I recently wrote an essay for stopeatingdogs.com, which you can read here. Anyway, China...
Thanks to prompting from xkcd and the peculiarities of the Korean education system, we've both spent a bit of time lately deskwarming and reading the Wikipedia article List of Common Misconceptions. There are three in particular that are important. The first is that the Great Wall is visible from the moon, obviously bollocks since it's no wider than an ordinary road. The second is the idea of the "Great Wall" itself; it'is not one structure but many different walls built over many centuries for a number of reasons (admittedly a lot of those reasons are of the "keeping the Mongols out" genre). The biggest misconception about the Great Wall is that Lonely Planet City Guide: Beijing will tell you how to get there.
That last one isn't in the Wikipedia article (yet), but it might turn up in an angry email to Lonely Planet depending on how bored I am at school this week. There was a homeless guy we ran into one night outside our hostel, and I think his advice for Great Wall visits (limited as it was to falling off his bike and grabbing people inappropriately) would be more useful than Lonely Planet's.
We decided to make two visits to the wall, one to a restored touristy section and another to an original unrestored part. We skipped Badaling, the most commonly visited part of the wall, because it looks like this:
We decided the Mutianyu section would be a better bet for our touristy visit and headed there first. On the advice of our faithful travelling companion we caught the bus out to a town called Huairou, about an hour out of Beijing. This would be fine except that LP says to catch the express bus, but gives you no idea which one that is.
From Huairou we were supposed to get a minibus to Mutianyu for Y25 (about $5). A minibus driver found us on the bus, but it turned out that both he and the LP use the word "minibus" to mean "some guy's smelly car with no seatbelts." As it turned out, he was really helpful, waiting for us while we were at the wall and helping us find the bus to get back, but it was pure luck that we got him and not (spoiler alert) a dangerous lunatic.
Anyway, the wall was amazing. We took the cable car up - not very authentic but great views -and we were pleased to find the place not too busy. We stayed up there for a couple of hours walking around, taking photos, and agreeing that it was a bad idea to climb up the massive steep hill section.
The slogan in the top left means "Stay loyal to Chairman Mao". Pro tip: save money by eavesdropping on other people's tour guides.
There was also a donkey.
Because Mutianyu is one of the more touristy parts of the wall and China has an awesomely misguided approach to preserving its history, we rode a toboggan down the hill. It wasn't a real toboggan - more a big metal slide that you rode down on a small cart - but it was real fun. Yay, history!
The choice for our "old wall" visit a few days later was made for us, but we weren't disappointed. The Simitai section was closed and our friends at LP had neglected to include any useful information to go with the pictures of Jinshanling, so we settled on the out of the way and officially closed Huanghua.
On the same bus to Huairou I was accosted by some Chinese dude who got on the bus just to yell at me to go with him to the wall. Uh. No thanks, crazy man. At the real bus stop we found a familiar lack of minibuses, plus a group of middle aged Chinese men waving their arms wildly and yelling "minibus" at us. They were a hassle to negotiate with but we eventually got a return trip for the same price we paid to go to Mutianyu.
There were five of us this time so we had to split up and take the two dirtiest cars in China. Again there were no seatbelts and the car smelt awful, but that was where the similarity with our other driver ended. At the first intersection he came within inches of causing two accidents. He drove fast and stupid, passing everyone in sight and narrowly avoiding several head-on collisions. Judging by the lunatic grin on his face he seemed to get a kick out of playing scare the white people.
Lucky to be alive, we arrived at Huanghua. Unlike Mutianyu, which runs along a stretch of rolling hills, Huanghua is at the bottom of a steep valley, with sections of wall climbing the hill on either side. It's quite beautiful, particularly as you get further up and can see more of the wall snake away in the distance. This part of the wall is officially closed, but the locals will let you in for Y2 (40 cents). We set off up the more accessible eastern side, which involves walking across a dam, scrambling up a steep hillside and then climbing a dodgy ladder up to one of the watchtowers and onto the wall.
Huanghua is the wild wall in all its shabby (mostly) unrestored glory. It feels much more authentic than Mutianyu, with crumbling towers and big bits missing from the sides. It's also really steep so we didn't walk too far, but we still got some sweet views. Past where we walked we could see an even more rugged section of wall that seemed to be fading back into the wilderness.
On the way back down we bypassed the ladder and used the other access: through someone's backyard. We were charged another Y2 for the privilege by an old Chinese woman who handed us tickets with "Y2" printed on them. In what must be one of the world's least rewarding scams we were charged again when we got to a gate at the bottom of the hill. The man at the gate said our other tickets were no good, and pocketed another Y2 from each of us. Still, it's hard to be too annoyed when you're ripped off to the tune of eighty cents.
We swapped cars for the drive back and it was much less terrifying - I even got a seatbelt! When we got back to Huairou but the drivers insisted we owed them more money than we had agreed to, even calling someone who spoke no more English than they did (essentially none) to try to explain it. We figured this was all an act when they weren't prepared to walk across the street after us.
Overall the Great Wall was an amazing experience, just leave the Lonely Planet at home and be prepared for some interesting (read: terrifying) transport.