The Great Wall of China. Ask any laowai (foreigner) about the most important destination for tourists in China, and you’re bound to get that response. After our trip to the Wall, we believe it might be the biggest for the locals, too.
First, the facts. The actual wall sections run for 3,900 miles, but combined with trenches and natural barriers, the whole thing measures 5,500 miles—roughly the distance from Boston to Los Angeles, and then back to Pittsburgh. It was built in pieces starting as far back as 200 BC, though most of the existing walls date to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It had an obvious purpose for defense, keeping out those pesky Mongolians from the north, but it also served to regulate immigration and provide a transportation line. And, almost certainly, it was a pretty decent jobs program.
Much of the wall now is in total disrepair, and other sections aren’t in much better shape. But, a few sections have been rebuilt or rehabilitated, and one of those sections is in Badaling, near Beijing.
So, being dutiful laowai, we put Badaling on our Beijing itinerary for Tuesday. Unfortunately, our foreignness blinded us to the realities of domestic tourism. Wednesday was Tomb Sweeping Day, or Qingming Festival. In addition to sweeping the tombs of their ancestors, the Chinese also apparently work the prior Saturday and Sunday so that they can take Monday and Tuesday off and have a three-day holiday. And Chinese on holiday go to the same tourist spots the foreigners do.
We realized this problem when we arrived at the train station around 11:00am to catch the hour-long train to Badaling. Not good. In a theme that would emerge that day, we found many, many people.
We called an audible and hailed a cab. After negotiating a fare to take us, wait, and bring us back, we were on our way. Well, kind of. There were many, many people. In their cars.
In the cab, in the traffic
But, really, the ride wasn’t bad. It was about 1.75 hours, a good bit longer than the train. But, traffic started moving, and our driver was competent. And courteous—he offered me a cigarette when he lit one for himself (I declined) and when he pulled to the side of the highway to pee, he faced away from us (but into oncoming traffic). And, when we were done touring the Wall, he was there waiting to take us home (and collect the remainder of the fare, of course). (He even laughed at my joke: ren, ren, ren, ren...)
At the Wall there were…many, many people. Pictures, as they say, are worth a thousand words.
But, despite the crowds, we really enjoyed it. As it got a bit steeper, the crowds thinned a bit so it wasn’t such a sea of humanity. And the Wall is truly spectacular. It’s difficult to comprehend the length of it, but seeing just this short section makes you realize the scale and scope.
The serpentine Wall winds through the mountains
The boys really liked imagining themselves defending the homeland, at least when they weren’t posing for photos.
Yi, Er San!
Well, I guess if you come to China to experience what it's like to live here, you might as well experience what it's like to vacation here. When there's 1.3 billion people, there's gonna be crowds at the number one attraction. And, really, the size of the population is almost as astounding as the length of the Wall.