China. Perhaps the most iconic image of Ancient China is the snaking Great Wall, built to protect a nation from invasion. As a foreigner living in China currently, it is my duty to see as many quintessential Chinese sites as possible. After three months of living in Beijing, I finally ventured out of the confines of comfort, crowds, and pollution to the vast wilderness and mountains that lay just 150 km north.
I had the pleasure of making this adventurous day trip with a Russian couchsurfer that I had been hosting for several days. We both decided that we needed to walk the Great Wall before we left China. So with that goal in mind, we set off. This trip was not planned perhaps as well as it should have been. We took a quick glance at several online guides which suggested we take a bus from Dongzhimen Bus Terminal in Central Beijing. Easy enough- I knew this station well as I live in Beijing and use the subway daily. Our guide told us to take the 980 express bus to Miyun for 1 hour where we could then pick up a minibus that would take us the rest of the way to Jinshanling.
Total Cost: 30 RMB (without a transport card)
Little did we know, our guides are a bit outdated or filled with wrong information. There are no minibuses to be found at the stop. Instead, there are private drivers who prey on tourists who make the mistake of taking this bus. Thankfully, Alex (the Russian) and myself are stubborn and cheap. After speaking to two different drivers, we were able to negotiate (if you can call it that) rides for as low as 300 RMB round trip. I vehemently refused and walked away determined to find another way to the wall.
Instead of giving up and going back to Beijing, we tried our hand at hitch hiking. What did we have to lose? Our efforts of getting a free car ride to the wall failed, but we did manage to get help from a kind older man. He spoke to us through pictures and hand gestured. From him we learned that bus 51 and 52 would take us to the Great Wall. He even was kind enough to show us the nearest bus station. As he drove away, we thought it best to confirm with another local passing by of the direction of the bus.
After speaking with her for a few minutes through my translator app, she took us to Bus 25 and spoke to the driver for us. She had us going to the wall and told us the bus driver would tell us when to get off the bus. It would be another 1 hour and a half on the bus but we were going. As we watched the Chinese country side fly by, we wondered where exactly we were being sent. I followed our location on a Chinese map app, but still had no idea where exactly we were going. We passed a number of small towns and villages as we wound our way through the hills. We passed lakes and rivers which provided for dramatic landscape views from the passing bus.
After 1.5 hours on the bus, the driver came to a stop in a small town which as it turns out was the last town before leaving the Beijing Region. We got off and walked in the direction the drive pointed. However, we didn’t have to go far before we saw the imposing Great Wall of China spanning both sides of the highway. With no map, no idea of where we were, and no plans on how to get back to Beijing, we set off to find a bridge to cross the river blocking us from reaching the nearest section of the wall. Turns out that we walked 20 minutes in the wrong direction. No problem though, we eventually found a bridge and began our short hike up into the mountains.
Reaching the wall and touching it filled me with the same sense of awe and excitement I felt when I first laid eyes on the Pyramids of Giza. Thoughts of who built the wall, what it must have looked like centuries ago, and who walked on it before me flooded my mind. We wasted no time in climbing the nearest watch tower. Excitement. Joy. Success. We made it to the Wild Wall. It was brilliant. Awe Inspiring. A wave of enthusiasm rushed over the two of us. We stood in silence overlooking the rest of the wall that snaked before us for miles in both directions. We hiked for a short distance before the sun went down behind the nearest mountain peaks.
It was about this time we began to realize, we still had no idea where we were or how to get back to Beijing. As it turns out, we were in the village of Gubeikou… quite some distance north of our destination. So what did we do? We put our hitchhiking thumb out and hoped for the best. To our surprise, the first car to stop gave us a lift. The guys, both 25-year-old construction workers from Miyun spoke no English but were kind enough to take us to their home town and drop us at a bus station which would eventually take us back to Beijing. We spent the hour listening to American pop legends, laughing, and communicating through translation apps.
The kindness of strangers will never cease to amaze me. We would not have had this amazing adventure had we decided to pack up and go home after the first misstep. Travel is all about the experience. A smile goes along way, just give in and let go. Let the trip take you where you are meant to be and enjoy the ride life is giving you.