Chinese monuments impress with their size. The Great Wall of China, for example, is over 3,000km long. While you can’t, despite all claims to the contrary, see it from the moon, you do apparently see the city of Shanghai fairly clearly from outer space — at 6,300sqkm in area and half a kilometre in height (going by its highest skyscrapers), the city is said to be the only manmade thing visible to the naked eye of an astronaut.
In any case, there are far cheaper ways than renting a spaceship to get a good look at China’s greatest tourist attraction. I discovered while hanging out in Beijing recently that the most affordable ticket to the Wall, by comfortable and reliable public transport, costs no more than ₹260 — both ways — which is highly pocket-friendly compared to the ₹1,500 travel agents charge for a bus tour or upwards of ₹10,000 per head for a semi-private tour by car. Here then was my chance to save a few bucks, which I could then put to good use having a ball in Beijing after the mandatory Wall had been ticked off the to-do list.
For the convenience of local Beijingers and Chinese tourists, there’s a non-stop bus service to the Wall and back. Although the ticket is only 12RMB (₹130) one way and public transport is simple to use, surprisingly few foreign tourists take advantage of this option. No matter where you are in Beijing, head towards the nearest metro station, buy a ticket (which will cost you no more than 2RMB or about ₹20) and alight at Jiushitan station in the northern section of central Beijing. From the subway take Exit A, facing the Ring Road, and turn left.
On the corner, there’s a small fast food grill where you can buy some excellent, spicy Chinese-style shawarma rolls for breakfast for just a few RMBs. Munching on your delicious morning meal, continue along the road, which is full of bus stands advertising all kinds of destinations in Chinese and a few offering trips to the Great Wall in English. Avoid these — you may end up cruising through a number of souvenir shops on the way and barely get an hour by the Wall.
You want the direct shuttle bus. And you find it another block away, right by the ancient Arrow Tower (known as Deshengmen) at a large traffic roundabout. You will see a line of local tourists boarding the buses — these run throughout the morning and the last one leaves Beijing around noon. Join the queue and buy your ticket onboard.
To confirm that it’s the right bus, repeatedly say ‘Badaling’ (the name of the village by the Wall) or ‘Wanli Chang Cheng’ (which I have reason to believe is Chinese for ‘very long wall’). Much of the ride is through endless Beijing suburbs but the last bit is extremely picturesque with ruined stretches of wall clinging to steep hills, old watchtowers and mysterious pavilions. After about an hour, you reach your destination and stand at the foot of the Great Wall.
Given how cheap the bus is, the Wall does get crowded, especially on weekends. Most guidebooks will suggest going to remote, less-frequented parts of the Wall, but for sheer convenience Badaling, some 70km north of downtown Beijing, is unbeatable. Due to its proximity to the capital, and its dramatic setting, this particular section is visited by millions of tourists every year, including all the VIPs (such as US president Richard Nixon) who come to China.
It was the first part of the Great Wall to be opened to visitors in 1957 and is nowadays a purely tourist village — which means there are decent restroom facilities, a stretch of souvenir and food shops where you can sample the great variety of local snacks, get yourself photographed in ethnic wear against the background of Bactrian camels and buy an engraved certificate to prove that you climbed the Wall.
I quite like this carnival aspect of Badaling, the mixture of the tacky and the monumental, and the opportunity to rub shoulders with hundreds of Chinese teenagers snapping their selfies. When they spot you, they want to selfie themselves alongside you.
If you wish to actually climb the Wall (so that you can, with a clear conscience, buy that I-climbed-the-wall certificate), ask yourself first if your cardiovascular system and legs can survive it (the steep parts can be very taxing). There’s an entry fee of 40RMB payable at the ticket booth (open daily 8am-4.30pm). If you’re lazy or cardiacally challenged and want to minimise the climbing, there are, of course, cable cars that take you up to the top for an additional fee of about 30RMB.
Up on the Wall there’s a café near the top, 3,330ft above sea level (which only goes to prove that the Chinese take their snacking very seriously). Sitting there, it is good to contemplate the fact that the Wall isn’t a singular Great Wall at all, constructed at one particular time in history, but a patchwork of Walls built under many different eras and dynasties, the earliest sections dating as far back as at least 300BC. Over the millennia, sections have been added resulting in a mammoth structure running from the Pacific coast and ending somewhere way out in the Gobi Desert.
This popular Badaling section is a Ming Dynasty construction (early 1500s) and is heavily restored so it appears fairytaleish, straight out of a Disney cartoon. Or, taking a more optimistic approach, you could say that it looks the way it would have when it was brand new.
It’s about 8m high and 5m wide at the top (where you walk). One modern, and rather welcome, addition is the railing — even though it does disturb the illusion that one is visiting a medieval monument. At several points, the climb gets so steep that I’d easily have tumbled down if there hadn’t been something to hold on to.
The good thing about taking the public shuttle bus to the Wall is that one can spend as much time as one likes, slowly work one’s way along it. The last bus back to Beijing leaves at around 4pm from the Badaling side.
Back in Beijing, as you alight at the Arrow Tower, still kicked about scaling the Great Wall, it’s a splendid idea to head down the road that leads south from here — Deshengmen Nei Dajie. It’ll take you to Houhai Road, which is a lovely lakeside promenade on the north side of Houhai Lake. At the end of the lake you enter the Gulou area, one of the liveliest in Beijing, with music bars, tea cafes and great restaurants in the vicinity of the Bell & Drum Towers (another set of ancient towers). This is a great way to round off a great day.
Your first objective should be to burn some of the money saved on the guided tour buses to the Wall by hitting any of the hundreds of shops. My choice: practically next door to the Drum Tower is the famed hole-in-the-wall Indie Music Store (17 Gulou West Street; daily 1pm-11pm). One of its kind in China, in this download age, it persists in stocking CDs featuring all the cult rock bands in the country, and prides itself on having the largest collection of Chinese underground music you can find anywhere in the world. If you ask what Chinese rock sounds like, the proprietor of the tiny shop is likely to answer “Like Oasis”, but he is nonetheless happy to play the best for you before you get down to buying (typical rates for CDs are 40-80RMB). And it doesn’t all sound like Oasis…
Next, if you happen to be hungry, for a substantial post-Wall-climb lunch or early dinner head a few doors further up Jiu (Old) Gulou Street to the Yun Nan Restaurant & Bar at the mouth of Lingdang Hutong — here is a Yunnan-style eatery with exquisite, slightly spicier food than the standard Chinese fare, including more interesting vegetarian options than most restaurants, all in a cosy setting.
Your third agenda — even if you’re merely thirsty — is to go bar-hopping in this hipster area of Beijing, where all the dudes and dudettes hang out in chic nightspots lining Gulou East Street and its narrow side alley Nanluoguxiang, an 800-year-old historic pedestrian street lined with single-storey buildings rescued from the wrecking ball and turned into trendy shops. I plonk myself down on a sofa in the dim and very tiny 69 Café (tucked away on 109 Nanluoguxiang, roughly opposite the Drama School complex; open until 1am) which only has some four tables and moptop modish waiters dishing out tea or beers; there’s no food, but there’s a small stage and occasional tributes to the likes of Velvet Underground and Leonard Cohen. If this doesn’t do it for you, then Gulou East Street has a host of bigger music bars with daily performances, or you could work your way through the alleys at the back of the Drama School until you find Penghao Theatre Café (35 Dongmianhua Hutong), where the arty crowd drinks.
Finally, at the end of the day there’s nothing that beats Yugong Yishan, a large rock club (on 2-3 Zhangzizhong Road, rather near Zhangzizhong Metro Station). The entrance is surprisingly discreet but if you turn left at the south end of Nanluoguxiang and then walk (east) along Dianmen East Street you’ll notice, after a few blocks, a sudden eruption of graffiti around a nameless gate in the wall — inside there’s an industrial-sized performance hall with a well-stocked bar, the sound system is said to be the best in China. Usually, the performances are by indie bands or visiting foreign acts, tickets cost around 100RMB, and on a good night you can experience heavy duty stage-diving and body-surfing.
The club shuts around 2am, at which point you’re quite happy that a long, great day is over. And you’re probably broke, too.
If you don’t want to take the public bus to the Wall, consider using a travel agency such as Bespoke (bespokebeijing.com) or Beijing Hikers (beijinghikers.com). Or ask your hotel’s travel service to take you in a taxi to a less visited part, away from the hordes of local tourists.
(Zac O’Yeah is a bilingual crime fiction author. His last book was Mr Majestic .)