When we left Xi’an for Beijing on our first high speed train (200mph), we had no idea what an eye-opening experience it would be. We thought it would be a cool novelty to ride on one, but the real learning was how bad the smog was across the countryside. During the 700+ mile journey, we didn’t see the sky once. No blue, no stars, nothing in the distance. Instead the view was what you’d see in a movie of an apocalyptic wasteland. The smog was suffocating and hugged the land close to the train. You could only make out some farm fields and huge skyscrapers which gradually disappeared into the void. It was the worst thing I’ve seen in the trip. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, it killed me to think of how many people and kids have to breathe that poison every day and can’t enjoy being outside.
The smog dissipated some and wasn’t as bad once we arrived in Beijing. From there we went straight to a little village outside of Miyun, three hours’ northeast of the city where we’d rented a room in a local couple’s home. They spoke no English which we were used to in China by that point, but what was interesting is the location made it so you depended on them for your meals and transportation anywhere. Needless to say, it made for some interesting moments trying to coordinate. But between charades, a translate app and calling their son to help translate, we made it work. They were the sweetest couple and even with the language barrier, still made us feel like part of the family.
Most people do a day trip from Beijing to visit the wall, which makes sense when you have limited time. For us, we didn’t want to rush it and enjoy being on our own clock. The idea of a tour group on the wall sounded miserable as we don’t like following groups. Plus, you don’t need a guide. You can’t really go off the trail when you’re walking along a wall that goes on for thousands of miles. If you go off the trail, it means you fell off the wall.
Some fun facts about the Great Wall:
- The official length is 13,170 miles long and it is more than 2,300 years old
- More than 1/3 of the Great Wall has disappeared without a trace
- The average height is 25 feet tall and 21 feet wide
- More than 1 million laborers helped to build it
Katie did a ton of research and we decided to make our first wall climb on the Jinshanling section starting from the main gate. This allowed us to walk about 6-7 miles of the wall which starts off more reconstructed (and great for pictures) then slowly gets more and more “wild” with crumbling rock and feels more authentic. This Jinshanling stretch of the wall was amazing and because it’s further from Beijing, is less touristic than the popular Badaling stretch. (We read something like 70% of people who visit the wall go to Badaling so you can only imagine the sea of people and selfie sticks). During the six-ish hours we spent on the wall, we only saw 40-50 people and majority were with groups so we passed them all at once. This allowed for great pictures and the chance to soak it in without crowds around. The look, feel, scale and experience is like nothing we have ever seen. It ranks up there in top favorite days on our trip. If you’re ever in Beijing and have a day to go see the wall, highly recommend this stretch! Lots of companies offer day trips and if a group tour isn’t your jam, some companies will just provide transport there/back.
We had a second day devoted to exploring a different section, so we chose the nearby ten towers of Simatei to hike. The hike itself was more strenuous as you literally climb stairs straight up the side of a mountain. But it isn’t as long, so you finish faster. You start from a small man-made town called Water Town which is bizarre in itself. They built an entire city to mirror the look and feel of an ancient city, but in the middle you find nice stores, restaurants and even a hotel that its lobby looked like a Vegas casino. It was as if the government is just building tourist attractions hoping people come. When we walked into the hotel we saw a giant Starbucks and the staff was practicing a flashmob style dance in the lobby. We were bizarre as a tenth of the mile away, there is just countryside and vast nothing.
We headed back to Beijing to experience the city for a day before catching a flight out. Next stop, back to Europe!