Beijing and the Great Wall of China

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Mutianyu Great Wall of China

Let me first say how impressed I was with my Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong. Their lounge in HK is probably the best one I have ever been in, it was enormous and even had a Noodle Bar (fun!). The in-flight service was fantastic and the cabin was almost empty which was nice. After a lovely three hours, we landed in Beijing.

The Beijing airport is nice enough, nothing like the last 3 airports I’ve been in but certainly up to the standards of the better American airports. It looked pretty new so I’m guessing it’s been recently upgraded for the upcoming Olympics. 

I passed easily through passport control since I had arranged for my visa back in the US a few months ago and headed out to find a taxi (the one thing they don’t have here is a rail link to the city).

As is becoming the standard operating procedure, I’m greeted by several aggressive cabbies as I walk out of baggage claim. I typically ignore these guys and head directly out to the “official” taxi queue but occasionally on this trip I’ve gotten burned by that at night and found no taxis outside. 

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

A Frustrating Taxi Ride from the Airport

Since I had read up on what I should expect to pay to get to the hotel, I asked the guy how much it would be. After a little negotiation, we agreed on what I thought was a fair price and headed out. (Just my luck there were 5 million taxis right outside the terminal.)

I get into the cab and quickly realize that the taxi driver must not be especially pleased with the fare he negotiated because he seemed determined to get more money out of me. As soon as we got onto the highway and passed a toll booth he tried to get extra money for the toll. I declined. 

Then, amazingly, he pulls off the highway two exits later to get gas (we haven’t even gone 5 miles yet – I thought this only happened on the Amazing Race). He again asks for money from me for the gas. Again, I declined. Seriously?

Unfortunately for my determined cab driver, he picked the wrong girl at the wrong time. I’ve haggled with too many pushy cab drivers these past few weeks and I must say, I’m becoming quite adept at it. (Cab drivers everywhere, you’ve been warned.)

From cabbies who refused to turn on the meter (Sharm) to cabbies who didn’t want to take me where I wanted to go to but instead to his friend’s jewelry store (Bangkok – I did get out of that cab). Is everyone in the world just trying to rip you off?? It’s starting to feel that way.

I hate to admit it but I’m really becoming jaded on this trip.

Anyway, let’s just say this particular Beijing taxi driver didn’t catch me at my most “agreeable” and I’m sure he was regretting picking me up. But seriously, if I had paid for the toll and the gas, what next? Would he have pulled over to have the tires rotated and billed me for that too??

Good grief, just get me to the hotel, please.

Next, to top it off, he tries to take me to the Hilton instead of the Sheraton Beijing. At this point, I’m concerned that his English isn’t as good as I thought and I momentarily worry that he might just leave me on the side of the road (which might actually be preferable at this point). But fortunately, the Sheraton is just a little further down the road and I spot it and point enthusiastically.

So that was my first impression of Beijing, I sincerely hope it gets better tomorrow. After I checked in, I went to the concierge desk to ask about my options for touring the Great Wall the next day. I knew it was about an hour outside of town and that there were a couple of options for viewing points so I wanted some advice.

She recommended the Mutianyu section and told me I could join the organized tour going at 9am tomorrow or hire the hotel car for a private ride. When I said that I’d like to just hire a taxi she referred me to the hotel’s doorman. 

The doorman arranged a taxi for me for 8am the next morning for 600 Yuan (about $70) which was less than a third of what the group tour or private car would have cost. Satisfied that I had a good plan in place, I headed to bed hoping for a better “Beijing experience” tomorrow.

Touring Beijing and the Great Wall of China

This morning, for about an hour, I had the Great Wall of China all to myself and it was the experience of a lifetime.

My taxi driver, Yang Jie, was ready and waiting at 8:00am (he even called my room at 7:30am to confirm) and off we went. I purposely planned my departure for 8am since I knew that the tour buses left at 9am. Before we left I had the doorman confirm the rate for me with the driver and ask that after the Great Wall he drop me off at Tian’anmen Square instead of bringing me back to the hotel. 

We left right on time and got up to the mountains a little over an hour later. Though there was a cable car at this point along the wall, I decided to make the hike up. It was very cold and overcast but the walk up didn’t sound too bad and I was sure I needed the exercise.

The walk up wasn’t bad at all; probably the equivalent of about 40 flights of stairs but at least it was relatively sturdy stairs with handrails the whole way up. Another great thing about getting there so early was that none of the many hawker stands were set up yet so nobody could try to sell me anything. (Sounds like a small thing but the only thing I’m more sick of than cab drivers right now is people trying to sell me stuff.) 

When I got up to one of the garrison towers and climbed up onto the actual wall, the sun was just starting to break through the clouds – did I mention I am having tremendous luck with the weather?

It was a moment I will treasure forever. 

Great Wall of China Mutianyu
The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu

It was so incredibly peaceful up there, looking down on the mountain ranges with just a little snow on them. No one around for miles, it seemed, just me and the Great Wall of China. I completely forgot about my unpleasant cab ride the night before.

I walked from tower to tower along the wall climbing up and down the stairs – there is nothing flat about this wall – for about an hour before other people finally started to trickle in. Still, none of the big tour buses had arrived it was just a few people here and there which was convenient because I was beginning to wonder who was going to take my picture.

I spent about two hours total there between the climb up and down and the time I spent along the wall itself. It was such a great experience and of the “Big 3” I have seen on this trip (the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall), it is my hands-down favorite.

Having the Great Wall all to myself is definitely one of my top 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.

Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences

When I got back to the bottom, Yang was waiting patiently and we headed back into town. I had him drop me off at Tian’anmen Square so I could wander around and visit the Forbidden City nearby for the rest of the afternoon. 

Before he dropped me off I had him write down the name of my hotel in Mandarin in case I needed it for the taxi ride back (most cabbies here do not speak English).

Tian’anmen Square & the Forbidden City

I spent the rest of the day exploring downtown Beijing. 

My first stop was Tian’anmen Square, the world’s largest square. For two months beginning in April 1989, this square became the focus for the most serious threat to Communist Party rule since its inception. In June 1989, the government sent in troops and tanks to bring student protests to a violent end. Thousands are believed to have died here. 

The square is still the primary site for protests in China. It was packed today since (as my cab driver again informed me this morning) it is still the Chinese New Year holiday – will these people ever go back to work?

Tiananmen Gate Forbidden City Beijing
Tiananmen Gate, Forbidden City

Just across from the square sits the historic Tian’anmen Gate. When China was under imperial rule, the gate formed the entrance to the Forbidden City. At the center of the gate is a large portrait of Chairman Mao, to his left the inscription reads “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” and to his right it reads “Long live the unity of the people of the world.” 

In 1989, student protesters raised a giant statue of a woman holding a torch of democracy, the Goddess of Liberty, to face Mao’s portrait. Walking through Tian’anmen Gate, you enter into the vast Forbidden City (another World Heritage Site) which encompasses the Palace Museum complex and several major sites including official buildings, former residences, gates and gardens, all enclosed by a 33ft wall and a moat (frozen solid today).

Between 1420 and 1911 this was the residence of the Ming and Qing dynasties and ordinary Chinese were barred from entering (and executed if they did) hence the unofficial “Forbidden City” epithet. The complex is gigantic, beautiful and well preserved. I wandered around there for hours through various gates, palaces and finally the Imperial Garden.

Forbidden City Beijing China
The Forbidden City – Beijing, China

Beihai Park

My final stop for the day was Beijing’s largest park, Beihai Park, reputedly created by Kublai Khan during the Jin dynasty in the 12th century – before the Forbidden City was even thought of. Despite the cold weather, the locals were out in force enjoying the day in the park. 

Especially popular was the frozen lake where various ice skating activities were taking place. Some people were actually skating but most were on box-like wooden sleds with only poles for propulsion and navigation. Very interesting, I didn’t try it. I grew up in Florida, ice is not my thing. Looked fun, though.

Finally, I left the park, easily hailed a cab and showed the driver the Chinese symbols for my hotel that Yang had written down for me. The cab was really odd as the driver had installed some sort of “fortress” around him that I assume is to protect him from germs. 

With the Avian Flu around these days, people here aren’t taking any chances. I’ve seen a ton of people walking around with surgical masks on like they’re the latest fashion accessory and on one of the many arrival forms you have to fill out upon landing in China; they ask you to detail any flu-like symptoms you are having. 

There is even a space for the officer to record your temperature if they determine it is necessary to take it when you land. I was really glad that I have managed to avoid getting sick on this trip so far, any illness seems to make you a suspect here…and they are serious about quarantining you.

I made it back to the hotel with a minimum of hassle, had some dinner while uploading pictures and called it a night. I can’t believe I’m already off to Tokyo tomorrow. It seems like I’ve been gone forever but at the same time it feels like the trip has flown by. I can’t believe it’s almost over.

Beijing was a great experience and I’m really glad I decided to include it on my itinerary. And truthfully, one day was all I needed.

Next stop, Tokyo!

The latest stats through today in Beijing:
Miles traveled: 39,948
Hours spent in-flight: 92.75
Airlines flown: Delta, Air France, South African Airways, Egypt Air, Gulf Air, Thai Air, Malaysian Airlines, United, Cathay Pacific
Number of steps on the Great Wall: Way too many!