December 19th, 2007

For years now I’ve been hearing about the Badaling section of the Great Wall. Before I came to China it was probably the only section of the Wall I could name. In my first year in Beijing two colleagues, one of whom had a more recent edition of Lonely Planet than I did, invited me to visit the Wall at Huanghuacheng, and so I visited the wall for the first time, happy that I’d managed to see the Wall without selling my soul to the tourist demon Badaling. And for years lzh and I have been riding the 919 out to Yanqing, passing Juyongguan, Shuiguan and Badaling. For years, just before the bus has entered the tunnel under Badaling, I’ve looked up and to the right and I’ve marvelled at the sheer mass of humanity swarming over the Wall at Badaling and sworn I’d never go there.

For starters, I don’t see the sense in going to a place where you can’t actually see your destination so much as see a mass of people covering it. Secondly, I’ve been to too many tourist destinations in China to know that a trip to Badaling will mean constantly fending off hawkers and hustlers and other undesireables who prey on tourists- and who somehow don’t seem to have the intelligence to sort out genuine, fresh-off-the-boat tourists from grizzled long termers out for a break from their regular Chinese city life. And I guess I should admit that even after eight years in China, I do tend to get tired, run down, frazzled and grumpy in crowded areas. Not always, but often enough.

Anyway, Mum and Dad wanted to climb the Wall so they could say they’d actually seen this Wonder of the World in the flesh, actually stood on it and touched it and breathed in its age and history and marvelled at it… and whatever. If you’re going to be crossing the Wall four times on what is quite likely your only chance to see it, then you’d be insane not to stop and take a closer look, right? Right. This ain’t the Forbidden City we’re talking about. Imperial and royal palaces are a dime a dozen on this planet. This is a once in a lifetime in only this place kind of thing.

And the most logical time for us to take Mum and Dad to the Wall was the afternoon of Sunday, 2 December, 2007, as a stop on the trip back in to Beijing. Sure, if circumstances conspired to make the trip to the Wall inconvenient on that particular day, they had time to head back out to it in the three days before they left, but why go running round in circles unnecessarily? There’s no obvious reason why a stop at Badaling should be inconvenient: It is, after all, on the southern boundary of Yanqing. It has regular public buses in to Beijing. If you can’t get a ride from Yanqing county town down to Badaling, you should be sent back to kindergarten.

So lzh arranged for a former classmate of hers who earns extra cash as a “taxi” driver in Yanqing County to pick us up in the village, take us to Badaling and wait while we did the needful, then take us home for a flat, and what I thought quite reasonable, fee.

So step one was lunch. That proved to be quite a mission, following barely sensical directions through a labyrinth of a hotel, eventually sitting at a collossal banquet table in a restaurant room full of equally collossal but empty banquet tables, having just walked through a restaurant room full of equally collossal banquet tables, about half of which were occupied, having just walked through….. Heck, I can’t remember any more. “Badaling Hotel” I think was the name of this labyrinthine establishment, and not much that happened there seemed to make any sense at all, but there the four of us sat at a huge table in an empty room and we got lunch. Fortunately the food was reasonable, but certainly not worth the extra cost, justified as always with the weakest of all justifications: It’s a tourist area. Anyway, we managed to find our way out of the hotel and up the hill to the Wall itself, got tickets, and got on the wall.

Well, we had choices, and I decided we should climb in the direction that had the least tourists. As it turned out, most of the people on the Wall in that direction were hawkers and hustlers and other similar undesirables. As in only about a third [rough guesstimate] of the people we met on the Wall were other tourists. Funnily enough, by the time we got off the Wall I was having to bite my tongue really hard to stop the nasty, sarcastic rebukes that were building up… Oh, the pressure…

“Hello! Hello! Cafe! Cafe!”

“I can see that, I’m not blind, and I have my glasses on.”

That kind of thing. Well, that example is one from climbing off the wall, rapidly surveying what was around the base, and deciding it wasn’t worth even glancing at.

But the good news is that the hawkers got the message. I expressed my views of their merchandise and informed them just how great my desire was to purchase anything from them, and they left me alone. Nor did they bug my parents. Of course, they ignored my wife. She’s Chinese, you see. No, I don’t see the logic, either, but all too often, that’s how it works at these tourist destinations. I would like to say New Zealand is innocent of such unreasoning, but I can’t: I have, after all, seen people seriously suggesting in respected newspapers that foreigners should be charged more than Kiwis at New Zealand’s tourist destinations simply because they’re foreign, and I would not be surprised if some in New Zealand’s tourist industry do put that illogic into practice.

Anyway, we climbed up on to the Wall. The first plan was to climb to the first watch tower then head back. It was cold, you see, and a bitter northerly wind was blowing straight down from the Gobi. If you’ve spent a winter in north China, you know what I mean. It was frigid and cutting, and in the photos Mum looks like she’s walking through Antarctica dressed for a Hong Kong summer. It took us ages to defrost her when we got back to Beijing. But the first watch tower was awfully close to where we started from, and so I suddenly turned all sadistic and decided we’d climb to the next watch tower. This involved us:

  1. Climbing higher
  2. Climbing further up in to the wind
  3. Climbing a really steep section
  4. Mum getting even colder
  5. Us getting a better view of both the pass and the Wall

And so my wife and my parents followed me up to the next watch tower. I suspect they were too frozen to object. Not me, though, I was loving it. Nothing like a bitterly cold northerly blowing straight off the Gobi to clear the cobwebs.

Anyway, Wall viewed and photos taken, we went back down to the carpark and got ourselves back to warmth and civilisation.

But what needs to be discussed, of course, is:

Is Badaling worth visiting?

Well, maybe. It depends on your needs/desires. It is definitely the easiest section of the Wall to get to from Beijing, but there’s more to this rather complex equation than mere ease of access. Avoid peak tourism seasons and summer weekends, if at all possible, unless you want to spend your trip to the Great Wall fighting your way through a seething mass of humanity. Remember that Badaling is reconstructed, and so you’ll see the Wall in something approaching the state it was in before 1644 (minus the soldiers and weaponry, of course), so if you want to see the Wall in it’s current natural state, you will need to go elsewhere. Remember that being the most famous, most popular, most visited section of the Wall, it has the most hawkers, hustlers, con artists, scammers….. And cafes with pushy waitresses who dislike hearing “no, thanks”, and souvenir postcards of Lijiang and the Terrocotta Warriors and the other nonsensical, way-out-of-context rubbish that defines so much of China’s current tourist industry. Basically, if you’re going to visit the Wall at Badaling, you will need to plan your trip so that you visit on a relatively light traffic day at a relatively light traffic time, and be prepared to fend off hordes of people who see you as little more than a walking ATM. But if you can arrange such a time, then it is well worth it.

Well, the word my father used most to describe the scenery he was seeing was “desolate”. Yes, in the winter it is desolate. And cold, too.

But Badaling is beautiful. Well, of course, it’s in Yanqing. How could it not be beautiful? If you visit Badaling, ignore all the tourism around you and focus on the Wall and its setting. It’s amazing. A stunning, beautiful landscape. And it doesn’t matter how you look at it, the Wall itself is incredible. And Badaling is where Genghis Khan broke through the wall, only to smash up against Juyongguan to the south- how awesome is that? I have walked in the footsteps of Genghis Khan. I have stood where Jin Dynasty soldiers stood and looked where they looked as the Mongol army roared up to the pass lusting for blood and victory.

So I would say that if you want a section of the Wall that is easily accessible from Beijing and you can arrange to visit at a time when tourist traffic is relatively light, go for it.

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