Climbing the Great Wall and Exploring Beijing

An old myth claimed you could see it from the moon, It’s over 13,000 miles long and took several dynasties to build…The Great Wall of China. This UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Wonders of the World is the reason I chose to visit Beijing over Shanghai. I must admit, it did not disappoint. Along with the Great Wall, there are other fascinating sites to see in and around Beijing. Come along with us to find out more about this ancient city and what to do when you get there!

Visiting China on Your Own

So you want to go to China? You will need a visa to enter the country, which you can obtain through a travel agent, or on your own with a little effort. We chose the DIY option to save money. Who doesn’t love saving money? I printed up the application, filled it out carefully and completely, made copies of my itinerary (airline reservation and hotel), got photos taken at Walgreens and went to the Chinese Embassy in my city to apply. You need to time it right because the visa is only good for a few months, so you don’t want to go too early or too late. This is the link to the application; You must bring your passports and leave them there with the application. You do not pay until the visa is approved several days later. Your blood type, dental records and first born must also be submitted. OK..that last part is a joke. Easy Breezy.

What to Do in Beijing

Climb the Great Wall. Need I say more? There are several sections of the wall accessible from Beijing so you need to decide which parts you want to visit. We explored 2 different sections of the wall during our visit to Beijing. Believe it or not, they were both different and I am so glad that I took the time to see both of them.

Climbing and hiking at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was a blast! We opted to take the gondola up, hiked for about a mile or two along the wall…stopped for ice cream and then took the “slide” down. Let’s not worry about safety here. If you do, you won’t hop on one of these rustic “go cart”- like mechanisms, fly downhill for approximately 8 minutes and hope that the person behind you doesn’t go faster than you! No helmets, no instructions, no seatbelt, no problem! I may have suffered a small heart attack as I flew downhill. Signs flashed before my eyes such as, “SLOW DOWN. TURN AHEAD!” I couldn’t remember if I was suppose to push or pull to break. I wondered if my breaks even worked. Yet I can’t recommend this enough. Terrifying and thrilling all at once. Quite the contradiction.

My son looks so happy to have survived!

The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall was the other section that we chose to explore. Best day ever!!!! I chose the Jinshanling section to avoid the crowds and to experience some older, original portions of The Great Wall. For this section, I booked a small group day tour with Viator. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive from Beijing and requires a lot more effort to climb. No gondola here! Before you even reach the wall you must climb up steep steps for about 45 minutes. Once you reach the wall, the hike lasts about 3 hours. In total, you cover over 4 miles (most of it on the wall) . At times I thought my legs were going to fall off. There are steep uphill climbs, the temp. that day was 104 degrees fahrenheit and some of the inclines are so steep that you need to hold the wall and side step. However, there was not another human in sight (with the exception of the 5 of us) and this was worth the extra effort!! The tour was over 100.00 per person, but included transport, a private guide on the wall, snacks and lunch at a residence nearby. Best Chinese food I have ever had. Good news; my legs did not fall off! If they had, it wouldn’t have been my favorite day in China!

One final note about climbing the Great Wall…there are sections of the wall that you can go to that are completely overgrown and decaying. We were so fascinated by a tour (self-led) simply called, “The Wild Wall Tour” which could be accessed via a dirt path about an hour and a half walk from our hotel in Beigou. The map leads you to an ancient tower that you need to climb into. You are then instructed to climb up and out of a window in the tower where you should land on an overgrown section of the wall to explore. I really love a good adventure, but this seemed to be a bit dangerous to say the least. One person wrote a review saying that if you do go on the “Wild Wall Tour”, you will never return! It’s the thing Netflix Sci-fi series are made of…When you climb through the window, you may be transported to another dimension or become food for zombies. You can take a group tour on part of the Wild Wall. That is probably a safer option! There are snakes!

The Forbidden City

Built for Emperors and their families, forbidden if you were a regular citizen, this place was immense! We took a guided half day tour here with Lily’s tours. I was so glad that we did! There is so much information that we would not have received if we went on our own. The architecture is grand and the history is interesting. We also saw where the emperors kept all of their concubine’s. One emperor had over 300! Taking sharing is caring to a whole new level.

The Summer Palace

I would definitely recommend a visit to the Summer Palace after seeing The Forbidden City. It was built as a summer residence for the emperors and their families. There are magnificent gardens and a huge lake to explore. We took a boat ride on the lake, which is well worth the $20. We heard a lot of cool stories about the “Dragon Lady” here. Apparently she ruled from behind a curtain during the Ming Dynasty because the emperor was only a few years old at the time. When he got too old and could think for himself, she put him in prison and threw his favorite concubine down a well! It doesn’t always pay to be the favorite! Then she placed a new toddler in the emperor’s seat so that she could maintain control. They say that she was a ruthless leader. Really?

Tiananmen Square

We took a quick cab ride (cabs are so cheap in Beijing) to Tiananmen Square . There was an overabundance of security and an entrance with metal detectors where we had to present our passports before entering. The large police/military presence was a bit intimidating, considering the history of the place, but we had no problems. We walked around the square, took some photos and quietly reflected.

National Art Museum of China

This was within walking distance of the Marriott we stayed at. It is not as large as I had expected at all, but was worth an hour. The museum is free to enter when you present your passport. It’s also air conditioned and had some beautiful examples of traditional Chinese paintings.

Wangfujing Street

A busy pedestrian street which is walking distance from the Hilton we stayed at during our first few days in Beijing. There are several malls along this street, a lot of shops, and a street full of restaurants that runs perpendicular to Wangfujing.

Where to Stay in Beijing

The Hilton Wangfujing

This hotel was in a great location, right next to a mall and not far from the Forbidden City. We loved the rooftop pool at this hotel and also enjoyed the restaurant located downstairs . My favorite thing about this hotel? They had a video library with quirky movie classics from the 80s in English. We watched ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark! Why do I always cry at the end of ET????

The Brickyard

We took a trip out of the city for 2 nights to the Brickyard Retreat. One of those rare places that you are so excited to experience, then you get there and it’s even better than you hoped it would be! The semi-short story about the Brickyard…. It’s an old tile factory, converted into the coolest hotel. With the factory now closed, the air quality in the village has improved and the owners actually trained and employ people from the village, giving them skills in hotel management, housekeeping, chef, etc. The hotel is decorated with tiles that were made in the village and they even provide locally made biodegradable straw slippers in each room! I love the fact that their presence in this small community is benefiting the local people! They are also an eco-friendly property and grow most of their own produce on site. As for the food and service…..unbeatable! Breakfast was included, as well as a shuttle ride upon request to drop off and pick up at the Mutianyu Wall entrance. The restaurant on site offered amazing dishes such as pork dumplings, chicken curry and homemade noodles. I left out the best part…..Every room has floor to ceiling windows with a million dollar view of the Great Wall!!!!! I can’t recommend this place enough. It’s over an hour outside of Beijing so we booked a car service through the hotel, but you can probably get a taxi for a little less. The hotel was a little over $100. per night.

Marriott Wangfunjing

We stayed here for our last 2 nights in Beijing. This Marriott definitely lived up to its name. We absolutely loved the restaurant on site. It was a few blocks to the National Art Museum and about a 15 minute walk to Wangfujing Street. I almost forgot to mention the best feature at this hotel….They have a robot that delivers things to your room!!!! Extra towels, water, or anything else that you may need!! So cool!!

Travel Tips

The Chinese government censors everything! You can’t access most social media sites or even Google and Wikipedia while traveling in China. Some people download something called a VPN before visiting so that they can “jump the firewall” .The Chinese refer to the censorship as the “other” Great Wall of China! Using VPNs is illegal there, so I opted not to break the law while visiting. I wouldn’t do well in a Chinese prison.

Always carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer while out and about in China. There is none to be found in the bathrooms and most people are not willing to “spare a square”! (Seinfeld, 1994)

Don’t drink the water!!!!! Check that the seal has not been broken on bottled water!

Be careful when crossing streets…Drivers ignore many street signals, moter bikes don’t appear to follow ANY rules ( and they are everywhere) and even bicycles come at you from every which way. I felt like I was actually in the video game Frogger whenever I tried to cross a street.

The Chinese have a very irritating habit of pushing, shoving and line cutting. If line cutting was an Olympic sport, they would win by a long shot. They also do not exercise the same respect for personal space as we do. One woman actually tried to CRAWL in front of us while waiting for the slide at the Great Wall. Another man actually climbed ON our luggage to get in front of us on a line at the airport. It’s actually a cultural thing which I assume is associated with such a large population. These pushers and shovers may be very nice people, but it becomes very annoying at times. I must say that some of the locals we met are embarrassed by such aggressive behaviors, so it’s not everyone. Just be aware and be assertive.

Be careful where you choose to eat. China does not have the same standards when it comes to heigene.

Don’t talk politics with anyone. Keep your opinions to yourself.

Most public toilets do not have toilet bowls. They have a hole. At first glance you might think someone has stolen the toilet! The hotels we stayed in all had western bathrooms though.

Many Chinese from the smaller villages have never seen people who look different from them. We were stopped repeatadly and asked to be photographed. Many times they posed with us, even putting their arms around us like we were part of their family. I can’t help but feel like I will be on one of their Christmas cards this year.

Who are these people?

Final Thoughts

It was such an amazing experience to walk on the Great Wall. We also had the opportunity to meet some awesome people along the way. Although it was a more challenging place to visit than some other destinations would be, it was well worth the journey! Many years ago Erma Bombeck wrote a hilarious book titled, When you Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time To Go Home . In one chapter she is checking out of a Russian hotel and leans over to thank the lamp for the nice time she had ( as a joke about their high tech surveillance). Beijing actually has a large tower dedicated to surveillance called the CCTV. As we were leaving our room to check out, I turned towards the ice bucket and simply said, “thanks for your hospitality. You have a beautiful city and I apologize for deleting all of the porn off of my phone before you could watch it.”


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