In each trip, there is a list of must-see locations. The Great Wall is top of the list when visiting China. And there is no more accessible place to see it than when in Beijing. Today is the day that I will visit one of the most iconic landmarks in the world.
Yesterday, before going to bed, I planned my trip to the Badaling section of the Great Wall.
I like to travel by train, and the subway is easy to navigate. Buses, thou, are unpredictable. So, I wake up early enough to try to get into the first bus to Badaling. I take the subway to the bus stop. And, as I get out of the station, I follow the signposts to the 877 bus stop. I walk for a while, following sign after sign. Until I stumble upon the last 877 signboard, and there are no more directions. I walk around the place for a couple of minutes. I do not know where to go from here, the site does not look like a bus stop. Luckily, I have an Internet SIMM, and Baidu Translate installed on the phone. After a couple of clicks, I translate the signboard I have been circling around: “the bus station is at the other side of the road”. The 877 bus stop is in a poorly illuminated area on the other side of a four lanes road. I cross to find a few buses scattered around and no other sign to indicate a bus stop. Luckily, five minutes of waiting later, the 877 arrives close by, and I jump in.
The 877 advances slowly in the fluid morning traffic. At 1.57€, the bus is a cheap although slow way to get to the Great Wall. Other, more expensive, faster tourist busses pass us in our approach to Badaling. But, the important part is that I am in my way to the wall.
One interesting fact about the Great Wall is that it is not actually one wall. But, there are many segments here and there, and not all are interconnected. So, I am not surprised when I see the wall and the bus just passes by without stopping. I just saw “a wall”, but not the Badaling segment of the wall that is one of the best-preserved. I still find reassuring to check the phone as the GPS shows how I advance in the planned route to get to my destination.
I get down the vehicle and feel an eight-degrees-below-zero freezing gust in my face. I get the ticket that I purchased weeks ago on-line and go thru the site entrance.
As in the Forbidden City, the views trigger memories of movies, comics and the many visual representations I have seen thru the years.
The entrance leads to a point in the middle of the restored wall. I need to decide, left or right. I see groups of people going in either direction. I go to the left. Walking on the wall proves challenging. There are many step slopes. When I arrive at the first tower, I see its name is the ‘First Tower of the South Side’. I push forward from tower to tower. The ‘Seventh Tower of the South Side’ is the last one on this side of the restored wall. There I stop for a moment and look at the guard that is waiting in the freezing weather. I intentionally do a loud hands-clapping to keep the blood flowing while smiling at the guard. He moves his feet and smiles back. The non-verbal communication is the equivalent of ‘It is freezing today’, ‘Yeah, it is damn cold’. Some gestures are understood across cultures and, I am quite sure, across time.
I go back to the starting point. I need to decide what to do next. There is not much more to see. The wall just extends in the North direction. But, I choose to continue walking even that I am slightly tired. I cross many people on my path. A group is taking a group picture and ask me to join, my western status and my beard have gained me a temporary celebrity status. I ask for a photo back.
When I get to the ‘Twelfth Tower of the North Side’ I continue walking, I will try to get all-around to the starting point by a different path. I could have easily taken the descending cable cars or the long but already known way back, but I am fully engaged in walking the Great Wall. What started as a visit to a historical monument and an icon of Chinese culture has become a physical challenge.
At moments I doubt the sanity of my decision, it is not just a walk, the wall has such steep slopes that some times I use the handrails as a rope while descending walking backwards. Very few people take this part of the path, I pass many of them sitting down to gain energy back. I do not stop. Finally, I get to the exit where street food-booths are waiting. I could have continued a few more hundred meters to the end of this side of the wall. The challenge is there. But, I am physically exhausted. It will not be wise to risk injuring myself when there is so much travel still left. I will come back someday to follow that path to the end.
I take the bus 877 back to Beijing. It leaves at 11:00. I am exhausted, but the hour-long trip back to the city helps me to recover some energy. I take the subway again, and I go to visit the National Museum. It is just noon, the day is not over.
In the museum, I see A group of children from the same school visiting the exhibits. Or, at least, they all wear the same uniform. The teacher stops in different artefacts and gives the lesson talking to a microphone. All children have a headphone that receives the signal. Like is commonly done for groups of tourists. Most of the children watch the item during the lesson. A few of them go around filling some assignment in their notebooks. I have seen in China the most modern and more outdated social trends. The class seems cool enough.
The exhibits are as interesting as they get. So, I spend the rest of the day here walking thru Chinese history.
I exit the National Museum by the Tienanmen Square and walk to the hotel from there. It is just a half an hour walk.