To scale the Great Wall of China
08.05.2016 - 14.05.2016
After visiting India and the Taj Mahal, the next world famous destination I simply had to get off my bucket list has to be the Great Wall of China. And after procrastinating for so long, often disappointed by lack of interest from friends, I finally decided to take the plunge and fulfil my long awaiting desire to scale the Great Wall. And the best place to visit the Great Wall will be through the capital city of Beijing. This trip was made easier with the help of my colleagues from Beijing, who have given me a lot of pointers and even helped me to arrange for transport to visit the Great Wall. For that I am eternally grateful. Here's a big thank you especially to Zhu Xin and Fang Min.
Beijing city itself also consists of 3 other Unesco World Heritage sites which I also took this opportunity to explore. Armed with a sense of adventure and my ability to speak Mandarin, I finally set off for my first visit to China without joining any group tour. There were initial fears and uncertainty but as I soon found out, these were very much unfounded.
Being the capital city of China, it is not surprising to see Beijing being swamped by people. Beijing is well served by an extensive network of interconnecting subway lines (I counted 15 lines in all), buses and taxis, although road conditions and terrible traffic jams will push most people towards taking the train. Everything in Beijing is huge, even the airport is mega size and I was also a bit lost because of this. This was also one of few airports where I had to take a train to another part of the airport to claim my luggage. And it took me a while to figure out where the exit was. So imagine its size!
Mandarin is still the predominant spoken language. There are very little English signs. Road signs and subway train stations are decoded in hanyu pinyin but for those who know Chinese, you will find it a chore to read (as they can be long and cumbersome and sometimes makes no sense if you read too fast since they are joint together) and would rather just look at the Chinese characters. Even menu in fast food restaurants like McDonalds and KFC are in Chinese language. So for those who cannot read Chinese may have to resort to using pictures to order your food. I was told by my colleagues that with better standard of education young people can speak some English but I didn’t test it since I do not have a language issue. So language is definitely still a heavy barrier for non-Mandarin speakers.
Other than language problems for non-Mandarin speakers, Beijing is relatively safe. You can feel secured even if out walking late at night. This is a good training ground for those who want to go free and easy route but do not have the confidence to do so.
One thing I have to praise Beijing (or anywhere in China in general) is the way they run tourism. They make it very easy for tourists travelling on their own to reach major attractions which are all well connected by public transport. They also spent a lot of money doing restoration and building proper foot paths for easy walking. There are also attempts to create English explanations at various exhibits so that non-Chinese speakers can also understand the history and significance of each exhibit on display. If any negative points however, is that they are so good at what they do that you tend to have an inevitable sense of overly commercialization. Good example will be many side exhibits within a tourist attraction that requires additional entrance fees. Often, these 'extras' are the cream of the crop that one is here to see and missing it is as good as not coming to the attraction. Sometimes you can buy an all inclusive ticket, which costs a bit more; sometimes these are not available and additional tickets have to be purchased separately.
As mentioned earlier, Beijing is well served by an extensive interconnecting subway lines, inclusive train services to airport, although the journey can be long and incisive of spending time interchanging between stops. Every major area place of interest or tourist attraction is reachable by subway line and some stops are so close to each other that they can even be reached on foot. In fact it is so convenient to reach most places that this is one of few cities that you can brazenly walk around without holding a street map! Of course one still needs to have a general sense of direction and know exactly where to go before attempting to move around without a street map. Inside and outside train stations there are also good signage and maps of the local area (although not as extensive) that one can make reference to before reaching intended destination. And of course when in doubt, no matter which country you are in, always ask the locals!
The train rides are also cheap, at an average cost of RMB 4-5 per trip. Trains are also the best way to beat the road traffic jams. For convenience purposes, do get an stored-value IC card which can be purchased at the airport interchange. Otherwise train tickets will have to be purchased for every single ride, which will be a hassle. Unused amounts can be refunded (at selected stations only though) before one departs from Beijing.
However, with so many intersecting lines, it can get confusing and one has to know where the various train lines and interchanging stops are so as to better plan the travel route. To solve this problem, one can download the interactive Beijing subway line app. By just typing in the name of the station it will immediately zoom you to the location of the station, saving you the hassle of trying to figure out which station belongs to which line. The app I downloaded even have comments from other users which provided useful information on nearby attractions for each individual station and how to reach there! This app is definitely a must have for easy navigation purposes.
Security is tight at all train stations. For all stations all bags have to pass through an x-ray machine. This is part and parcel of life in modern Beijing. In high profile areas like Olympic village and Tiananmen Square, one even has to pass through a metal detector and is subjected to body search. Even water in bottles are subjected to tests and you may be asked to take a sip!
One thing about the Beijing subway line is that it is always crowded. For most times, there are no seats and one has to stand. Also distances between interchange can be long so you have to do a lot of walking. This is especially a problem if one is dragging luggage or carrying heavy items. Escalators are available inside stations but not necessary outside of the stations. So climbing stairs is inevitable
But overall the train service is fast, efficient and orderly. Plus it is cheap. Definitely a good way to move around
Great Wall of China (UNESCO)
The say 万里长城长又长 (The Great Wall is long and long). Built with the original intention to ward off Mongol invaders, the walls stretch up to over 8,000 km and cover at least 6 provinces and right into the desert. Hence it is virtually impossible for mere mortals like us to cover the entire stretch. Usually the most favored way to visit the Great Wall is a trip Beijing where several sections of the wall are open to the public. There are also many day tours on offer that depart from Beijing but beware of touts or deliberately planned journeys with shopping trips which will end up wasting your time should you sign up for one
For this trip, I covered both Badaling (八达岭) and Mutianyu (慕田峪) stretch of the Wall
This is by far the easiest section of the Great Wall to go on your own without joining any pesky group tours. For directions, take subway Line 2 to Ji Shui Tan (积水潭). Exit from Exit A, turn left and continue walking. You should see a bus interchange on your left but this is not the one you should go to. Instead continue waling until you reach a cross junction, then cross the road to reach another interchange and take bus 877 express (one stop service to the wall). Buses run in morning at regular intervals. But be sure to be early to beat the crowds and also if you wish to spend more time at the Wall. Cost is RMB 6 (one way) by using IC card.
Badaling is by far the most famous stretch of the wall simply because of its easy access and gentle gradient. Unfortunately, as it is too easily reachable, this is also the most crowded, especially on weekends and public holidays. In order to save the queuing time and some money, it is suggested that one proceed to the great wall entrance by foot instead of taking cable car or the slide car. The distance to the main wall entrance by foot is actually not far at all. Just take a morning stroll and enjoy the scenery
Due to its popularity, the wall is extremely well preserved. Scaling it is also less strenuous as there are fewer slopes to navigate. Do start by walking towards the left side of the wall. As you walk further, the crowds get thinner which will then be a good time for photo opportunities. Eventually you will reach the end of the public access area where it is time to turn back.
The other stretch, on the right side is full of people. One can continue to walk as much as your legs can carry you and there are many side exits which allows visitors to exit and return to the main entrance
It is certainly less accessible than its more famous neighbor but certainly not impossible to reach. Thanks to my colleague, we had transport to pick us up all the way to the main site so I did not have a chance to try going on my own. There is quite a distance to walk from the base to the main entrance so it is advisable to take the internal bus (cost RMB 15 2-way)
Mutianyu Great Wall is definitely less crowded but more strenuous, due to its steeper gradient and numerous slopes. But if you are a photo person, this will be a better choice.
The walls here are also more ‘natural’ as compared to Badaling, which seems to be too artificially restored. I had a field day scaling the wall without having to bump into so many people. It was, in short a surreal experience. You can just stand there and marvel at this ancient structure where there seem to be no end in sight and wondering “Am I really here?” For resting points, the watchtowers in various sections serve as a natural cooling stop for people to escape from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter (冬暖夏凉). However, it is sad to note that graffiti continues to be a problem and many areas of the wall have inscriptions on them by inconsiderate people.
To conclude, the Great Wall is really an amazing structure which seems to stretch no boundaries. To be able to step on it and then look as far as your vision allows that seems to have no end is something I will never forget. This is one structure that surely is not to be missed. it My personal favourite will be Mutinyu simply because it is less crowded and more in its natural form. But be prepared for a strenuous workout! Because there is a lot of walking involved, do wear comfortable shoes and clothing. And do not forget the camera!
There is of course other stretches of the wall that are for the more adventurous that one can hike for longer distances but for people like me, these two stretches are more than sufficient. After all, the wall is more than 8,000 km long!
Forbidden City (UNESCO)
Directions: To reach, take the train (line 1) to either Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West station. From there, just follow the mass crowd. It is impossible to miss it
This used to be the imperial palace of the Emperor and ordinary folks were banned from entering, hence the name ‘Forbidden City’. With the collapse of Imperial China, it has since been converted in to a museum and subsequently renamed the Palace Museum.
This is a big compound rich in history and will take at least half a day to explore. Do explore the architectural design of each building as well as the intricate carvings of each building. However, the Forbidden City is always crowded as a result of mass invasion of tourists, especially on weekends and holidays. My experience in the Forbidden City was hence not as pleasant as I hoped to be.
There are three important halls in the Forbidden City that one will see upon entrance. Once you enter the compound, you will see TaiHeDian (太和殿) or the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This is the most important of the 3 main halls where major ceremonies and occasions are held.
Behind TaiHeDian will be ZhongHeDian (中和殿) (Hall of Central Harmony), this served as a resting place for the emperor before he proceeded to TaiHeDian for major ceremonies and occasions.
Lastly will be BaoHeDian (保和殿)(Hall of Preserved Harmony) where it served as the venue for royal banquets.
These 3 halls are one of the grandest in the complex, with some of the most beautiful artwork, decorations and carvings that you can see. Unfortunately, the interior is out of bounds to visitors, although one can jostle with the mass crowds (if you can squeeze your way past them) for a photo opportunity.
The rest of the halls are smaller in size which mainly serve as residences for concubines and consorts which I will not go into details. Out of these, the one that came most to mind is YanXiGong (延喜宫) This was the only one where it was not red in colour (white) and as of today remains the only uncompleted structure
What I would now like to bring to the reader’s attention is the 2 additional paid exhibits located inside the compound which I feel is worth a visit. At least group tours are unlikely to visit them and this will be an excellent place to avoid mass crowds. Besides that there are some wonderful exhibits that are really worth seeing.
(a) 珍宝馆 (Treasure Gallery)
This is where bulk of the imperial treasures is stored, although it is said most of the treasures have been relocated to Taiwan’s National Museum during the battle between Nationalists and Communists. But still there are enough imperial artifacts worth seeing. Alongside with the navigational guide this is where laymen like me can really enjoy the exhibits with description and history of most items explained automatically as you move along via the navigational guide.
But the highlight is still to see the Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁). This is a beauty by itself. Do take some nice pictures.
(b) 钟表馆 (Hall of Clocks and Watches)
This is one of my favorite exhibits in the Forbidden City. With the Qing Emperor’s obsession for clocks, it is not surprising to see an elaborate collection of clocks (I didn’t see any watches though) in this museum. Watch making influences comes from both internally (such as Suzhou and Guangzhou) and European influence (Swiss, French and English just to name a few). In modern days I don’t think one will ever see such overly elaborate clocks with each and every item carved by master clock makers. There are even timing where museum staff will set the clocks ticking and let visitors see how the clocks work, although I missed this part. Definitely worth a visit.
Tips for visit: Be sure to grab a navigational guide, which is available various languages. It not only serves as a map to guide visitors through the maze of the compound, it also provides commentary at various points of interest. Especially inside the Treasure Gallery and the Hall of Clocks and Watches, it also provides description of various items on display. Unfortunately, as it works by GPS tracking technology, some of the commentary is so long that one has to stay put and not move away otherwise the commentary will be lost if the GPS fails to pick up the signal.
Note: Please bring along passport. I noted the ticket seller entering personal particulars of visitors into the system when purchasing a ticket. Also the Forbidden City is closed on Mondays except for public holidays and summer holidays of July and August. And of course avoid coming on weekends and major holidays. Your experience will be ruin by mass crowds
Summer Palace (UNESCO)
Directions: Take subway line 4, get off at BeiGongMen (北宫门) and exit from Exit D. Afterwards, turn left and continue walking until you reach the entrance
The Summer Palace is the favourite haunt of Empress Dowager Cixi. Much of it was elaborately built after the destruction of the Old Summer Palace and the style and layout heavily influenced by the whims and fancies of the Empress Dowager. There is also a big lake surrounding it. This is another huge compound which can easily take hours to explore. Like the Forbidden City, it is also very crowded, although you can still find quiet spots to enjoy some peace and calm.
Do buy the full ticket which will give you access to all the gardens and palaces in the compound. Otherwise one will find through access being blocked or additional entrance fees have to be paid in order to further access the compound.
Below are some of the notable compounds
(a) 德和圆 (DeHe Yuan)–This is a theatre complex where the Empress Dowager, a big theatre fan, gets her fix by watching actors perform in plays and shows
(b) 文昌院 (WenChangYuan)– It is a museum whereby various artifacts belonging to the Palace and Empress Dowager are displayed. The highlight is a first generation motor car given by Yuan Shi Kai as a gift to the Empress Dowager. And the Empress was certainly impressed as this was the first time she had a transport not powered by the leg muscles of horses!
(c) 佛香阁 (FoXiangGe)– This is where most offerings and prayers are held. This is also where one can get a paranormic view of the entire Summer Palace complex
(d) 排云殿 (PaiYunDian)– Not far from FoXiangGe is the location whereby the extravagant birthday celebrations of the Empress Dowager are being held. In this complex you still can see the elaborate birthday presents received by Cixi herself. However, most of these are under lock and key so visitors can only peer at it through a window.
(e) 苏州街 (SuZhouJie)– This is a Venice-style street, with a pile of shophouses encircling a mini canal. Most of the shops are in still in operation and sell various souvenirs and food to tourists
(f) 谐 趣园 (XieQuYuan)– This is a big garden with a mini lake in between. Very peaceful and serene. There are also black swans imported from Australia moving in the lake
Beijing has many parks which are worth dropping by if one has the time. Do incorporate some of them into the itinerary to get a slice of local life. I myself have also visited 3 of them
Directions: Take subway line 4 to圆明园 (YuanMingYuan) is it actually not far from the Summer Palace and a visit can be incorporated after a visit to the Summer Palace.
This is the location of the Old Summer Palace, constructed with European architectural influences, which has since been converted into a park. The park is big mainly due to a huge lake in the middle which forces people to go round it instead of cutting across. The highlight is to see the ruins of YuanMingYuan, a humiliating reminder of Imperial China history where British and French forces invaded the palace, looted and burnt the place down. I understand it is still being used by the Chinese Government as part of National Education.
This is another big park favoured by locals, the highlight being a big white stupa located in the middle of the park. There is also a Nine Dragon Screen although I did not get to see it.
TianTan (天坛)Park (UNESCO)
This is a park worth visiting by itself. On the exterior, locals congregate to dance, play badminton, sing, play cards and other social activities. It reminds me of People’s Park in Cheng Du.
For visitors like us, the must-go place will be the QiNianDian (祈年殿)(Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest）, a UNESCO World Heritage building (note that additional entrance fees payable otherwise get the all-inclusive ticket). It is a circular temple structure and as the name suggests, used by the Emperor to pray for good harvest in one of the most important and elaborate ceremonies of the calendar year. This building was constructed entirely of wood without a nail used and is a great beauty by itself. You will never get tired of seeing it and has be to one of the representation of Beijing. There are also exhibits showcasing the history and purpose of the hall, including how ceremonies are being conducted.
There are several places of interest for the shopping die-hards and I have been to 4 of them.
This is the more glitzy, higher- end mall very much like Tokyo’s Ginza, Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele or Singapore’s Orchard Road. This is where most shopping malls congregate and higher-end and branded stuff sold. Rather expensive and definitely not suitable for people looking for a bargain.
This is a more subtle pedestrian street located close to TianAnMen Square. At nights it can get rather crowded. This is a good place to shop for souvenirs and snacks. For foodies, there is a food street where diners can have their pick of local cuisines and affordable prices. Unfortunately most menus are in Chinese. This is also where Madam Tussaud Beijing is located.
This is a cross between Dongdan and Qianmen. There are big shopping malls and shops along this pedestrian street. It leans more towards the higher end scale. I only visited it once and decided not to return again as there seems to be nothing interesting to entice me.
NanLuoGu Xiang 南罗鼓巷
Not sure if you will call this a shopping belt but I have indicated it here. This is a place where you can catch Beijing Hutong (side alleys with low buildings), a rare side nowadays with the rapid industrialization of the city resulting in high rise buildings popping up everywhere. People still live here so visitors are reminded not to encroach of the privacy of residents. Along the entire stretch you can find shops selling all sorts of stuff. This is also a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of Beijing city life, enjoy some peace and and just sit down relax and enjoy a cuppa.
Other Places of Interest
Due to the significance of this Square, security, as expected is extremely tight. One not only has to go through the usual x-ray machine scan but also metal detector, body pat downs and even water test (to make sure you are not carrying explosive liquids, I presume).
For those who do no not know the background or history of this place will just feel that this is just a big parade square and nothing much. At no place can you find any mention of the significance of this square and definitely nothing that suggested the protests that took place here in 1989 and ended with the June 4 incident (not going to dwell too much on this. One can always research online to find out more if one is interested). You will get to see lots of people strolling around and especially going to the section where 2 sentry stand guard over the raised flag of China. At the background is the entrance to the Forbidden City with a big portrait of Chairman Mao overlooking the Square. I was there in time to witness the changing of guards (simple ceremony) but did not mange to catch the flag lowering ceremony.
Nearby will be the China National museum as well as the mausoleum of Chairman Mao
YongheGong (雍和宫) / Confucius Temple
This is a Lama temple, said to be the biggest in Beijing. It is divided into 5 sections where devotees can offer their prayers to Buddha. The highlight will be the 4-storey tall Buddha statue made of sandlewood (said to be a Guinness records for tallest sandlewood statue) right at the end of the temple. Usually I try not to take pictures of Buddhist figurines in temples; this time I succumb to my desires to log down this memory.
Nearby YongHeGong is the Confucius Temple, showcasing the teachings and philosophies of this great teacher. To say this is a temple is not entirely correct is Confucianism is more of a philosophy than a religion; besides there are no statues placed in a temple like environment for people to pray. Besides that there are also exhibits showcasing the spread of Confucianism and how this influenced other East Asian and even Western philosophy teachings. It is interesting so do drop by if one has the time.
Bird’s Nest stadium
The stage of the 2008 Olympics. Do go there to see the stadium lightings at night. It is beautiful. For those who are interested to step into the stadium, you will have to make your way there in the day. Besides the stadium, there is also a park like atmosphere where visitors can relax and stroll around. There is also a shopping mall nearby, although I did not visit it due to time constrains.
Finally it was time to wrap up my 6 day visit. Because of its safety and ease of travel, I certainly do not mind coming back again. And of course to scale the Great Wall again on another day. For my next trip I definitely will also want to cover the neighbouring municipality of Tianjin, which I did not go this time due to insufficient research. That will be another write-up for another day.
For now, I leave Beijing with found memories. To take a pun from Bobby Chan's song of same name "One Night in Beijing, I left a lot of memories behind".