31 July 2016

Great Wall of China at Huanghua Cheng

The Great Wall of China... one of China's, and indeed the world's most iconic testament to human ingenuity. This is no doubt visible to the visitor who witnesses the Wall snaking its way along rugged hillsides on and on.

It is of course a popular tourist sight and if you type in 'Great Wall crowds' into Google Images, you'll get a profound sense of the Wall's capability to handle the humongous masses. These images are a clear proof of China's burgeoning domestic tourist industry.

Believe me, you don't want an experience like that. One of the pleasures of the Wall is to look back at it snaking its way around empty countryside. Not to have a thousand people blocking the view you so dearly crave for.

There are a number of different sections of the Wall around Beijing and the most popular tend to be the sections at Badalling and Mutianyu. Fortunately there is another section not too far from Beijing,easily accessible as a day-trip, which sees far fewer crowds.

Welcome to Huanghua Cheng.

Why Huanghua Cheng?
The only section of the Wall by a reservoir, Huanghua Cheng provides a scenic and steep Wall first built about 1000 years ago by the Ming dynasty. There has been some restoration work done but there is enough of the rough, wild wall left.

This Wall does see fewer crowds, making it a pleasure to enjoy in serenity. I arrived on a Saturday morning around 9:30 am and had the Wall almost to myself for over a good half an hour before a few more arrived. I imagine it being even quieter during the weekdays.

How to get here?
You can hire a taxi but if you are like me- without the money for one (and in the mood for an adventure), take the bus, which requires some advance preparation. If you do choose a taxi, expect a round-trip to cost around 500-700 yuan (bargain!). Do not get a taxi one-way as you will not find one here for the way back. Ask yours to wait while you enjoy the Wall.

While taking the bus, it is best to get the IC Card (see here for more information), the card you can use for intra-city buses and subway. It is straightforward to load using a machine in any subway station. I am not sure how much the entire bus trip cost me, but it was in the range of 25 to 40 yuan. I recommend you to load more before leaving, just in case you get lost and end up somewhere else.

You have to take 2 buses to get to the Wall. First, take bus 916 express. (916). This begins from the hub at Dongzhimen, in Beijing's Chaoyang district. If you take the subway to Dongzhimen (lines 2, 13 and the Airport Express), follow signs to the bus terminal and then the North bus bays.

This bus will have a screen showing the next station in Chinese, with announcements in Chinese too. You need to get down at Nanhuayuan Sanqu (南华园三区). Try to remember some of the characters of the name so you can tally it with the screen. This journey will take about 60-90 minutes, so you can just sit, relax and enjoy the views. A few minutes before reaching the stop, I (being the only tourist on the bus) was approached by a couple of touts who asked if I wanted to get on a minibus (presumably to Mutianyu), so beware of this (i.e. you do not need to get down until you reach the stop).

The street scene at Nanhuayuan Sanqu bus stop

Once you get down at Nanhuayuan Sanqu, walk straight for a few minutes, until you reach the next bus stop, called Nanhuayuan Siqu (南华园四区). The sign placards will only list a few bus routes, but there are many more which serve this stop, whose numbers are prefixed with 'H'. The bus you need is H14.

Before getting on this bus, make sure that you verify with the driver that the bus is taking you to Huanghua Cheng (黄花城) by having it written (or in a guidebook). The few people hanging around the bus stop hounded me to take their private car and were amused at me as I tried to find out the right bus. They will discourage you from taking the bus so stand your ground!

The bus H14 will not have a signboard so you need to ask the driver and the conductor where to get down. Bus stops along the route will look like those below- no name. This journey will take about another hour and the scenery becomes wilder and more beautiful as the ride progresses.

Along a particular curve of the road was a stop and a sign providing directions to something which read as "Lakeside Great Wall" or similar. The road cured to the right, while the sign led off to the left. I was informed that this was not my stop- I was told to get off at another stop a minute or two later, by the reservoir.

At the Wall
As you begin to walk towards the reservoir, you will be greeted by this sign. Yes, "officially" this section of the Wall is not open to the public but nobody seems to care really. A good number of tourists do come. A small stall providing basic food and snack items was set up, and is a good place to pick up some items though I would recommend you carry some food items from beforehand.

As you walk on the path over the reservoir, a local person may set up a small tent or such with a sign demanding a certain amount of money to proceed on the Wall. This is all unofficial of course, but I decided to pay to avoid any issues. I had to pay 5 yuan. The path would lead on and it would take you about 10 minutes to get to the Wall, while the majestic structure looms above you. On the path were also some shacks set up with what seemed like another small shop, and it seemed like people actually lived here.

The reservoir and the surrounding scenery

The Wall... breathtaking

Once you get to the Wall, you have to climb a ladder to actually get on it. Then, you can either go in the straight-ish direction or in the opposite direction. The straight-ish direction leads on to a steep walk without any steps or rails so be careful! The views are simply incredible and you can spend ages just admiring the landscapes.

However, soon you reach the impossibly steep section, which I decided not to try to climb after a hesitant attempt. I am not even sure if people do climb it or not, but I decided not to try. I then headed off in the opposite direction, past my starting point.

Looking back towards my starting point
Heading off in the opposite direction, I discovered that I was not going to be alone any longer. A few travellers, all presumably local, began their hike on the Wall. Solo travellers, groups of friends and families with young children- the demographics were pretty diverse. By their looks, I understood I stood out being a foreigner, signalling that few foreigners came to this part of the Wall. Interestingly, everyone did head off only in the opposite direction and not in the direction I initially went in.

Parts of this part of the wall seem to be restored.

Walk on, and you arrive at another watchtower, which has a rickety ladder to climb. A couple of rungs in, I was not confident in the sturdiness of the ladder.

Brave enough to try? (I wasn't.)
In this direction, the wall goes on and on, and can be walked for a while. I am not sure if it connects to another section of the Wall.

I decided to return back to my starting point. The only public toilets were on the main road (where the bus drops you).

The toilets- needless to say, you would like to keep
your contact with them at the bare minimum
How to get back?
There is no familiar-looking bus stop on the road to get a bus in the opposite direction. Instead, you will find this sign:

Wait here and flag down an H14 bus to take you back. Tell the conductor you want to get to Nanhuayuan Siqu (南华园四区). I was not dropped at the bus stop opposite to where I was picked up, so when you get dropped, find the nearest bus stop with the placard showing a 916 express bus back to Dongzhimen.

Once you get the 916 express, sit back and reflect on this action-packed day at the Wall.

If you have any feedback, questions, or if you have done this trip too, feel free to comment! 

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