Monday, May 26, 2008

Great Wall Advice Compilation

A compilation of advice on viewing Chinese Great Wall sites, mostly in the Beijing vicinity:
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Great Wall close to Beijing?

I'd recommend trying to see the Great Wall at Simatai. It is in Guidebooks. I believe Simatai is the furthest publicly open section that still remains an easy day trip from Beijing. It takes about two hours by private car to reach it. I suspect that the difficulty arriving there by public transportation is the reason it is not smothered by hordes of tourists. There will be other people at Simatai, but nothing like the choking crowds at Badaling (which is easily accessible by public bus).

Simatai also offers the advantage that it has some infrastructure, but it has not been extensively or obtrusively rebuilt. Unlike Badaling, there is no Starbucks or movie theater. Some bricks are new, but most are not. It's very easy to find and photograph bricks bearing their original dates of manufacture. There is a cable car and tram to take one most of the way up the mountain (about 2 kilometers from the parking lot, over relatively inhospitable terrain), and then there are steps built into the mountain to walk up the last 600 meters or so.

The Wall at Simatai location is built along the crest of a steep mountain ridge. The views are breathtaking. Even though the wall is only open for about 1 Km at this stretch, I did not feel deprived in the least. There are many watchtowers and guard houses to explore. If I recall, the guardhouses appeared to be their original condition. After one walks along the wall through several watchtowers, a fence blocks the rest of the way with the announcement that beyond this spot the wall is not open to the public. I would not have ventured past this area anyway, for safety reasons. There are sheer cliffs and crumbling brick.

When I visited Badaling last Fall, it was a huge disappointment after having been to Simatai. The Wall is still spectacular, and I think the portion open at Badaling may be longer, but there is no comparison otherwise.

Alex
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David Kasper wrote:

In reality the Great Wall at Jinshanling is the furtherst that one can go and still make it a day trip from Beijing.

Indeed, the turning is less than 20km further on and it's a shorter distance from there to the Wall itself than at Simatai.

It takes about two hours by private car to reach it.

That time will have been cut, or will shortly be cut, by the opening of the Beijing to Chengde expressway. This might also affect the volume of visitors, but there are certainly currently far fewer there than at Simatai, which is the darling of now innumerable tours run at (often absurdly high) prices by budget accommodation. Still, you wouldn't call Simatai crowded.

There are even fewer people than either at Panlong Shan, which is between the two (from a driving point of view). The three sites run west to east: Panlong Shan, Jin Shan Ling, Simatai. Panlong Shan might well be the best choice for Wendy, since just a little bit of work has been done to keep it intact, possibly quite illegally by local peasants who appear to be running the show and may not in fact have proper permission to do so, although a proper ticket is issued. The entrance fee is half that of the other sites, the decay of the Wall just enough to make it romantic yet easy to walk on, and there's none of the massive rebuilding to be found (although also to be walked away from) at Jin Shan Ling and Simatai. There are no cable cars, chair lifts, zip lines, or souvenir sellers of any kind. The problem with souvenir sellers is most intense at Simatai, and on the walk from Jin Shan Ling to there. They cling limpet-like to visitors for long periods and can completely spoil the experience for some.

It's possible to walk from here to Jin Shan Ling in about five hours at a steady dither, but about 1.5 hours of that is spent off the Wall as a military camp has to be skirted, and without detailed directions it's not hard to get lost.

I suspect that the difficulty arriving there by public transportation is the reason it is not smothered by hordes of tourists.

But in the case of all three sites it's only a matter of getting on a Chengde bus and jumping off at the turning, then either walking or negotiating with waiting transportation.

Simatai also offers the advantage that it has some infrastructure, but it has not been extensively or obtrusively rebuilt. Unlike Badaling, there is no Starbucks or movie theater.

Wasn't there a 'Lonely Planet Restaurant' last time I was there?

Mutianyu has the benefit that it can be reached at weekends on Chinese tour buses, and it's a very green site; busy, still with some backpacker tours, but not as busy as Ba Da Ling (nowhere is). It's cursed with souvenir sellers, but under better control, a chair lift, and a sled for coming down.

Anyone wanting a quick trip would be better to choose Juyong Guan over Ba Da Ling: It's nearer and has one tenth of the visitors (or less). This is a long swooping section completely rebuilt about ten years ago, no more or less authentic than Ba Da Ling. Souvenir sellers are kept under tight control and made to stay behind a line. It's easily reached by express aircon bus for ¥12 or less.

Decayed, not legally open but well-known, and not easy by public transport, would be Huanghua Cheng (where people walk round big signs forbidding entry, and pay local farmers a few kuai to walk through their orchards), and Jiankou, which is exceptionally steep even by Wall standards, and with its surface very badly broken up. It's possible to walk from here to Mutianyu, but serious boots and a head for heights both needed.

Result: For Wendy's requirements I'd recommend Panlong Shan, turning both left and right after mounting the Wall, with Jin Shan Ling as second choice. The Panlong Shan entrance (it's a 3km walk from there to the base of the Wall) is on the right immediately before the entrance to the Gu Bei Kou tunnel. Make an early start, buy a ticket for Gu Bei Kou on any Chengde-bound bus, and hop off at the entrance. On the way back cross the road, and flag down any bus with the Beijing characters in the window. Best to be doing that by 4pm or so. You have the other alternative of taking a bus going to Miyun, and a bus back to Beijing from there, the last one leaving around 6.30pm.

Peter N-H
May 26, 2008 at 10:29 AM
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