How To Climb the Great Wall of China For Under $2
You don’t need a fancy tour
If you have 24 hours in Beijing and you don’t climb the Great Wall of China, were you ever really there? The answer is yes, there are plenty of things to do in Beijing that are not wall-related.
Still… climbing the Great Wall in my tired state, fresh off a two-week horse trek in Mongolia, on a scorching hot summers’ day, along with 10,000 other tourists seemed like a fabulous idea for my quick stopover in China.
The tours on offer in my hostel being upwards of $100, I opted to take the local transport option — and save myself at least $98 in the process. I first had to navigate my way across Tiananmen Square which is no small feat in itself. Because the enormous square in the centre of the city is completely closed off except through designated security checkpoints (presumably to prevent a repeat of the 1989 uprising), you can easily find yourself being herded through subways under the main intersections in directions you really didn’t want to go.
It consistently amazed me how accepting Chinese citizens are about having their identity cards scanned, photos taken of their faces and their bags searched — even just to enter any metro station. I have never felt simultaneously one among millions upon millions of people and yet so individually tracked as I did in Beijing. But I too was accepting, for how else are you going to move around the city?
I took the metro to Jishuitan station and followed the signs to Bus 877 for Badaling Great Wall. These signs abruptly end where several roads converge at a major intersection — and where I could distantly make out the bus I needed departing on the opposite side. Working out how to cross intersections was my perennial challenge in Beijing, and one that I usually solved by attaching myself to a group of locals and boldly striding out into the traffic with them.
Crowd management in China seems to employ a vast number of people. A whole entourage awaited us at the long queues for the buses, moving people along very quickly in the simplest way possible: by screaming at them. Because the 877 left constantly carrying passengers to the Great Wall, there were a few buses lined up one beside the other.
Various members of the uniformed entourage yelled and pointed emphatically at completely different buses, urging us to run across the road in front of one or two Bus 877s to board another Bus 877 of their choice. But because there didn’t seem to be any consensus on which Bus 877 should leave first, the Crowd Managers competed with each other to fill up the bus they’d arbitrarily selected.
I promptly fell asleep on the bus, with the soothing tones of Mandarin being spoken over a microphone — as one of the Crowd Managers doubled as a Tour Guide. When I woke up just over an hour later, we were pulling up at the Great Wall. A second Crowd Manager had fallen asleep in the seat beside me, and as people started to get off the bus, he awoke and snapped into position, screaming instructions at them to continue doing what they were already doing.
The entire busload of passengers began to walk along in convoy behind the Crowd Manager-Tour Guide who was still speaking over the microphone. I broke away and followed the signs for “Climb the Great Wall”. These led me through a covered market where you could buy Chairman Mao bling and back-scratchers all the way up a long flight of stone stairs. I managed to make it to the Wall entrance with my backpack only one back-scratcher heavier than when I’d started.
After buying a necessary $8 latte, I approached the Wall. Even though I’d woken up at 6am to try and beat the crowds, by the time I arrived after 9am, the crowds were very much in attendance.
Because they all seemed to be turning right, I veered left and headed into a less populated part of the wall. It got very steep very quickly: some parts had giant stairs while others were a sharp incline that you had to pull yourself up by clutching onto a handrail.
All along the ramparts, people were sitting squeezed into spots of shade or standing draped against the sides in front of a selfie stick. Children were posing obligingly — and only one toddler had sat down on the steps, refusing to move while her mother coaxed her.
The south side ended abruptly with a wall blocking the path, forcing my return to the entrance. I took a deep breath and decided to tackle the north side, even though I could already see a bottleneck of people converging on the tallest watchtower further up.
It was almost 11 o’clock and over 30 degrees when I was pulled into the surge of people, many carrying umbrellas, some supporting an elderly parent on their arm, and one very old woman rather courageously attempting the climb in a wheelchair. Among some thousands of tourists, I only saw a handful of Westerners.
To get myself out of this horde of wall enthusiasts, I made the smart decision to bypass the most popular watchtower and cut across the line of people waiting for a cable car back down to the entrance. I figured that way I could rejoin the wall on the opposite side.
Terrible move. I replaced one heaving mass of people for another and when I finally made it to the front of the line for the cable car, I had a lot of trouble explaining in my non-existent Mandarin that actually I just wanted to get back to the Great Wall and it had all been a colossal mistake. There was no rejoining, only going back the way I’d come.
So once more I hurled myself into the throng ascending the very watchtower that I had just spent the better part of an hour trying to avoid. When I finally reached the doorway, I picked a path over people sprawled or squatted inside, seeking respite from the ever-increasing heat.
But that was as far as most people got before descending again by way of cable car or a shorter side trail to the bottom. Which meant that by continuing onwards (and upwards and downwards about five more times), I actually had most of the Great Wall of China to myself.
I spent about four hours sweat drenched and with the sun slowly peeling the skin from my nose. My legs were jelly for a good few days afterwards. But it was worth it.
And all for less than $2 (plus that $8 latte).