Considering the distance from Tianjin port to Beijing, we booked a ship’s excursion to see the Great Wall. This all-day excursion started with a visit to the Summer Palace with a lunch stop at a jade factory between there and the Great Wall.
Holland America‘s excursion information about the Great Wall said construction began as early as the 8th century BC, but it was the first Qin Emperor who extended this bastion against the northern barbarians. Construction reached its zenith under the Ming Dynasty. Today, the wall stretches some 3,600 miles. Your visit features a walk along a restored section of the wall’s battlements, which are wide enough to allow cavalry and chariots to pass. It went on to say after visiting the wall, re-board your motorcoach and transfer directly back to the ship in Tianjin — a drive of approximately three hours.
About 7 hours into a 13 hour excursion, a good portion of which was driving time since the port is several hours away from Bejing, our tour bus finally pulled into a parking lot at the Great Wall of China. Since the wall covers thousands of miles this was just one of many places where people can visit restored sections of the great wall. While the impressive Ming Dynasty part tourists visit near Bejing built in medieval times is made of stone with a wide walkway and fortresses, the entire wall does not look that way.
Original early parts of the wall tended to be made of tamped earth, stones, and wood. Portions of the wall, some built over 2000 years ago, once encircled early cities, and over time walls were joined together as cities stopped warring with one another and sought to stop enemies from the north. The wall generally runs in an east-west line along China’s historical northern boarder. The sections tourist see have been restored, but other portions of the wall are neither as impressive nor as visible. Some are wild and crumbling with pathways wide enough for just one person, and other areas of former wall are so far gone they are hard to find. Not all areas of the wall are open to the public. Little remains of the oldest original walls, those having been built over and fortified by later inhabitants over the centuries or lost entirely with previously undiscovered sections sometimes coming to light.
Where our bus went, several large parking lots spanned areas on both sides of the highway with multiple entrances to the wall. We could see quite a lot of people climbing a steep stairway up the road a ways both on the same side and across the street near different parking lots than the one where we stopped. There was yet another lot directly across the road from where we parked.
Our group followed the guide through the turnstile and he got tickets for everyone. Once through he gave us an hour and a half and said people could choose to take a right turn to the pathway up the very steep stairway to the wall on that side of the road, take a left turn to the pathway that dropped down several steep stairways before coming to a section of wall crossing the highway and then going back up to walk along the wall on the other side, or just take photos from there and hang round the coffee shop and gift shop in the area near the parking lot.
Most people went to the pathway leading to the wall and then split one way or the other. The sun was coming down behind the mountain on the right making very bad lighting for photos so we chose the left path. Even though it was sunny and about as clear a day as Bejing gets looking up toward that mountain the position of the sun pretty much just highlighted the haze in the air and silhouetted the mountain with the wall not really visible, where going to the left the sun was at our backs making for better pictures. In spite of that almost everyone took the right turn with just a few going left.
Finding the way down to cross the road involved entering a series of buildings each leading to part of the stairway. One of them had a bit of a maze to pass through before coming to its stairs. By the time we got to the part that actually crosses the road we were the only ones there, the rest who started out that way having given up and turned back to go the other way.
On the way back a couple other people from our tour had made it down far enough to see what must have been barracks down in a hole back when that area was one of the forts on the wall, but we never saw any of the others make it any farther. We walked past the barracks and found the bit of wall crossing over the highway. While that bit was level, the stairway beyond it was quite steep.
Stairs along the wall vary from just a few inches high to over a foot for just one stair. This variation doesn’t just occur from one stairway to the next, but also among stairs in the same stairway in some places.
Some are wider than others as well. The railing on the steepest part of the stairway isn’t much more than a foot above the stairs if that, but the stairs are so steep it’s still reachable without bending over and sometimes useful in going both up and down.
Each section we climbed ended with a little building. Though there were just a few forts along the wall, there were many guard towers so it’s not far from one to the next of those. It always looked like the next one up would be the highest point for that section of wall, but then when we got there the next one would be higher still. After we had gone quite a ways from the fort area the pathway narrowed to just the width of one chariot, which couldn’t have been much wider than the horse that pulled it. We wanted to keep hiking until we finally found a place where everything was down from there and nothing else was higher, but never got there in the time we had to spend on the wall.
Our guide said there were no bathrooms on top of the wall, but apparently he had not gone up that side of the wall or at least not hiked it very far because after about a kilometer or so we came upon a building with toilet painted on the side of it. It may seem odd that it was written in English as well as Chinese, but a lot of the road signs were as well so seeing something written in English wasn’t that uncommon. They were of course the Chinese sort of squat toilets. It does make sense to have bathrooms there for the people who hike long stretches of the wall – or who run there. John’s Chinese aunt who lives in Beijing ran a marathon on the wall and it would be pretty tough to have a race somewhere with no facilities. Of course the soldiers of ancient times would have needed somewhere to go as well, though I have no idea if a restroom in this location was an original feature or an addition done during restoration. If it was original to the location it certainly would have looked far different in the past.
In spite of being pit toilets so they still smelled bad, the wall had the cleanest squat toilets I saw in China. They may have been too far out on the wall for the average western tourist who can’t hit the hole to get to them since the floors and standing area around the toilet in these was clean and dry. There’s rarely ever any toilet paper in Chinese public bathrooms and these were no exception. When traveling in China it’s nearly always BYOB – bring your own buttwipe.
We would have liked to go farther than we did, but when half the allowed time had passed we turned back. We always seem to go faster on the way back, probably due to less photo stops, but not wanting to risk missing the bus or being the annoying people who don’t return on time and keep everyone else waiting we turned around short of reaching a little red building just a couple buildings down the way that actually did look like the highest point for that bit of the wall. Although had we made it there we may have found the next one still higher like we had with all the others. As with the Summer Palace that we also went to on this excursion, we would have liked more time to spend at the wall – a lot more time.
From some viewpoints along that section of wall we could see construction going on for the new section of track for an expansion of their bullet train system that our guide had mentioned on the bus on the way there, though we had no idea where those tracks go to or from.
We saw very few people on that section of wall, but did come across a Chinese guy all dressed in red who wanted to hand us his phone to take a picture of him. You don’t have to speak the same language to understand when someone wants a photo.
Later we came across a family about to go up the very steep section of stairs as we were coming down it. At first I thought they wanted the usual for us to take a photo of all of them, but it turned out what they actually wanted was to take a photo of me with their adorable little girl. Apparently having a photo of her with a blond white tourist was a big thing for them. She was very cute and luckily John got a photo of me with her on his camera as well.
After going back across the part over the highway we found a stairway down to the barracks area and a detour in the pathway that went around the other side of the barracks area with some cannons on it, neither of which we had noticed on the way out. There wasn’t anyone down by the barracks on our way out, but some people were down there on our way back. We didn’t take the time to go down there, but since we ended up making it back with about 20 minutes to spare we could have. We wandered through the gift shop instead, which mainly sold cheap tourist junk for inflated prices.
Even though the cruise ship tour didn’t allow for as much time as we’d have liked to spend at either the Summer Palace or the Great Wall it was still worthwhile to get to see both of those things – and even though it came with a higher pricetag than any excursion we’ve ever done before it would cost a whole lot more to take another trip to China if we hadn’t seen them on this trip.