The Great Wall of China needs no introduction, but anyway: it stretches 6,700 km from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert. It was originally constructed (the first sections built around the 7th-6th century BC) as independent walls between different states; later, it was consolidated to repel Mongol invaders. The last bit of construction happened between the 14th and 17th centuries A. D.
The section closest to Beijing is Badaling, approximately 70km away. There are other sections too, most notably at Simatai and Mutianyu, but they’re farther out, Simatai being 3 hours one way. I’d been warned that Badaling was commercial, crowded, and not authentic (it was reconstructed in the 20th century, so what you see is modern). Mutianyu, we decided; but we missed the last bus to Mutianyu simply because our guide book had the timings wrong. We couldn’t think of not seeing the Wall – and we were down to the last day of our trip – so Badaling it was.
We bought tour bus tickets (90 RMB per person, including return fare and entry) at the Beijing Sightseeing Tour Center at Qianmen, and got into one of the buses that leave every ten minutes for Badaling. Our tour guide was an efficient girl who quickly began her spiel – unfortunately only in Chinese. Thankfully, she knew enough English to be able to give us vital information: where to find the bus once we’d finished with the wall; what time to get back; and so on.
An hour or so later, we were in Badaling. It was as bad as everybody said it would be: shops, tour buses by the score, food courts, a huge Beijing Olympics 2008 sign across a hill. The worst part is that you can’t avoid it; the route up to the wall is lined all the way with commercial establishments. We refused offers of Chinese fans, fake jade, I climbed the Great Wall T-shirts and much more before finally making it to the Wall.
The Wall’s a combination of steps and ramps, grey stone and steep in places. Climbing isn’t much of a problem unless you’re woefully out of shape, but the descent can be dangerous. What bewildered me was the number of stiletto-wearing women who were gamely climbing up – and down. How do they manage it?
Fending off hawkers (they’re up there on the Wall, selling souvenirs, mineral water, even ices), we toiled up far enough to shake off most of the crowds. Some appreciative admiring of the view – the Wall is impressive – and then we edged our way down, holding on to the rusty railing along the parapets, stopping for a break at a watchtower. We were down at the bus parking with an hour to spare, which we (in classic touristy style) spent buying cheap trinkets as souvenirs.
Verdict: attempt the Wall at Badaling only if you have no choice. It’s the Great Wall of China, yes; but there’s a superficial and irritatingly commercial feel to it that’s hard to get rid of.