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Finding the Great Wall of China from Beijing: a traveler's tale
Guide books don’t always know best
I'd always wanted to see the Great Wall of China. My guidebook told me the best way to get there from Beijing. My guidebook was next to useless. Its instructions were vague, unclear, and ultimately pointless because the buses it told me to take weren't running. I still made it to the Great Wall. It was cheap, and easy, and safe. It wasn't in my guide book. It wasn't in any of the guide books of the other tourists I ran into. Guide books don’t always know best.
If you truly just want directions, there's a map below. You either want to find a way to the train station or the bus station from wherever you are. If you want a less direct but more interesting route, follow the path I took on the map. Read my story. There's more about finding a destination than locating it, and what I found in the end was brilliant. What will you find?
The route I took to lose and find myself
For those feeling a bit lost, Tiananmen Square is the big open place across from the Forbidden City. You want the farthest left corner away from that.
The bus station is the last stop for bus 5. You can also take bus 22, 690, 826 or subway Line 2 from Qianmen Station to Jishuitan.
Subway Line 2 towards Jishuitan until Xizhimen. Take exit Exit A1. You want a train to Badaling.
Step 1: Start in Beijing
Beijing is a wonderful place to explore. The transportation is cheap, the palaces and temples are extraordinary, and the culture is everything one could hope for. Ultimately, however, what drew me to that exact city out of the entirety of China was not its Summer Palace, nor the Forbidden City. I wanted to walk upon the Great Wall. I wanted to stand upon the stones that have seen millennia, the testament to human engineering that is visible from space. It was a dream I held onto for a long time. My timing in finally attempting a visit was not ideal.
I came in January. It was my winter break. I was working in South Korea at the time, teaching English. For those of you who, like me, are geographically challenged, South Korea (and North Korea, for that matter) is a peninsula hanging off the far Eastern side of China, right in between China and Japan. Basically, I was very close to Beijing. It made sense to visit. What I did not know, but learned from my Korean friends later, was that Koreans do not visit Beijing in the winter. They visit Beijing in the summer. There is a good reason for this.
Temple of Heaven
I arrived in China the day of a snow blizzard. This, apparently, is not a common event. Winters are cold in Beijing, very cold, but also dry. It doesn't usually snow. The city didn't seem prepared to handle it. Snow was piled up everywhere for days. Marble steps up ancient monuments were slick as ice. Someone made an attempt to rectify this by laying down cloth walkways up and down stairs. It didn't work. The cloth did have traction against shoes. What it did not have is traction against the stone. Shoe and cloth slid together and nearly sent me tumbling down steep stairs half a dozen times.
Still, my second day I knew my way around. I knew how to find my hotel. I knew where the McDonalds was that had hot chocolate for when I was frozen. I knew the way to the subway and the buses. I managed not to slip and fall once. I was ready to visit my dream: The Great Wall of China.
Step 2: Go to Tiananmen Square. Catch Bus 5.
I started off early. My guide book told me to go to the Southeast corner of Tiananmen Square. There, I was to catch bus 5. This is the first point that my guidebook failed me. It didn't explain. I re-read it several times later and it still just said take bus 5. It wasn't wrong. It just wasn't very clear.
To ride a bus in Beijing, you look for the bust stop that has the bus number you want to take, in the direction you want to go. Then you wait there for the bus. This is true for catching a bus just about anywhere in the world. I had to wait a while. Several buses pulled up that were not bus 5. Canny traveler that I was, I did not get on. Finally, bus 5 did arrive. The doors opened. I got on.
I had never ridden a bus in China before, and I wasn't sure how it worked. Some helpful people around me got me to put one Yuan in the place for money. For the record, at the time I was in China it took seven Yuan to make one American dollar. It’s one Yuan to ride the bus and two to ride the metro. That is roughly fourteen cents to ride the bus.
Bus 5, as it turned out, is an inter-city bus. The Great Wall of China is not an inter-city wall. It’s outside of Beijing. At this point, I was beginning to question the wisdom of my guidebook. The bus went on and on through the city, far away from Tiananmen Square. Then it came to its final stop. This means that everyone has to get off the bus because it isn't going any further. I got off the bus. I had no idea where I was, except for one pertinent fact. I was not at the Great Wall of China.
Commit No Nuisance
Step 3: Walk around Replica Wall to Buses
I was not at the Great Wall, but there was a piece of the Great Wall in front of me. It was tall and imposing and rather shorter than what I was hoping to see. I was confused. I was also a bit stranded. Normally, when you take a bus one direction , you can find a bus going back the way you came across the street. There was no such bus stop that I could see. There was no one around to ask questions. Just a busy street and cars. Finally I did the only thing that made sense; I followed the street around the giant replica in the hopes that it would take me somewhere. At least I hoped to find the bus stop for the bus going back the way I had come.
I walked around and found buses. These weren't inter-city buses. These were the big kind that take you off on tours. What my guidebook failed to explain to me was that I needed to take Bus 5 to the end of its rout and then get on one of the big buses going to the Great Wall. Still. I had found my way! There were the buses and they would take me to the Great Wall and my dream would be fulfilled!
Remember how I had bad timing arriving in Beijing? How winter is not the best time to visit? There was ice on the roads. The buses weren't running.
Step 4. Make New Friends
By this point, I was not the only tourist around. Many people were gathering around the buses, talking to the ticket man, and learning the same bad news. Many people were looking at their guidebooks and shaking their heads. Taxi drivers were circling us like wolf packs, trying to lure stragglers from the herd with promises of low fares.
“200 Yuan, there and back again, you and a friend!” they said. I began to consider them. If I found another stranded tourist, that would be 100 Yuan for each of us. It wasn't that unreasonable a price.
Then one woman asked something remarkable.
“What about the train?”
What about the train? What train? My guide book did not say anything about taking a train to the Great Wall of China. I was not alone in this. Other guide books were being consulted by other tourists. None of our guidebooks said we could take a train.
“The train is full,” the taxi drivers said. This was a mistake on their part. It wasn't just that it was an obvious lie. It was that it confirmed there was a train we could take. The train lady insisted we could take the train.
In the end, five of us followed the train woman. She said she was from Bali. That’s how travelers always seem to introduce each other. No one ever asks for names. Everyone wants to know where you’re from. I've stayed in many hostels where I could tell you where my roommates were from, where they had been, and where they were going without ever learning their name. In our group we had Bali Woman, a couple from Norway, and a couple from China, though not from Beijing, and me.
We spent hours together. I learned about Bali woman's husband's job that has them moving every couple of years. I learned about the snow in Norway, how much better Norwegians are at clearing the streets than the Chinese of all the white stuff. How one could leave a car outside overnight in Norway and the next day not be able to find it because it's buried. We had a lot of time to talk to each other. I even ran into the Norway couple again the next day. I never did learn any of their names.
Step 5. Ride the metro. Take the train.
It turned out we weren't far from a metro station. This is when I learned that the metro costs 2 Yuan. I hadn't had to ride it yet. It was crowded, efficient, and basically like every other metro I've ever ridden on. We carried our backpacks around our fronts instead of our backs. I’m assuming that was to deter pickpockets. I only did it when I saw my new friends carrying their backpack this way.
We let the Chinese couple buy our tickets at the train station. It’s much easier to get around when someone in your group is fluent in Chinese. There was indeed a train going straight to the Great Wall. Sadly, I can’t remember how much a train ticket cost but online suggests 15 Yuan and that sounds about right. Much less than taking a 100 Yuan taxi. We had to wait an hour. This turned out to be unfortunate. One of the Chinese couple lost his ticket just before the train arrived and both wound up missing it.
Our group was down to four. We got on the train. The Chinese countryside was beautiful. Winter may not be a good time to travel to China, but it is a beautiful time. Somehow, I hadn't realized that we’d be in the mountains. I had a vague image of a wall at the top of a hill. It was much more than that.
The Great Wall of China: Badaling
Step 6. Walk the Great Wall
The guidebook was right about a few things. It told some history. It gave the prices of admission to the wall. It did not say that the train station is a short walk from the entrance. No more than fifteen minutes, with the trouble of walking over snow and ice. There is also, for those who might be interested in knowing, a KFC in between the train station and the entrance. The bathroom in the KFC is not a western style toilet. It’s a squat toilet. Basically, like many toilets in Asia, it’s a small hole in the ground that can flush. These are the sort of details my guidebook could have used more of.
We made it to the Great Wall of China. It was steeper than I thought it would be. It was so cold that my water bottle iced over. It was perfect.
I walked up and down steep steps and slopes. I minded the careful warning signs that I suspect were trying to tell me to be careful. It’s hard to say with Chinese warning signs. Their English can be a bit hit or miss. I went slowly, and carefully, and I explored, and looked, and breathed, and experienced. I took it all in. It was everything I had hoped for and more than I had imagined. I stood I walked the ancient past and stared upon a world both old and new.
Final Step. Return
I met up with my new friends again and we went back to the train. We returned to Beijing.
If my guidebook had guided me true, I’d have taken the metro to the train station. I’d have taken the train to the wall. I’d have enjoyed the experience, taken some pictures, and gone home again. But it wouldn’t have been an adventure. I wouldn’t have journeyed with Bali Woman or Norway Couple. Chinese Couple wouldn’t have bought my ticket for me. There would have been no real story to tell. Later, I would say ‘I was there’. Being there is fine. But truly being there, getting lost, getting found, making friends, connecting…that’s better. That’s a proper adventure. That’s the real way to travel.
That’s how you find the Great Wall of China. Maybe my way will work for you. Maybe you’ll find the busses running. Maybe you’ll prefer the taxi. But I found the Great Wall with adventure and luck and connecting and friendship. And I found the Great Wall glorious. What will you find?
How did you find these directions to the Great Wall?
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