If you didn’t catch “Confessions of a Travel Writer” on the Travel Channel, you missed the segment where I referred to myself as the “Chevy Chase of tourists.” Case in point: on my recent visit to Beijing, I thought I could simply hire a private taxi to get to the Great Wall. In hindsight, maybe it’s my spontaneous nature that gets me into trouble, but whatever the reason, I didn’t give much thought to any potentially disastrous outcomes. Lucky, then, that upon arrival to Beijing, I learned from local ex-pats that hiring a taxi and going to the Wall alone for my first visit were both, in fact, terrible ideas. Considering taxi drivers in China don’t speak English, there was a good chance I could have somehow ended up on the other side of the wall—three days later. Not to mention the other nearly-missed disasters. So with a new plan, I managed to get to the Wall and back safely without sacrificing adventure for a big fiasco. Here are my five tips on what not to do when visiting China’s most popular tourist attraction.
Don’t go to Ba Da Ling: Find the perfect spot for a photo opp? You’re not the only one. The most popular entrance on the Wall is equally the most crowded. Seriously. Good luck getting a photo without having the tip of a tour group’s flag poking into your shot. I love kids but, they’re let loose as if it’s a playground. You’ll spend more time looking out for them then admiring the views. And get ready for the blasting of megaphones on tours. They are everywhere and loud and obnoxious. Avoid this scene by going to the Mutianyu part of the wall. It’s less crowded and has equally great, if not more beautiful views, considering all the green surrounding the walls. Best of all? It’s almost 80 percent original, unlike Ba Da Ling, which is about 95% restored or new. That’s right. At Ba Da Ling, you’re standing on cemented bricks rather than the original rice congee and limestone. Oh, and at Mutianyu, you can ride a toboggan back down. Seriously fun times.
Don’t go during the afternoon: Want to have a heatstroke? Then go around lunch time. It’s friggin’ hot, and for some reason the crowds seem to be attracted to the wall at this peak time of day. Nothing like a picture of you standing on a historic wall sweating like a pig, looking dehydrated and defeated! Seriously, wake your ass up early to beat the traffic (during traffic from downtown Beijing, it can take up to three hours. No traffic, an hour and half tops). Better yet, stay at Aman at Summer Palace. Here, you’re closer to the Wall and only 30 minutes from downtown Beijing. Another perk is the fact Aman at Summer Palace is literally inside Summer Palace (another major attraction where royalty used to “summer” back in the day).
Don’t go alone: Go solo if you must, but with the language barrier, it will only slow you down. Also, feel free to annoy strangers when you stop them to snap hundreds of pictures of you posing. Oh, and good luck with the MSG at the restaurant that looks decent! Aman at Summer Palace provided a personal tour with one of their native freelance guides, Jerry. Not only was Jerry great company on the drive down to Mutianyu in a private vehicle, but it was nice having an interpreter (Mutianyu is considered off the beaten path, so there are fewer English speakers). Jerry had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Great Wall, due to that fact that he’s camped in various Wall locations and previously lead large tour groups with China Travel Services. He also gave me my space, offering me time to just absorb the Great Wall without any commentary. Lastly, when leaving, Jerry steered me from the Grade C restaurants and took me to have some wonderful dim sum in a local, clean Chinese restaurant.
Don’t make eye contact with the hawkers: The hawkers here are truly annoying as shit. They’re actually equipped with notepads to give you their name should you trail away, and they also somehow manage to wrangle your name from you so when you finish with the Great Wall, they are waiting for you, calling after you, following you. They don’t give up and once they realize you won’t buy anything. You’ll be stalked by a different hawker who really, really, really wants you to buy that “I Just Climbed The Great Wall” T-shirt, which you are, hopefully, not going to buy. Do your shopping in town, where you can find the exact same stuff and where the quality of the products is much nicer and quite cheaper. Don’t wear flip flops: We’re not suggesting a fashion show but seriously, we don’t understand how people just don’t get it. Don’t wear flip flops to the Great Wall. You’ll get mutt and stuff all in your toes. It’s not a yoga pavilion at a beach resort, it’s the Great Wall of China. You’ll be climbing steep steps, descending tiny steps, the weather is temperamental, etc. If you ignore Rule number five, you’ll have your toes stepped on at least a thousand times. Wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll be happy you did. And when we say don’t wear flip flops, that includes Crocs.