Every now and again everything just goes right, do you ever have days like that? I’m not sure where the knowledge originated, but at some point during the planning of this festive tour I discovered that if you have more than a few hours to kill between flights in Beijing they offer a free tourist visa for up to 72 hours. Now if we’d discovered this prior to finalising the flights no doubt we’d have extended our stay, but as it was there were just over 7 hours between landing and take off, which with a bit of luck is just enough time to take a very special trip.
With a slightly anxious German in tow we trekked through the international terminal to E11 (signposted by a4 print outs with no arrows or directions on…helpful Asia!) and the blissfully short visa queue. We’d been warned this could take 2 hours on a bad day, so seeing only 20 people ahead of us was the first good sign. However even with a security guard sending people with too little time, or who just wanted a cigarette out of the line we still took almost an hour to receive our new Chinese stamps! Love a passport stamp!!
From here you join the regular immigration queue, which had been blissfully empty when we arrived but now took another hour of our time. And this was with short lines!! Phew! But within the two hour limit we had set ourselves to make this happen…we had made it, hellloooo China!
In typical travelling Katy fashion the next step was essentially winging it…Sven had tried booking ahead of time and been told our plan wasn’t possible within our time frame, so had resigned himself to a long stay at the airport. I am not so easily swayed, and also have more experience of the hoards of tour guides usually waiting at airports to make these kinds of moments happen. Sure enough as we turned away from the currency exchange booth there was a happy smiling face behind us holding a ticket with my goal on it…”we need to be back at the airport by 5″ we told him “is it possible?” “5?” He says “yes, we can be back by 5…” price negotiated Sven and I began racing through the airport after our new friend…it was happening, we were going to the Great Wall of China!!!!
There’s always a slight moment of panic when you’ve essentially followed a complete stranger holding a battered ticket out of the airport and got into his car…even when it’s a very nice car with swish seats and tinted windows. Or maybe the windows made it worse…it’s 50:50, but Jimmy soon put our minds at ease with his sunny temperament, easy laugh and stories of tourists past. He zipped through traffic talking us through points of interest like the new high speed bullet train being built alongside the highway. This seemed to consist of HUGE chunks of concrete ready to slot together like a giant child’s train set. The size is hard to describe, even with photos. It wouldn’t be our last master feat of engineering of the day!
The highway soon led to smaller roads and villages, where we saw locals walking across frozen rivers and huge rock faces covered with meter thick ice and jagged icicles like a waterfall had frozen over.
This was my first trip to China, and Sven’s first trip to Asia, so we were both glued to the windows with open eyes pointing out all the new and notable sights…art installations depicting gigantic fruit baskets (at least 10m tall) sprung out of the middle of fields, locals drove around in tiny bubble cars which made smart cars look like limousines, or mopeds with fur wind breakers at the front which also went over the handle bars to act like a pair of mittens! Genius!
I wasn’t fast enough to take a photo, so here’s one from someone else which sort of shows what I mean.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere we drove by the handily located Beijing Tourist Information centre…Then before you know it we were there, paying security an extra fee to let Jimmy drive us all the way to the gate rather than waiting for the tourist bus as we were on a tight schedule. I think his friendly disposition did us a lot of favours here, as they were happy to help him out and wave us through. Gotta love a system!
The wall sits atop the ridge of mountains towering way above the car parks and ticket booth. It hadn’t occurred to me that you may not be able to walk directly to it from a handily located car park, but Jimmy was way ahead of us, and after a quick stop at the entrance booth handed us our tickets for the ski lift ascent and toboggan decent…now doesn’t that sounds fun! Waving him goodbye we were on our own and soon sitting high above the trees watching the wall coming closer into view ahead, and snaking away behind.
It seemed never ending! What a majestic accomplishment in such barren and harsh conditions. It’s hard to accurately describe the remoteness of the place, let alone the true scale of the mountains which stretched as far as the eye can see; and to think this was only a tiny portion of this 6000km+ world wonder. An impressive architectural feat indeed!
The first iteration of the wall was built in 221BC, by the Qin dynasty, constructing the defence system using local materials. So here in the mountains we see stone and rock, but in more desert type surroundings huge mounds of earth and sand would have had to suffice. The wall is interspersed by garrisons, barracks and watch towers marking its primary use as a defence against invaders from the north (very game of thrones!) however it had many other functions too. Goods would be transported along its top linking the 5 major Chinese provinces in the north with Beijing, a major strategic city. This was also the original immigration office, with boarder control officials stationed along it as well as customs officers for the Silk Road. The barracks were hardly cosy though, with windows open to the elements I didn’t much envy those who had to defend it back in the day.
We were so lucky to have had this place almost entirely to ourselves for a time, and even when people arrived there were only two other small groups who were for the most part going in the other direction.
I could have stayed here for hours, and walked for miles. I now more than understand why most tours encourage you to leave at least 2.5 hours to explore and walk along the winding stones from watch tower to watch tower. I am very intrigued by the cycling tours which go along it though…how do they cope with these?!
Alas we only had just over an hour, and time was moving too quickly. We turned around to make our way to the next part of the adventure…our toboggan decent! Four minutes of high octane exhilaration, I didn’t even mind not having gloves!!
Beijing treated us to a magnificent orange sunset worthy of the Sahara as we returned to the airport through rush hour traffic reliving our a balmy adventure! What an amazing way to spend time between flights, airport layovers will never be the same again.
Planning a trip to Beijing? Or just have a few hours at the airport? I highly recommend contacting Jimmy for a fun and friendly tour guide who’ll help you work to whatever schedule you have. He also would have taken us to Tianannmen Square, the forbidden city, summer palace and silk markets etc if we’d have had time. Next time Jimmy!!