On our second day in China we had planned to visit the Great Wall on a Friday rather than fight the crowds on a weekend. This was also the only time we decided that going with an organized tour group would be better than going out on our own. After checking out several different tour companies we picked China Tour Design. We made reservations about a week before the trip and received an email confirmation from the company before we left on our trip. Given the $25 USD price per person we weren’t sure how good the tour would be but at the end of the day we decided we got a really good deal.
We were picked up at our hotel by the tour guide, “Patrick.” Some Chinese take western names when dealing with western clients. Patrick was certainly a talkative guide and he did give us plenty of insight into being a young Chinese male (more on that in a separate post) and how to fend off aggressive vendors when you are a tourist. The small bus/van carried 8 others so it was a relatively small group which was nice. There were 3 people from Canada, 3 from Italy, 1 Indian gentleman who was living in Dubai and a gentleman from France and we all got the chance to talk to each other during the course of the day, which, I think, adds to the value of the tour.
Of course, a tour with a cheap price has to be funded with some other revenue source and it appears many China tours make mandatory stops at places that offer “opportunities” to buy items made in China. So the tour started with a stop at a Jade carving “musuem” and store. We were given a demonstration on how to tell the difference between fake and real jade based on the sound when it is tapped. Then we were sped through the rest of the museum and the jade carving demonstrations to the store and were given ample time to peruse everything and buy something. We didn’t – mainly because I own plenty of items that are made in China, including Jade jewelry.
Back on the van, we took in the scenic drive to the Dingling Tomb, one of the few Ming Tombs that has actually been excavated. The attraction is a popular one and lots of other tour groups (mostly Chinese tourists) were there. This tomb was located quite deep into the earth and after lots of steps down to the bottom we were able to view the burial site of an Emperor and his wives. This wasn’t a lavishly laid out tomb but a fairly austere place. And then we climbed back up the stairs and out of the tomb. No elevators and about a 4-story climb. The grounds of the Dingling Tomb are very nicely laid out and walking around the area was like walking through a well designed park. And, in the distance you could see some of the other Ming tombs that are located several miles away.
Back on the bus, we were driven on some very winding roads through very beautiful countryside and where the towns are a far cry from bustling Beijing. It was refreshing to see bucolic areas outside of the city. We stopped for lunch at Mr. Tang’s, a small restaurant near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Lunch was included in the tour price and it was served family style on a lazy susan for all of us to partake. The food was quite good with a mix of meat, chicken, vegetables and rice dishes to pick from. We definitely felt satisfied.
Then it was on to the highlight of the trip, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. We purposely picked this tour because it is at a less crowded section of the Wall than the Badaling area. Just getting to the Wall from the bus to the top of the Wall takes some serious exercise. First there is a steep climb up a cobblestoned walkway, past a series of vendor stalls, to buy a ticket to the Cable Car to Great Wall. The cost of the cable car was not included in the price of the tour (though admission to the Great Wall was) and all of us were told we had to take it because hiking to the entrance would take too long. Considering the steepness of our initial climb we were not going to debate that point. After looking down at the dirt trail we would have had to climb from the comfort of our cable car we definitely felt the extra few bucks were worth it.
We were rewarded with a once in a lifetime opportunity to walk atop one of the wonders of the world. The air was clear and the breadth of the wall from our vantage point was awe inspiring. The Wall was also a backdrop for a wedding photo session with a bride and groom garbed in western-style bridal wear. We were able to stay up there for about an hour before getting back on the cable car for the ride back down.
But that was just the first half of the day. More adventures awaited us later.
Priscilla (one half of the Travel2some)