The only thing harder than climbing the Great Wall is ordering dumplings.
Our first full day in China had us learning many a lesson about the tourist scene here in Beijing. The learning curve is steep and it is definitely not without stumbles but we managed to navigate our way to, and from, the Great wall with only a few “tourist bruises”, a great story to tell and one amazing memory of travelling to the Wall.
We met a fellow travel blogger/backpacker who was also on day one of her own journey (see Emily’s blog here) and started discussing possible ways to get to the Mutianyu portion of The Great Wall. At the hostel in Beijing we are staying at, there are guided tours but we were hoping to spend less and also wanted the adventure and challenge of getting there ourselves. After researching the route and suggestions from other bloggers, all three of us set off to find our way to the Wall. From what we read, it was possible but tricky as scams and money grabbing schemes are common, so we knew we would very likely run into a few snags along the way. And we sure did!
It started out pretty smoothly. We knew we needed to get to Dongzhimen station to catch a bus. Easy enough. We’ve only been here a short time but the subway system is pretty simple to learn once you’ve tried it and seen a map, so we knew how to navigate to get to the line transfers we needed. Our instructions told us to catch the 916 bus to Huairou so we made our way to the bus transfer and found the line we needed. We hesitated. Just a moment where we opened a map and all three of us looked at it with concern, like we didn’t quite know where to go. And that’s all it took. We were instantly approached by a woman claiming she could take us to bus 830 that would get us to Mutianyu quicker than the one we were waiting for. We followed at first but remembering that the lady at the reception desk at our hostel confirmed our directions for us, we quickly decided that even if it was quicker, we weren’t going to risk it. We never did see bus 830 on route to the Wall but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or wouldn’t have gotten us there faster, we just don’t believe that’s the case. We opted for the way we had researched and got back in line for the 916. Lesson #1: We already look like tourists, but we don’t need to make it obvious
Three stops and an hour in and a man steps on the bus, walks up to the three of us and says this is the stop for Mutianyu. Now, we know for a fact this is not the stop the directions indicated and we wouldn’t have gotten off the bus, but two Chinese girls on the bus with us spoke to the man and told us the taxis weren’t running from Huairou (the station we needed to reach). They said they’d get off the bus with us so we could go together as they were headed there as well. As the bus drove away and we listened to the one girl and the man, who we learned was a taxi driver, talk to each other in Chinese, it became increasingly obvious that this was one of those scams we had read about and by the sound of the girl’s tone, she was not happy about it. It would have ended up being a scam and we would have had to pay significantly more. While we wouldn’t have gotten off that bus without the girl, she ended up saving us money and time in the long run by negotiating with the driver and ensuring we all went in the “cab” together. She was incredibly helpful making sure we got our tickets and gave us instructions and directions for getting back. It was quite the contrast in attitudes to see one person working so hard to work their scheme and another fighting so hard against it. While we don’t appreciate being taken advantage of, we also don’t fault someone for wanting to make a little extra cash, and we sure are thankful for having someone who just wanted to help. Lesson #2: Don’t get off the bus.
The three of us were pretty hungry by the time we made it to the first entrance to get to the Wall, so we stopped in a dumpling restaurant. The waitress didn’t speak English but we tried hard to communicate that we wanted 3 pork and chive dumplings and 3 pork and shrimp dumplings. We weren’t sure she had completely understood what we had said and were proven correct when we received three of each alright. Three plates of each for a grand total of 60 dumplings. We were shocked at first and a little upset because we weren’t convinced she didn’t “confuse” our order on purpose, but our frustration quickly turned to laughter at the absurd number of dumplings set before us. We decided to make light of the situation, pack up a to go bag, pay our bill, and take the dumplings with us. Before we left Macrae joked in English/make-shift signing that since we bought so many dumplings, maybe we could take the chopsticks for free. She smiled and agreed, so we are now travelling with our own set of chopsticks. Lesson #3: When ordering dumplings, make sure you know how much you are ordering.
After lunch we headed, on foot (instead of buying a shuttle ticket), the half hour walk from the first gate through the village of Mutianyu, to reach the stairs that would take us to the Wall.
Once there we started our climb to the top of the mountain and the Wall itself. It was not an easy task. Steep staircase, after steep staircase, we seemed to be climbing for hours but in reality it was probably only one. By the time we made it to the top we were sweaty, exhausted and had drank more than half of our water. It was hard to focus on much else but the fact that our legs hurt, until we took the final step onto the Wall and got our first real glimpse of the view. It’s one of those views that no lens could ever capture to its fullest extent but regardless, you keep snapping photos in the futile hope of getting just one that may do it justice. Lesson #4: People were wrong. Climbing the Great Wall is not a piece of cake but it is definitely worth every step.
We walked along the Wall for a while before heading back down and making our way back to our hostel. The route home was somewhat less eventful since we knew the buses we needed to take and ignored all offers of a “taxi” ride. Looking back on the day it was completely exhausting, filled with the unexpected, and one of the best days ever. It was only the first day of our adventures but we definitely learned and experienced a lot and it is a day we won’t soon forget. Lesson #5: Tours cost 280 Yuan. Finding our own adventure is priceless.