As I promised in my other post, I would gloss over the “travel” parts of the Great Wall experience, so as not to detract from the wall itself. In THIS post, I rant.
It is now my considered opinion that the best way to visit the Great Wall is to do so as part of an organized tour with a reputable group, set up well before coming to China, that picks you up from your hotel and buses you out there along with thirty or forty other tourists, then collects you and takes you home. I am violently allergic to directed travel, so it pains me to type that.
The second-best way, then, would be to take the train from the Beijing North Railway Station, which, at 元6, ($1) is one of the best travel deals you are likely to find. You can even use your metro pass to board!
I did have to wait a couple of hours at the station in Beijing, as I got there just before 8 and the 8:30 train had sold out. Spillovers like myself were lined up outside the station, and sitting ducks for all kinds of entrepreneurial types trying to get us out of the line and onto their tour bus. Fortunately, they are prevented from coming over and physically dragging you away by the combination of a fence and several railway officials who are tasked to stand there and glower.
As soon as the sold-out train had pulled away, however, we were allowed into the station and thus more or less safe.
About an hour before the train was to leave, a buzzer went off and everyone who had been peacefully sitting down jumped up and got into a queue. This was your typical queue in China, which is to say about six or so people wide with a very curious definition of what being “in line” is all about. The prevailing attitude to queuing seems to be that if they can get a hand in front of you that they can then get an elbow in front of you and then a shoulder at which point you are now behind them. I may be being a little bitter here, as I still managed to get a window seat once we finally got on the train despite all this.
The train takes about 90 minutes and lets you off about .8 km from the Badaling Great Wall, directly into a sea of hucksters trying to sell you hats and souvenirs. If you can make it through them, there’s another huckster gauntlet waiting for you when you actually get closer to the wall.
Then you see the wall, which is amazing. Moving on.
Coming back, the souvenir sellers have called it a day and the people lying in wait for you are now the people trying to convince you that waiting for the train is a terrible idea and you really need to take their taxi service back to Beijing instead. I had one of these guys follow me into the station and into the men’s room, only giving up on me when I went into a stall and closed the door in his face.
The queue to get on the train back is insane. I wish I could tell you that I was able to hold my ground, and I was occasionally able to, but the truth is that I had to watch the back of the person who was originally in front of me get further and further ahead as people cut between us. This was also one of only a couple of situations where I felt friendly hands exploring my back pockets, though we were packed too tightly for me to tell which direction they were coming from. More or less I did my best to ignore them, since the things they were looking for – wallet, passport, etc – were safely tucked away in the zippered inside pockets of my vest.
The rush when the platform doors opened was explosive and unforgiving, for reasons that made immediate sense once I was able to fight my way onto a car. Unlike Beijing, the Badaling office doesn’t limit ticket sales by anything as pedestrian as how many seats are actually on the train, so every seat was taken, sometimes with three people cramming themselves into two seats, the dining car tables were full, and the leftover passengers were relegated to making do as best as possible. I found a bare patch of floor next to a bunch of teens playing cards and spent the rest of the trip back trying not to trip anybody.
I would still recommend it as a decent way to get from Beijing to the wall if you’re wanting to see things at your own pace, but really you might want to give a tour group some strong consideration.