On Saturday, six friends and myself made the essential journey to the Great Wall（长城). From the very beginning of our day, things seemed destined to go badly (it even rained… But not until the late afternoon!). We had made plans the previous night to meet in the hallway of our hotel/international dorm at 6 a.m. and leave at that time, but we didn’t head out til after 6:15. Also, originally, our group was to be 11-strong, but four people were unable to get out of bed, and much time was wasted attempting to wake them up. Finally though, we headed out to the subway station, where we took a train to 天津站, then a bullet train to 北京南, and from there, a two-and-a-half hour regular train to 蓟县, a small city about an hour’s drive from the Wall itself. The night before, I had gone to 天津站 to purchase our train tickets to 蓟县 in advance, and I thought everything with it had gone smoothly… Until Saturday morning when, after boarding the train, we realized we had no seat numbers on our tickets.
I had purchased standing-tickets only. Oops.
So we found a spot on the floor between train cars and sat. I ended up sitting beside some really nice Chinese women because there was no room by the others. It was a rather boring ride. The other students I was traveling with managed to sleep a bit, but I couldn’t, especially because other passengers were regularly walking over me. I had brought my backpack with me, filled with water and dried fruit, and my notecards with my Chinese vocabulary words on them. In an act of desperation, I pulled them from my bag and began reviewing them, attracting the attention of the Chinese men who had come to the area to smoke (I was unfortunate enough to be seated on the floor of the between-cars smoking area, and that space is frequented regularly; a lot of people smoke in China), and we struck up a conversation.
As the train ride continued, seats in the cars began to open up because the train stopped at various stops to let other travelers off. I was reunited with a couple of the friends that accompanied me, and we found some seats next to a Chinese woman, who, coincidentally, spoke almost perfect English. She told us her name, Grace (Chinese people usually choose their own English names if they desire one–it is actually a very interesting process. Many just choose English words that sound cool–I’ve met someone named Purple–and refer to themselves as such. My tutor liked the sound of the name Lilith, so she picked that name for herself, but I call her Lily) and continued by giving us some advice on what transportation to take to the Wall.
When the train stopped, we said goodbye to Grace, and got off the train as quickly as we could. As soon as we did, though, we were swarmed by taxi and mini bus owners, telling us to go to the Wall with them. We found one man, a mini bus driver, and followed him to his vehicle, unsure of what we were actually getting ourselves into because of the language barrier.
As we stood outside his mini bus trying to effectively communicate, with us using Chinglish, and he using obscure hand gestures, Grace came out of nowhere and acted as our translator. She was even able to bargain with the driver, having him agree to take us to the Wall, then pick us up from a different entrance three hours later and bring us back to a bus station, for only 240 ¥(approximately 40 USD). We jumped on that proposal, agreeing to it through Grace, and then we bid a final goodbye to her before getting into the mini bus, which conveniently seats seven people plus one driver.
Anyway, we started driving through the city, heading towards the mountain. The air was much cleaner than in Tianjin or Beijing, and the mountains were gorgeous. It was also a very clear day, which are rare in China, and the drive was very comfortable, if not terrifying at some points… Driving on a narrow, windy mountain road with a driver not afraid to pass four to five other vehicles at a time, regardless of whether we are approaching a bend in the road, made us pretty anxious passengers. But we made it in one piece, and our driver dropped us off at an entrance to an older portion of the wall.
The climb started out fairly well. None of us were particularly athletic, besides one guy who is in the Air Force, so it quickly and rapidly degenerated from there. The Wall is a mixture of steep stone stairs and paths, and in some parts, the stairs are so shallow that they’re almost worn away completely, which made navigating it difficult. Regardless, it was an amazing experience. The view was absolutely beautiful, the weather was perfect, and we even took a minute to act out a scene from Mulan. Not to mention that we were hiking on the Great Wall, an experience I wasn’t sure I would ever have in my lifetime.
The hike itself only took us about an hour-and-a-half total, but on the way to the gate we would be picked up at, we paused to break at a hut just off the path, on the side of the mountain, where the owner sold Popsicles, drinks, and souvenirs. That pit stop took about a half hour, and when we did finally return to the gate, there was plenty to do at the bottom, including seeing the Great Stone Dragon. By that time, it started raining, and we were able to find our driver with relatively no hassle.
The return trip back was relatively smooth. We took a coach bus, and then a city bus, and we ended up back on our campus by 7. All in all, it had been a very smooth day, despite the rough start, and I was able to finally cross the Great Wall off of my China To-Do List.