We decided to stop in Qinhuangdao for our first glimpse of the Great Wall. It’s the only part of the wall which hits the sea and it continues inland through a fortified city towards a mountain (山, shan). After a lot of googling I discovered a Great Wall of China Guide app which contains information about all the different parts built in different eras and how to hike each bit. We realised in parts it’s a little bit outdated but that’s because things in China seem to change so quickly. Here’s a map of the route we took – or rather a map of the where the wall goes.
We took bus 25 for about 45 minutes to the area which is geared up for massive amounts of tourists. After walking through an extensive car park we found the large ticket office and entrance gate. The great wall app does try to explain which bits you have to pay for and which barriers you can avoid. We hoped we could simply walk on to the beach and see it from there, as the app suggested, but this wasn’t possible anymore – too many fences. After being baffled by the numerous high ticket prices we worked out what we wanted and it only cost 50 RMB each in the end. This was worth it – but there are of course many people and tour groups.
The wall and the area is seemingly all reconstructed recently but supposedly it is fairly accurate. As well as the wall on the beach, there was a small fortress with its own walls to walk around and some garrison buildings including a maze (soldiers’ past time?). We did have to open a door wedged shut at one stage and walk through open barriers at the other end (following the footsteps of locals).
The head of the wall was impressive and the view to the temple on the sea (the only temple on the sea as the plaques repeated) was a nice surprise, as well as the many boats on the horizon. Laolongtou roughly translates to “old dragon’s head” as the wall is sometimes referred to a dragon and the shape sort of resembles the head of a dragon. It was amazing how hazy the skies were however and this day (and the next) our little gas man app was wearing his mask so we did too. Air pollution and noise pollution. The tour groups aren’t just a pain because of the amount of people, but the tour leader will usually have a microphone and speaker or mini megaphone constantly blaring out noise. We walked around the bottom of the wall to the peaceful, serene other side. The only people here were young photographers with big cameras.
From Laolongtou to Shanhaiguan
The app advised 4 miles to the fortified town of Shanhaiguan. You cannot walk on the wall from inside Laolongtou as it’s blocked. Turning east out of the Loalongtou area we found it again where a road passes through a tunnel in the wall. On the otherside of the tunnel was a beach (ice cream time) and a car park on the left at the back of which we found a path alongside the wall. Soon after, when the reconstructed part finished and the wall became a mound of dirt there was a slightly scrambly path on to the top. This was our mound of dirt for the day and it was beautiful!
It wasn’t what I expected at all. The wall was surrounded by farmland on both sides for a long time. Small plots either fenced off or bordered by little mounds of rubble. Some contained greenhouse like buildings and many had crumbly looking buildings or sheds on them. A couple of times a road crossed the wall and the wall had simply been torn down. We had to come down and walk alongside for a while before another path back up presented itself. The only other people we came across on the wall were two goat herders and their goats. They kindly told us in Chinese and hand signs that the wall was broken again and pointed to where we could get down and back up again.
Nearer Shanhaiguan the wall crosses the railway line and disappears briefly again. We couldn’t rejoin it on the otherside easily but a short walk brought us to the fortified city.
“You will not understand the military power of ancient China, if you do not visit Great Wall at Shanhaiguan,” says many tour guide websites. The fortified city indeed had huge, high walls which seemed impenetrable. It was nice to walk around but it didn’t feel very old due to the buildings being recently rebuilt. We tried to walk up the walls but you needed another ticket, of course. After walking 4 miles in almost 30 degrees wearing masks (which are not comfortable and a little hard to breath in sometimes) we were almost happy not to walk them. We found a small restaurant near the centre of the city and was pleased on discovering I could simply order a big bowl of noodles full of pak choi which didn’t taste meaty. Sometimes it is a bit of an effort to find something purely vegetarian. The number 33 bus took an hour to get us home but luckily I bagged a window seat to cool down. I’m learning not to be British-polite when it comes to getting a seat on a bus!
Shanhaiguan to Jiaoshan
The next day we got the bus back to Shanhaiguan and left through the north gate. Where the north road hits a larger road, crossing over (a bit nerve racking) and walking east it’s easy to find another path back up to the mound. This time there were metal bridges (not always complete!) across parts which had collapsed or been taken down. We crossed a motorway where the wall at this stage had been completely rebuilt as a bridge and was the widest we’d seen it so far. For some reason, despite rebuilding it, it had originally been blocked off by a metal gate and a red brick wall. Locals had clearly not been happy about this and it was straight forward to climb over. We reached Jiaoshan after about 2 miles.
Here the wall was the classic structure you picture when you think of the Great Wall of China. It snaked up the hill very steeply with several towers poking up. This was the part I had been looking forward to the most. Again there was an entrance fee of 40 RMB (20 RMB in the off season). There was no one in the ticket booth and calling “nihao” did not help. We went into the tourist information office next door where the woman shook her head when I asked about tickets. I couldn’t believe what the gestures where implying. She showed me a translation of “it’s closed” on her phone. I showed her “we have come a long way to see this” but she simply shook her head again. We walked outside and collapsed in the shade. After an hour stuffy bus ride and a 2 mile walk in 30 degrees wearing masks I felt defeated and was ready to burst into tears at disappointment. We stared at the wall in disbelief mentally preparing ourselves for the hot walk back to the nearest bus stop. After 15 minutes we went back into the tourist info and treated ourselves to a fridge coke. At this point a man appeared asking us if we wanted to buy tickets. A little surprised, and trying not to get our hopes up, we followed him to the ticket booth where he sold us two tickets with a smile. He led us into the park and explained we had two hours max as there wasn’t enough staff on fire duty. Feeling extremely lucky we hadn’t just simply left, we stormed towards the wall to make the most of the time. We passed several other visitors, it definitely wasn’t closed. That tourist info woman was the first difficult and unhelpful person we have met in China. She later tried to get other westerners to pay for a private car back to Shanhaiguan saying taxis do not come here, despite them arriving by taxi. Grr.
Storming up the wall is not possible. It is steeper than I imagined, steeper than the pictures will ever show you. There’s a combination of slopes and steps and in the towers we climbed up and down metal ladders. There is of course a path alongside the wall to the top and a cable car for the cheaters (it wasn’t even on). Mischa climbed over the fake brick wall barrier to continue to the top but my (sensible) fear of heights got the better of me and I walked the long way round to the top on the path. The top is not the top of course, there were higher peaks beyond and a reservoir but we ran out of time to find this. Nonetheless the view from the top was incredible. The land from the sea is flat all the way to the bottom of the mountain. On a good day you can apparently see the sea which is 6 miles away. Not on this hazy, pollution heavy day. You can just make out the north walls of Shanhaiguan which is 2 miles away.
Back to Shanhaiguan
At the bottom of Jiaoshan we made friends with other westerners (Americans and a Canadian) – first we’d seen for a while! It was great to easily have a conversation in English. After some faff with the difficult tourist woman and a lack of taxis we offered to walk with them back to Shanhaiguan on the wall and they joined us.
Half way along, after explaining the day before how we’d met some goat herders, we conveniently bumped into a bare chested herder. We couldn’t decide if shepherd was the right name for someone with goats though. Anyway, we noticed he had something in his hands. Turns out after some shouts and lobbing, it was rocks. He was using them to stop the goats from walking on the farmland below.
Going backwards the way we came was a bit harder, climbing the brick wall without footholds in the bricks and scrambling down the paths we came up, but we all made it. It was great to have the company! Here’s a fun picture of (almost) all of us, Jiaoshan in the background 🙂
After getting the bus back I had a look at my mask – it was all grimey 🙁 There were parts of the day I hadn’t worn it too and I spent the rest of the evening with a sore throat no matter how much water I drunk. Lesson learnt!