And every once in awhile, straying off the beaten path gives you something unforgettable on the other side.
DIRECTIONS (2) (3) | CHINA 2015
My first visit to the Great Wall comprised a comfortable hire-care ride out to the foot of the Mutianyu (慕田峪) Great Wall section with my family, a walk through a bustling, crowded area filled with tourist groups and vendors selling bottles of water at inflated prices, ascent to the towers via chairlift, a few hours walking along the wall, complete with obligatory tourist jumping shot, and descending the mountain via toboggan (which was, admittedly, pretty cool).
My second visit was this day trip to Huanghuacheng Great Wall(黄花城长城) was with three other companions, some hastily screenshot directions on our phones, a camera in my backpack and a very uncharacteristic 'let's not plan this 100%' attitude, most likely due to my 10-7PM full time working hours the days before. In hindsight, I still find it amazing we managed to get there and return in one piece, given we exited our Beijing subway stop completely confused about where to find the terminal for our (public) bus, then got off at our stop in a small town in the middle of nowhere, completely unsure about how to find the connecting minibus.
After helping a very brave but very lost German guy go in the general direction of the stretch of Wall he wanted to visit during the process of trying to find the minibus, we spent a hour on said minibus rattling over badly designed metal 'speed bumps'* and ended up in the mouth of Huanghuacheng (the village). We then proceeded to walk through the eerily empty village, up to a frozen reservoir at the top of the mountain, pay some dodgy guys collecting an 'entrance fee' and up to the correct stretch of wall. Sometimes, you surprise yourself**.
The 'hipster option' was worth it.
There are some times when all conditions and luck and coincidences align. After an exhausting and slightly worrying start to our trip, it was exertion and euphoria of the best kind to physically climb all the way up to the foot of the wall and then clamber up 60 degree slopes of smooth tiles and ridiculously tall steps (with a Canon 5D, 24-105mm lens and 1L water bottle on my back). The feeling of standing at the top of an old, crumbling watchtower and looking out at the snaking expanse of wall stretching across the mountain and open blue skies above us, all in peaceful silence and virtual isolation, is just incredible.
Taking the (not-too-shabby and surprisingly comfortable) public bus option meant we paid about 24 yuan max for the round trip, as opposed to several hundred we would have had to pay to hire out a car. That was also awesome. The hot pot we had back in Beijing after a freezing, tiring day rounded off the experience. 不到长城非好汉, indeed. I only wish we had the resources to hike further (according to my host family, the more hardcore hikers camp on the wall overnight).
If you're physically capable and have the ability (or blind determination) to get to a section of 'wild wall', I recommend it over the tourist-friendly options any day.
*I say 'speed bump' but since there was no slowing down involved at all, it was more just a dangerously loud, rattling jolt every few metres.
**It helps to have companions who don't panic easily, lots of sweet, dried prunes (which are actually surprisingly good) and Aryan poster children Kinder bars (thanks Luke!). It really helps if you ask locals for help the second you start to feel a little lost - it will save you a heap of time and energy.