Picked the section of the wall that sounded the most extreme – Simatai.
Made our own way there using Lonely Planet guide information. Train to Dongzhimen Transport Hub followed by bus 980 to Miyun. The lady at bus station was super helpful and guided us to a different (she said faster) 980 bus… Same price (¥15/each), same number, but we didn’t argue. She told us it would take about an hour and would be the fifth stop. After a couple of stops in town, we were on the highway. The bus driver scored bonus points for using off-ramps and truck stops to get ahead of traffic during road works!
Arrived at Miyun, but no sign of the mini bus to Simatai that was described in Lonely Planet – only private taxis… haggled a rate with a driver. Eventually got him down to ¥340, though Lonely Planet suggested ¥120. Not the first time or the last time that I found the information inaccurate about today.
Our taxi driver learnt to drive playing videogames. Lots and lots of horn action and overtaking at any opportunity and his foot was to the floor (even though he complained about how expensive fuel was). At least the seatbelts worked! And then the pumping Chinese Dance/Pop music started – extra cheesy.
A major fact that was missing from Lonely Planet was that to get to Simatai you had to pass through a place called Gubei. It was an incredible tourist park recreating the aesthetic and layout of an old Chinese town. It soft opened earlier in the year, so there was still loads of construction taking place. The main foyer (where you buy the tickets) felt like the lobby of a five star hotel, and the entry to the park felt like entering a subway. The scale of the place was truly phenomenal. It took at least 30 minutes to walk from one end to the other, and there were alleys that branched off in all directions. The biggest surprise that it was actually quite a tasteful recreation. But, this made it very expensive to get to the Great Wall (¥110 entry).
Just after we purchased the entry tickets, we were told that the ropeway to the summit wasn’t operating due to wind, which was devastating news for Risa. Turned out that the ¥50 return ropeway described in Lonely Planet was actually a brand new gondola at ¥80 one way. And it was running. From the top it was only a short steep climb to the top of the wall.
The wall was surprisingly narrow, and there was a distinct lack of guardrails. It also wasn’t as steep or extreme as I was expecting, which was a little disappointing. It was described as 70˚ incline in some sections, requiring all hands and feet to be able to ascend. It was certainly steep, but nothing extreme.
It was hazy, but still a truly stunning landscape. There were never ending rugged mountain ranges, with the wall winding its way along the peaks as far as we could see (which wasn’t that far in the haze). I thought that the landscape would have been difficult enough to slow the Mongolians down enough without the need for an extra wall.
There was no doubting the enormity of the wall – it was an unfathomable project and the labour and materials required must be unrivalled. But, standing on the wall and looking at it snake through the mountainside, it makes me wonder how that myth of it being visible from space came to become such a commonly believed fact – it’s scarcely wider than an alley!
Sadly, access was limited due to safety concerns from general deterioration of the wall, so I couldn’t walk as far as I wanted (there was actually a security guard posted there to shoo us away).
So, we followed signs downhill on the wall to the ‘Flying Fox’. Lonely Planet said that there was a toboggan, which I assumed was just a translation error. Sadly, the flying fox wasn’t running (it looked rather extreme) and there were no signs of a toboggan existing.
No hawkers, and few tourists. Better than expected.
The historical village (Gubei, or Beijing W Town) really blew my mind. It was as fake as the YSL sold outside the subway stations, but there was something really incredible about it. The scale blew our mind, it just didn’t end. The design was really creative, and in a few years when fully complete and populated it will be really impressive (or a horribly busy/ugly). But, at the moment it feels a little like a movie set – most buildings are still empty shells.
Taxi drive back was another level of extreme. Cheesy Chinese electronic pop music blasting away even louder. Our driver was singing along between cigarettes. This must have amped him up to become super aggressive, driving using both lanes of the available road as well as the shoulder. Survived, said a hail Mary.
The hour-long bus back to Beijing was standing room only. We were the last passengers to get on, so there wasn’t even space for us to sit down on the front steps. We were already tired from walking around all day, so the last thing we wanted was to stand up for another hour. Which was closer to 90 minutes after we hit the Beijing peak hour traffic. I was looking to the Mao photo on the dashboard for protection in the case of a collision, because I didn’t like my chances if anything were to happen.
Expedition to find restaurant for dinner. Found a busy/cheap place after lots of searching. Food is awesome, and it really is some of the highlights of travelling, but searching for restaurants suck. As does deciphering foreign menus. Fortunately the one we chose had an English menu AND pictures! No alarms and no surprises! There was more duck, a super spicy hot pot, steamed buns and ‘Chinese Meat Pies’.
In open areas all over town there are older women dancing in what looks like a cross between line dancing, and tai-chi exercises (backed by cheesy Chinese pop/dance music). Euphoric from a big dinner, Risa joined locals for some Chinese line dancing. She sucked, but was laughing harder than any one else.
Another full day. I was asleep by the end of my first breath after closing my eyes.