The Great Wall of China – April 2019

If you want to head for somewhere in South East Asia, there’s a good chance your cheapest route will take you through Beijing, or to be more precise Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK). For some reason, our experience here is that arrival isn’t very well coordinated with your onward flight. We’ve been through this airport a number of times, with delays before the next flight of between 5 and 15 hours.  So what to do in these circumstances? Just wait it out, or make time to squeeze in another adventure in your limited travel opportunities?

Well, you know what we prefer to do, get out of that airport and make the most of the situation we’re in. It’s good to learn from experience, and of course, it’s even OK to make mistakes, just try not to make the same one twice. Our mistake on a previous visit was to arrive on one plane, take a wrong turning in the airport and find ourselves immediately going through security for our next flight. And you know what going through security means, no way out!  5 hours to kill in an airport. Each to their own and all that, but that’s not my idea of fun. I think we had arrived in the early hours, so all the shops were shut. It was a good thing at the time that we had managed to bring a few Yuan with us, even if it was only enough for a couple of soft drinks from the one open kiosk.

Mistake made, lesson learned.

Another time we went through Beijing, with an anticipated 5-hour delay before the next flight, plentiful research and meticulous planning meant we were able to get out. Careful studying of the underground system and the route we needed meant we managed to see the Forbidden City and get a selfie with Chairman Mao. Ok, it was actually a portrait of Mao Tse Tung on the exterior walls of the palace, but that was good enough for me. Of course, going there means you get a glimpse of Tiananmen Square, the scene of 1989’s (in)famous Tank Man incident. I find China to be an incredibly interesting place and you never have to go too far to find some amazing history.  (please see previous blog post for our last trip here)

Back to the present – This time we had an expected delay of 15 hours or so, arriving just after midnight or very early hours and onward flight at 4pm. The first bit of good news was when Carol e-mailed our airline, Air China, and said: “We’ve got a 15-hour layover, between this time and that time, could you give us a free hotel for the night please?”
Don’t ask, don’t get and all that, they replied: “Yes, certainly”.  We were allocated to the Beijing Airport Lanwan International Hotel.

By now we knew how to get out of the airport so that was a good start, and this time we had been met and taken to the transit hotel which was 2 or 3 miles away. We were both delighted at this, though in the end we only ended sleeping for 2-3 hours there. Free breakfast in the morning too, Carol with her noodles and me with a hard-boiled egg and  some sweet potatoes while those around us got out their chopsticks and ate food that we may have eaten when having a Chinese evening meal, but didn’t really fancy at 6.30am. Anyway, the food was free, and did a job 🙂

Finally, onto the main point of this story. We had planned ahead and made contact with Beijing Layover Tours. You can see their Top 10 activities here, we chose Number 1 on the list, The Great Wall. We were met by our driver, Bill, at the hotel at 7am. For the price we paid, we were promised “a Chinese national with very simple English” A cheery and pleasant “good morning” wasn’t followed-up with a great deal of small talk, but that early in the morning that was fine with us. Bill’s English, whilst being minimal, was enough for us to feel welcome, and way, way better than my Chinese.

I think the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is around 70 miles north of Beijing, and that translated into a journey of around an hour and a half. An unremarkable journey through the outskirts of Beijing led us to Mutianyu and amongst the first on the scene.

The next part of the journey was a simple chairlift up to the wall, and I think we were there before that was up and running. A short, wait, collect tickets and a brief talk with Bill (and the loan of his selfie-stick!) and away we went.  The selfie-stick got plenty of use, we were amazed to find ourselves at one of the world’s most famous landmarks, and we really enjoyed every minute. Many of the views we saw from the chairlift and up on the wall were absolutely stunning.

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I think Bill said we had enough time to walk from gate 6 to gate 20 and back, but little did he know of Carol’s bad knee, so such a walk was never on the cards for us. We went to and fro between gates 6 and 8 I think, stopped briefly for a very expensive cup of coffee (>£5, well, it is tourist central) and enjoyed the glorious sunshine.

At around 20 degrees Celsius we really couldn’t have had any better weather; blue skies, no wind and as you can imagine this place is very hilly, so I really wouldn’t fancy it on a very hot day.  What was also stunning was that we had cherry blossom which made the views even more enchanting than they would normally. 

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The visit to the wall ended with a toboggan ride back down the mountain. Sadly the track was too busy to ever get up any speed, so don’t expect any great adrenaline rush here, but it was a fun way to get back to the bottom. 

The cost of our trip, collection from the hotel, to the Great Wall for 3 or 4 hours, then we were driven straight to the airport was $140 or 952RMB. We chose to pay cash in the Chinese currency, but there was an option to pay by PayPal. I paid an additional 80RMB (<£10) for a souvenir t-shirt, which ironically was made in Bangladesh.

I would absolutely recommend this trip, and this company we chose to take us there. Timely, polite, pleasant and all in all we felt it was great value for money for visiting such an iconic place.

Do it, we’re very glad we did.

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