I often have said that the journey is more important than the destination. While visiting the Great Wall of China, I learned again how true this saying can be. The journey to the Wall was fantastic, and while it did not top my joy of walking on the ancient structure, it was a great experience all its own.
When traveling, our family uses public transportation as much as possible. Our trip to the Great Wall of China was no different. And getting to the Wall by public transportation is very feasible, quite inexpensive, and a great adventure! If you have the chance, skip the tour group and go with the locals!
We took the Beijing Metro to the public bus stop where we waited for Bus 877, which would take us to Badaling, the section of the Wall most visited by tourists and foreign dignitaries. As a child, I remember seeing the 1972 picture of US President Richard Nixon walking on the Wall in a big winter coat with the furry collar. Nixon was at Badaling.
Bus 877 departs Beijing from the Deshengmen Arrow Tower, and the trip costs 12 RMB (about US$2) per person. After we boarded the bus, a helpful worker walked through the aisle taking money. We did not have exact change, but she made change for the four of us. Then, we settled into the sixty-five kilometer trip (about forty miles) that lasted a bit more than an hour.
Bus 877 was filled with Chinese people except for six foreigners — a German couple and our family of four Americans. Riding with the Chinese passengers, listening to them talk with each other, and watching them gaze out the windows as we caught our first glimpses of the Wall was a great experience. The ride was smooth, and we enjoyed our time on the bus. The journey was fantastic.
When we arrived at Badaling, we waded into a sea of people. Several tour guides yelled into megaphones, and loads of vendors sold all kinds of souvenirs and snacks. People swarmed around us, and groups pushed toward the ticket windows. Thankfully, we have taken many rides on crowded Metro trains, so the crowd did not dissuade us. In fact, I found it fascinating and fun.
The terrain at Badaling is very hilly, and the elevation change between the parking area and the Wall is pretty extreme. You can walk up to the Wall, but it is a steep climb. You can be whisked to the top in a cable car. Or, you can ride on pulley cars, which are sort-of toboggans that run along a rickety track. The pulley cars reminded me of the county fair where I grew up. The ride is thrilling at least partly because you are not sure you will make it to the end in one piece!
At Badaling, you sit in a car, and the pulley car takes you up to the Wall. The ride up to the Wall was a fun surprise. And, the ride down the hill was even more fun. While riding down, a worker sat in the front car leading a string of about twenty cars. He seemed to control the speed and braking for all twenty cars by pulling on hand levers. Taking the pulley car made the journey almost as much fun as getting on the Wall.
And, then once we were up on the Wall, we had the thrill of walking around this ancient structure. As I walked, I thought of the millions of people who have walked there before me. I looked out from the wall at the beautiful landscape and thought about the Chinese empires it had protected. I watched people from many countries who had made this journey like our family.
As happened many times in China, friendly Chinese people asked if they could take a picture with someone from our family. Well, I suppose I could be more accurate. During our visit to China, lots of people asked if they could take a picture with our daughter, Rachel, some asked if they could snap a picture with our son, Jonathan, and a few asked if they could have a picture with my wife, Lisa. No one — not one single person — asked to take a picture with me. At one point, a person walked up to me with a camera and said, “Excuse me, sir.” “Yes,” I replied and began to smile expecting to have my picture taken. Then, the person continued: “Would you please take a picture of me with your daughter?” I was not a desirable subject!
After our ride down the pulley car, we had an easy return to Beijing on Bus 877. Then, we took the Metro back to our apartment. It was a great day at an iconic place. And, taking public transportation allowed us to save some money and, especially, have a great experience traveling with locals. The journey was almost as good as the destination.