We piled into our tourist bus at 6:20 am, shivering in the cold and hoping the sun would rise soon.
“It’s snowing,” Jordan said, looking out the window. “I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s so cold, but it does mean the Wall will be beautiful.”
“As long as it’s not too windy,” I replied, burrowing close to him for comfort.
We had originally planned to take an off-the-beaten-path tour far from Beijing, where we could walk on restored and unrestored parts of the wall. But, because of the snow, the powers that be decided it was too dangerous, and off to Mutianyu we went.
When Jordan and I had been researching this part in our whirlwind Beijing trip, we knew we didn’t want to go to Badaling. That’s the iconic place, but it’s filled with tourists all the time and is completely restored with handrails and more. Jordan wanted a more “authentic” experience at the Great Wall, and because of weather, we settled for Mutianyu. Recently restored, it’s a great place for families and less-adventurous hikers (like myself).
After two and a half hours, we arrived at the entrance ot the Wall. Our guide got us tickets and tried to convince everyone to take the cable car up the mountain to the wall. Jordan hates hidden costs and preferred to walk anyway, so he refused. “I am not paying $15 a person that they didn’t warn us about,” he told me, and set off for the stairs.
“We only have three hours. You may not make it to the wall,” our guide warned.
“Hike” has different meanings for Westerners and Asians. We’ve found that we either walk faster, have longer legs, or stop and take fewer photos, and so cut our hiking time down significantly. We’ve also discovered that while “hike” to us means a meandering dirt path with occasional slopes and steps, in China and Korea it means endless concrete stairs. Endless. Infinity. Forever. I just about died on the way up those stairs. I had to stop and wheeze around 6 times, while Jordan waited patiently for my heart rate to go back down.
Still, we made it to the top in 40 minutes. And let me warn you before we go further: Jordan didn’t doctor these photos in any way. No snipping or tucking to get better angles or views. There just really weren’t many people at all.
Snow dotted the stairs, and we surveyed the mountains with all the amazement we could muster in the 25-degree-Fahrenheit weather. The Great Wall was never actually a continuous wall, though the full amount spans over 21,000 kilometers. It started as an earthen mound to block invading Chinese and Mongols about 2,000 years ago, and spans 17 provinces. Beijing, however, is the best access point to visit a section.
The “original” Wall began during the Qin dynasty around 225 BC under Emperor Qin Shihuang. Most of the workers were people from conquered tribes and other Chinese, forced to work for 10 years or until they died in a construction accident. Legend states that the bones of the dead workers were used as building materials. The Qin dynasty was harsh, as you can tell, and didn’t last long after that. The Han dynasty took over after that and continued work on the Wall off and on until about 220 AD. It wasn’t until a thousand years later, when the Mongols became a threat, that work on the wall resumed (and became more stone-and-mortar). The portion we saw was built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Emperor Yongle was also harsh. He was the same guy who forced all the middle- and ruling-class families to move from Nanking, the current capital, to Beijing. He also forced about two or three million people to build and rebuild the Wall, threatening to kill the workers’ families if they didn’t complete their conscription.
The Wall actually didn’t do much good militarily, and never protected Beijing from Ghengis Khan or other Mongols. But it did work well as a road, which made trade easier, and the emergency beacon systems between towers did highlight military movement well.
When the Qing dynasty took over in 1644 and the Mongols stopped being a threat, there wasn’t a reason to maintain the Wall, and it fell into disrepair.
This is Jordan yelling, “Look at all this space! There is no one here! No one!”
In fact, its state worsened during WWII specifically, and Mao Zedong encouraged Chinese living near the Wall to use its blocks as building materials for their houses. Only in 1984 did the Chinese government order that parts of the Wall be restored.
We walked from the stairs’ entrance to the wall to the cable car entrance, just amazed by the lack of people. At tower 14, near the cable car, though, we saw lots of people slipping and sliding on the ice. We had to grab the wall and slide along the patches of ice, sidestepping other tourists falling on the faces or sliding on their bottoms to get along the Wall.
I took the cable car down because I’m a wimp, and Jordan enjoyed the Wall for another 30 minutes before flying down the stairs and joining the tour group for lunch. We met several other tourists, mostly visiting China for a week or two, and then piled back in the bus to head back to Beijing. We had been warned by our friends that China can be pretty wild and completely alien to Westerners, but so far we thought Beijing and the surrounding areas really easy to navigate and much cleaner than expected. I think part of the reason is that it’s November, when few tourists roam around, and it’s Beijing, probably the most Western-friendly city on mainland China. If we went west to Xi’an or south to the Yellow Mountains, I’m sure it would be a different story. And that was it! The Great Wall far exceeded our expectation and we were thrilled to experience Beijing’s first snow of the season on the Wall.