Mausoleum. Great Wall? No problem. Tours to Badaling every morning, with the Thirteen Tombs thrown in for good measure. Simatai? No, everyone wants to go to Badaling.
We sought out a Chinese tourist office on Qianmen Dongdajie nearby, which turned out to be just another agency, and we got the same story. They were amazed that we didn't want to go to Badaling, and that we said other people had told us it was overcrowded and tacky. Everyone wanted to go there - so all the tours took them there.
I had a phone number for a Chinese woman whom we'd met in a minicab on the way back from Tiger Leaping Gorge, who worked in a legal office in Beijing, and she had said I should phone when we got to Beijing if we needed any advice. We sought out a phone box, but struggled to hear anything against the noise of traffic. However, I managed to tell her our problem and she said she'd look into it, if I phoned back later. Catriona knew where there was an internet cafe and we made our way there, on Chaoyangmen Nanxiaojie. It was a long walk with lots of traffic, in the warm smoggy air. Eventually I found a quieter phone, and my friend had found information on how to get to Simatai, about the same time as Catriona came up with some details of travel possibilities on the internet.
We could get a bus to Simatai from Xuanwumen bus station, between 7 and 8.30 a.m., returning the same day. This seemed a better bet than a minibus from a youth hostel, which was also available. It took a while to work out where the bus station was, as Beijing has lots of bus stations, but finally we found it on the map and could go off to relax and enjoy a meal of Beijing Duck (very good it was too).
After pulling out all the stops to get up early and get a taxi to Xuanwumen bus station for 7.00 a.m., we ended up sitting on the bus until 8.30 as it wasn't full and presumably they couldn't justify running more than one half-empty bus. I had to seek out a loo, away down the street, and we bought some ice-cold drinks from a woman wheeling them round in a cart. Some other young passengers were in a huddle between the seats, playing cards. An American family came on board. We all sat and waited, as the sun rose higher, and we wondered how much time we would get at the Wall. We bought our tickets for 60 yuan each (about £4) and waited some more.
At 8.30 we duly pulled out, straight into the heavy traffic, and crawled slowly and fitfully through the city and out to the north. Eventually we were passing more suburban areas, but still with tall blocks of housing, more spaced out with lines of trees along the roadside.
The bus managed to pick up some speed at last, and after a comfort stop at a service station we began to feel we might actually get there.
The main point of interest along the way was the tourist town of Miyun, which was obviously growing fast, and had lots of fancy big buildings and blocks of apartments going up. There were striking public art features at road junctions, and some good landscaping work. In China, it seems, grand statements can still be made, and big investments focused on places where development is approved.
Further on, we were getting into more mountainous country, and most of the hillsides seemed to have been recently planted with trees. The villages too, near the road, had young trees growing around them. It seemed to confirm reports that China is making a determined effort to counteract the effects of pollution and global warming by a massive programme of afforestation. And it has the added benefits of being labour intensive, and producing resources for the future. Where the land was flat, it was mostly planted with maize, even in small corners.
I was trying to follow the route on a small map on the back of my Beijing map, but it didn't have enough detail, and I couldn't work out where we had got to. The bus eventually turned right off the main road, onto a minor road that meandered through a valley, past fish farms. Suddenly someone spotted some small but distinct share shapes on the line of mountains ahead and to the left. It had to be the Wall.
The bus pulled in to the large car park at Simatai at 12.15, and the driver announced we had until 4.15. Outside, it was warm and sunny - hot even. There were a few buildings between us and the slopes of the mountain, with piles of bricks to make a new one. We hadn't eaten except for a few snacks on the bus, and stopped for some pot noodles at one of the market stalls. We also stocked up with bottles of cold water before setting out on our walk at 12.40.
The road led past the tourist buildings, one of them a restaurant, then bent down to the right and the left over a bridge past a reservoir. Ahead of us was the chairlift station, with the cables stretching to about three-quarters of the way up the mountain. We were doing it on foot - although the craggy mountain ridge looked pretty high above us. How far would we get, in our allotted time? We realised we'd have to turn back by about 2.30 to make sure we didn't miss the bus.
We continued along the wide surfaced path, which rose gently up the slope above the reservoir, with a well-built stone wall perhaps there to prepare us for the serious business ahead. On the slope to our right were lots of young trees planted, with little walls of loose stones to hold the earth and the precious rain.
There wasn't likely to be any rain that day. It was blazing hot now, as we climbed. A group of women sat under the shade of trees beside the path, and some of them called out to us. One came to join us as we walked along, evidently hoping we would take her on as a guide, but finally got the message after Catriona repeatedly told her, politely but firmly, that we didn't need one. [ See Mike's story of the Great Wall for a more extreme example of hawking techniques on the stretch from Jinshanling ].
We reached the Wall. A couple of men sat in the shade at a table, and we walked past into the tower, and up steps, onto the Wall. Yes, we were on the Wall, at last. We could see it stretching down to the neck of the reservoir, and then continuing up the other side, way in the distance over the hill tops. That must be the route to Jinshanling. In the other direction, it climbed up the steep hillside above us, and that was the direction we were going in.
Lots of steps. Very steep. And not all flat - because of the steepness of the slope, to enable you to put your foot onto the steps they had to slope in places, so it certainly felt rather precarious as we climbed. But we stormed up at a steady pace, on this well-restored section of wall with parapets either side, to the next watch tower.
There were other people there, but not too many - we can't have passed as many as 100 in our two and a half hours on the wall. There were a couple more places where people tried to sell us souvenirs - such as medals engraved with our names - but it certainly wasn't heavily commercialised.
Near the engraver, a path climbed up to the Wall from below on the right. Looking down here, we could see the upper chairlift station below. Even those taking the easy route would have to face a short but steep climb to walk on the Wall.
After the first few watch towers, the wall became much less "looked after", with the parapet disappearing leaving significant drops down on either side. The views were just spectacular, with really clear visibility, blue skies and the dramatic shapes of the wall and the towers in the foreground. Mountain ranges extended away into the distance. And then we climbed more steps.
Higher up on the ridge, the path had to leave the Wall for a short distance where it was in poor condition, and climbed up over rocky ground, before returning to the line of the Wall. A couple of watch towers further, and we reached a chain barrier, with a sign saying the next section was closed. We could see the Wall running down, then up to an even more pointed crag a couple of hundred metres away. Another walker ignored the sign and ventured on, but we had used up our time anyway and couldn't afford to have to be rescued the day before flying home.
Looking back the way we had come, I realised that this was one of the sections of the wall with additional defensive walls built within the wall itself - to give the defenders positions to fight from if the enemy managed to get up onto the Wall. I'd seen similar fortifications on a TV programme about the Wall a few months earlier. So, an excuse for more photos, and we took plenty more on the way down.
It was much less effort of course, but we couldn't hurry the descent because it was so steep, and one slip could send us tumbling down with nothing to stop us until the next watch tower a hundred metres below! So it was a careful descent, pausing to make the most of the views.
Away to the south-east, we could see some major earthworks under way to construct a new road. It looked like a big one, so visitors to Beijing in a few years' time might find they can get to Simatai much more quickly. No doubt there will be more renovation work, more souvenir opportunities, and many more people.
The market stalls back at the car park were enough for us. We haggled for ages with two vendors at neighbouring stalls over the price of "I climbed the Great Wall" t-shirts, before striking deals. Be warned - buy a Large one, and don't wash it in hot water as it shrinks upwards and the colour comes out! Another vendor got into an argument with a group of younger men over whether they could stand and chat in the space next to his stall - he said it was his space. They almost came to blows, but we distracted him by buying some attractive textiles from him.
Then it was 4.15, and time to board the bus.
To cut an already-long story a bit shorter, we were zooming back to Beijing steadily, enjoying the feeling of having climbed the Wall, and only an hour or so from the city centre, when we stopped on the hard shoulder. It was about 6.15.
The driver went and tinkered under the bus, and in the engine at the back. He tinkered some more. Time passed. He made some announcement which we missed, and a couple of young people got off the bus and hailed a passing service bus. Catriona asked him how long we would have to wait - he said, just to wait.
Finally, we decided that we, too, would have to jump ship, as we had a plane to catch next morning and lots of packing to do, and we hadn't had a decent meal all day. The American family were easily persuaded to join us, and soon we were all squeezing onto another bus that picked us up and delivered us into Beijing at about 7.45.
After the incident on the bus to Chongqing, when the bus ran out of fuel in a tunnel and we sat there for an hour, we were not overwhelmed with confidence in the quality of the bus services. But we managed to get back (luckily it broke down on a busy stretch of road). Wonder what happened to the rest of the passengers?
Even so, it wasn't a great time to arrive back in Beijing. Even at the busy Qianmen gate, which we reached by subway, most of the interesting restaurants were closing for the evening - it was just after 8 pm on a Saturday night! We hunted up and down streets, and finally returned to one we had passed at the start, for our final main meal in China.
If we tried to work out how many steps we had climbed on this holiday, it would add up to many thousands. But they had taken us to some pretty special and spectacular places, over terrain that we couldn't have crossed without these enormous construction efforts by many thousands of Chinese workers over the years.
Contributed by: Andrew Llanwarne
Photos by Andrew, Owen and Catriona Llanwarne
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