The Great Wall of China. One of the great wonders of the world or just a really long, boring, pointless wall? Whatever your take is on The Great Wall, having seen it with my own eyes I can say that it is truly a magnificent sight and there is a reason it is named one of the great wonders of the world. Since I was young, I imagined China as an exotic and faraway place. To me, it was a place I would never have the chance to see; it only existed in movies and pictures in the textbooks. Traveling to China was a faraway dream for me, but after coming to Korea I knew my dream of going to China was closer to becoming a reality. Although I have traveled to many exotic and beautiful countries in Asia, China had remained number one on my list of places to go. My last chance to go was this past February. I never imagined that I would make it to Beijing, nonetheless be traveling alone, and in the winter, but knowing that another chance might not come for a while, I made it happen. Finally making it to the Great Wall was symbolic of me achieving a lifelong goal. Two years ago I would have never in my wildest dreams predicted that I would have made it this far in the world and in my own life. The traveling I have done has helped me gain confidence and it has changed my outlook on life. Making it to the Great Wall was the paramount point in my journey to Asia where everything came full circle for me. Standing on the Great Wall, I felt like I had overcome many fears and insecurities in my life in order to make my dreams a reality.
On the second day of my trip to Beijing I booked a tour through my hostel to see the Mutianyu section of the Wall. I chose this section for a couple reasons. First, this section is not the most touristy, but it’s also not the most rugged section either. It’s a nice balance between touristy and authentic. The location is very far from anything commercialized (although strangely enough there is a Subway sandwich shop at the base of the entrance), which makes it inconvenient for tour groups to bring many visitors. There are no “tourist traps” along the way. The part that makes it the most touristy are the chair lifts, cable car, and toboggan slide. On this section there are 22 watchtowers. I opted to ride the 5 minute chairlift from watch towers 1-6. Then I walked for about 2 hours to get to watchtower # 22 and it took me an hour to walk back to the chair lifts where I took a 5 minute toboggan slide down. There is also an option to take a cable car further, but either way you are doing a lot of walking. At the end of the section you have to walk up an extremely steep set of stairs. Although the weather was freezing I kept nice and warm from all of the walking up and down the hilly terrain of the Wall. The Great Wall was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Because of the proximity of the Wall to Beijing City (about 2 hours) plus the ridiculous traffic (add another hour), you need an entire day to see the Wall. My day began at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 6:00 p.m. After that I was ready to call it a day. If I ever have another chance to go again in the future I would love to see it in the spring. The Wall in the winter was very peaceful. Most times I heard nothing else but the sound of the wind. It was such a good feeling to be standing on something built hundreds of years ago and to go back in time to picture what it must have been like to build such a Great Wall.
Three days in Beijing. Alone. In 30 degree weather. Definitely not words that describe the ideal getaway and I can say for sure that my time in Beijing was anything but a vacation. However, my number one goal: to get to the Great Wall was what I planned to accomplish and anything else I could get done in 3 days would be a bonus. Needing at least 6 months left on your Korean visa to get a Chinese tourist visa plus the fact that I had vacation time in February was what forced me to head to Beijing in the middle of winter. Although I have to say if you want to “beat the crowds” winter is the time to go. Since Beijing is one of the highest populated cities in the world you can never “beat the crowds.” But if you want to see the sights and take good pictures on the Wall then winter is the best. My advice for you is to prepare for the cold and dress in layers.
My two first impressions of Beijing were, “Wow. I have never seen such smoggy air in my life,” and “Holy crap! I have never seen so many people in my life.” And that’s coming from someone who has lived in a smoggy city with 9 million people in it for the past year and a half. After a three hour flight from Hong Kong, I landed in Peking International Airport and took a convenient and cheap airport express train to the center of Beijing. Zooming out of the airport I noticed the dry and barren landscape of China combined with air so thick that it had a yellow tinge to it. I had a subway map, Lonely planet, and directions to my hostel in hand and ready to find my way through the city. I found the subway to be very convenient and a Godsend, since it is literally the only thing where English is written and spoken in all of Beijing. However, lugging a suitcase through a couple transfers in the subway was not fun. Escalators in the subways were hard to come by. Unfortunately, my heavy winter clothes couldn’t fit in a backpack so I was stuck with a suitcase. My advice, unless you want to spend 4x the price (which is still cheap) and taxi it, try to fit everything into a backpack so you can easily move through the subway.
I made it to Happy Dragon Hostel safely. There were a couple seconds where I thought I might have a panic attack since the directions to the hostel were missing one turn. After walking up and down the same street two times and asking two people for directions (pointless) I took a deep breath, decided to turn down a few side streets and eventually found it. I originally booked a dorm style room (equivalent of $5 USD per night) but at the last minute upgraded to the private ($25 USD per night). It was worth it. I had my own bathroom and TV (no English stations though), heater, and of course, privacy. I took a two hour nap and decided that despite the cold I better get out of my room and explore a bit because my time was very limited. The first night I managed to walk to two famous night markets. About a 15 minute walk from my hostel I found the famous Donghuamen night market and the Wangfujing snack market. These markets are where you can sample anything from chicken on a stick to centipedes on a stick. You can take a look at some of the pictures I took and see for yourself.
I can’t say I was daring enough to try these foods. I wish I was more adventurous. One of the reasons why traveling alone in Beijing wasn’t that much fun was that I didn’t have anyone to try any of these crazy foods with. With a tour of the Great Wall scheduled for the next day I wasn’t about to risk eating anything too crazy and be sick with food poisoning. The chicken, fruit, and dumplings were good enough for me.