Off the beaten path to the Great Wall of China

The time has come, we’re going to have to change buses.

We’re on our way to the Great Wall of China, and this simple sounding feat is proving challenging. Somehow we’ve almost reached the right place to change, when the driver kindly stops to let us out into a scrum of men screaming TAXI at the top of their lungs.

Nonetheless, we manage to navigate to what we believe to be the stop for our next bus. With our new taxi driving friends.

This genuinely feels like an achievement, given the level of uncertainty we’re working with. We’re pretty sure, scanning the bus stop sign for the Chinese symbols of the village we’re aiming for, Gubeikou, that we’ve nailed it.

The crowd of men who’ve followed us to the bus stop are less sure.

TAXI! TAXI! NO BUS! BUS FINISH!

Here we go.

I guess we’re not far off the beaten path if this is happening. But I certainly feel it, stood by the side of this road, on the dusty edge of an unknown town, in the gathering dusk.

We’ve got far enough left to go that there’s no way we can afford a taxi.

Please let there be a bus.

Makes sense.

It’s not until you try something as seemingly basic as changing buses in a country where you can neither understand nor read the language, that you realise how helpless this deficiency makes you. I mean, there are a lot of languages I don’t speak. Almost all of them, in fact. But I can at least sort-of read them if they’re written in Roman or Cyrillic script. Or even Greek — I knew that maths degree would come in useful one day.

In Japan and Korea there are lots of English signs which assuage the impotence of not being able to read basic instructions, or place names. Not so in China. If you’re travelling independently you need at least to learn the symbols for the places you’re trying to go, but even that won’t help much.

The world is a confusing place when you can no longer read.

Going it alone in China is hard

The thing with travelling in China as a non-Chinese speaker is you’ve got two options: staying in your tourist bubble, or flailing about wildly, crossing your fingers, and hoping that you somehow get to where you intended, miraculously find somewhere to sleep, and manage to communicate your nutritional needs sufficiently to stave off starvation.

There isn’t really any middle ground.

Off the beaten path is a bit of an overused expression, but I’m using it anyway because I think it’s the right one here. The absolute best bits of our time in China were experiences that definitely qualify as off the beaten path.

When I say off the beaten path, I’m not necessarily talking about where, but more about how, when and who. What I mean is that you can have a real, untouristy experience in a place that everyone has heard of, like the Great Wall of China. You just have to be thoughtful about how and when you do it, and make some effort to interact with the people you meet in a meaningful way.

So getting off the beaten path was richly rewarding for us in China. But christ, was it difficult to beat our own path.

You know what really helped? Our poor, previously maligned copy of Lonely Planet China. I’m pretty sure that without its instruction we’d never have made it to the Great Wall. Or we would have ended up at one of the more popular sections, and found ourselves sharing it with fourteen thousand other people.

Normally I’d scoff at the suggestion that anything in Lonely Planet could be off the beaten path, but in China this conceit didn’t seem to hold. There are some recommendations in the China book that genuinely are relatively undiscovered, at least for now. When we followed these suggestions we found ourselves on journeys that were difficult with the aid of a guidebook, and would have been impossible for us without. And crucially, on these trips we met nobody but locals. We didn’t find a single other tourist sharing the same experience.

I cringe a bit from writing down this idea, that some of the best travel experiences are the less discovered ones, where you won’t find any other tourists. In a way it feels kind of self-involved and snobby to express this sentiment. I mean, I want to see these places, why shouldn’t anybody else? And what am I doing writing about travel if I don’t want to share the world with other people?

But I do get sad, and frustrated, when tourism is so intense that whatever attracted people in the first place has been overshadowed, or even erased, by the crowds of visitors and the industry that’s sprung up to serve them. This is a big issue in China — the place is crowded.

A relaxing waterfront stroll in Shanghai.

It definitely seems to be true in China that if somewhere is easy to get to, then the world and his elderly mother-in-law will have got there before you. If you want some peace and quiet, you have to work for it.

So on this occasion, we did.

On the slow road to the Great Wall of China

From Beijing you can visit the Great Wall by hopping on the train to Badaling, about an hour North West of the city. Doing this is fairly cheap, and very convenient, so if you’re only in China for a short time this might be the option for you. But even in the icy winds of winter this part of the wall is packed with tourists. Like, literally packed. As in, you can’t really see the wall because it’s obscured by a mob of people and souvenir stands. So we opted out of this one.

Instead, Arthur, Sabine (our friend we met in Russia and travelled most of China with), and I decided to take up one of Lonely Planet’s suggestions, and hike the section of the Great Wall from Gubeikou to Jinshanling, two or three hours North East of Beijing. The walk is about 6 or 7 hours, and it takes in both restored and original sections of wall, as well as a bit of the surrounding farmland. It sounded perfect.

Plan A was to make our way to the start of the route in the afternoon, then do a small part of the hike before finding a tower on the wall to camp in for the night. Camping on the Great Wall is a fairly popular, if technically illegal thing to do, and we thought it sounded like a pretty thrilling experience.

But when we checked the weather in the morning, and saw the overnight temperatures would be in the negative teens and a strong wind was forecast, we reluctantly backpedalled on this idea.

So plan B was hastily formed. We’d get to the village of Gubeikou, two buses and about a three hour journey from Beijing, and find a guesthouse to stay in. Once settled in we’d head out by moonlight to get our first glimpse of the wall, then retreat back to warm beds before rising early to start the hike at dawn, and see sunrise on the wall.

The best most haphazardly laid plans…

We successfully make it to Beijing’s Dongzhimen bus station, to catch the bus to Miyun. Once in Miyun we’ll change for a bus to Gubeikou. We hope. But before we get on the bus we need to find a cash machine, and some food supplies. No shops or foreign-card accepting ATMs are to be found in the bus station, we’re going to have to cross the road. Big deal, right?

We spend fifteen minutes failing to cross the road.

There are fences precluding conventional road crossing manoeuvres, so we assume the steps we can see lead down to an underpass for crossing the road.

Nope. We spend the next ten minutes lost in a metro station. We resort to walking a hundred metres down the side of the road (there’s no pavement, obviously) to find a gap in the fence. Fortunately the gap leads to paradise: the other side of the street, which we could barely see through the traffic fumes, contains an ICBC cash machine 1, something vaguely resembling a supermarket, and a steamed bun stand. Lunch is up.

These are not those steamed buns, we were much too stressed to take photos. These are some delicious ones we had in Xi’an a few days later – post on the excellent streetfood of Xi’an coming soon.

When we finally get back to the bus station with cash, plum brandy and mysterious corn snacks, the next challenge is finding the right bus. There go another 30 minutes. After more confusion trying to explain where we want to go, and trying to understand how to pay, the three of us are crammed into a bench seat with our knees jammed into the seat in front, and our backpacks on our laps. Did I mention personal space is not a thing in China?

By the time we make it to the town of Miyun, it’s getting quite late. Maybe turning up to a small village in rural China late in the evening, in the off-season, isn’t the best idea? But we’ve got this far, we can’t give up now.

As our bus pushes through central Miyun, a vast, silent battalion of concrete ping-pong tables rears into my view. The central plaza is occupied by tens upon tens of them, arranged in a perfect grid. Their hefty, regimented presence is undisturbed by players on this bitter winter afternoon. Bold slogans look down from the edges of the vast, empty plaza.

PROSPERITY, DEMOCRACY, EQUALITY they shout, in English. RULE OF LAW.

The image snags in my brain, demanding answers. Is this place full of laughter in summer? Is it a play-ground or a drill-ground? I picture identically dressed school children filling the square, flicking their bats in a perfect unison, and wonder if this scene ever exists in reality. Do they really mean EQUALITY, or is this a testing ground to find those who are unequalled? China does pretty well in the Olympics these days, and they’ve always smashed the ping-pong.

Does that sound wrong to anyone else?

The bus pulls on, and the place is gone. But this slice of strangeness is just the beginning. It’s only 3 pm, and there’s plenty of time for the day to get weirder.

And it’s time to change bus.

So we wait. And we hope.

The taxi men are surprisingly persistent. Perhaps that tells you more about economics in rural China that anything else. We wait, and we wait, and so do they. When, finally, mercifully, a bus arrives, they’re still waiting. TAXI. TAXI! They stay staunchly at their posts as we, on our little overcrowded bus, disappear down the road to Gubeikou.

TAXI.

TAXI.

TAXI.

Strangers in a strange land

As our bus putters on, and the sun sags low on the horizon, strange creations loom from the dry, tattered landscape. Brown, scrubby grass is cut through by narrow, dusted roads, and interrupted by construction unrestrained by planning permission. Unfinished concrete boxes line the road, fronts adorned with mouldings and paint, but with metalwork protruding, and bits missing: steps, balustrades, a roof.

Further back, hazy in the dusty air and low light, bewildered roman columns jut up from the frozen ground, holding no load, guarding nothing. And then there’s a building that looks like a poured concrete chateau. Stranger still, I’m sure that out there, a way beyond the concrete cubes and the dust of the road, I can see the Arc de Triomphe.

A man glides gracefully past us, riding an stand-up electric scooter into the dusk. He stands with one foot slightly in front of the other, hands placed wide and firm on the handlebars, shoulders back, chest proud. His faded sports jacket is zipped up tight against the wind, and his dark grey suit trousers flap regally. His face is set, in pleasure and purpose. He knows where he’s going.

I, on the other hand do not.

I have no idea how we’ll to know when to get off this bus, it’s getting really dark now, and I’m beginning to think this whole exercise was a terrible idea. As I do almost every time we arrive somewhere new after sunset. My fear of the unknown is bolstered by its partner in crime: the dark.

But then I see it. Excitement wells up, overriding the fear and fatigue. It’s really there. Just visible, unmistakable in profile against the the twilight, is the Great Wall of China.

I’m almost too excited to remember to press the button for our stop.

The bus drives away, leaving us alone in the cold dark, the wall looming on the hill above us, and a silent street stretching down towards the village.

And then the adventures really begin.

But that’s a story for next time!


Read part two of our Great Wall adventure.

I’m always interested to hear your thoughts!


Footnote!

  1. ICBC is the best bank for using a foreign card in China. The Dongzhimen branch is a block East of the bus station, along Dongzhimen road. As we eventually discovered…

2 thoughts on “Off the beaten path to the Great Wall of China

  1. Wow that sounds like some serious adventure. Like you I prefer lesser traveled areas when possible. I have not been to China. It sounds like some careful planning and a copy of Lonely Planet are in order,

    1. Yes planning is definitely key! We didn’t plan enough I think, so were disappointed by quite how crowded places were on a few occasions. If (when!?) we go back I’ll definitely take more care to find some advice and ideas from people who’ve travelled independently to places we’re considering. We found often that what wasn’t said in the mainstream travel info was more important than what was said. Like, yes it’s beautiful, but yes it gets thousands of visitors a day, and all the litter and tourist infrastructure that goes with that. Live and learn!

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