THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA – WITH ITS TOBOGGANS, CABLE CARS AND GAUDY SOUVENIRS – CAN SOMETIMES SEEM MORE DISNEY THAN MING DYNASTY.
Visiting the Great Wall of China – the world’s longest and biggest man-made structure built more than 2,300 years ago – has to be one of life’s great experiences.
Like the pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, simply standing near the Great Wall, feeling the power of its proximity, is a truly memorable experience.
Increasingly though, it’s becoming memorable for all the wrong reasons. That’s because this is another of the world’s great wonders that for some reason has slowly been ‘Disneyfied’.
Sensing that the 8,800 km-long Wall was no longer an attraction in its own right, entrepreneurs have set up cable cars, chair lifts, toboggan slides, souvenir stalls, fast food restaurants, amusement facilities, villas, and massive parking lots to satisfy visitors – all within a stone’s throw of the magnificent structure.
At Mutianyu, the section of the Great Wall that I visited about 73 km north-east of Beijing, you can either do a tough 40-minute hike up more than 1,000 steps to the Wall or you can sit back in an enclosed cable car for a much more leisurely ascent.
To get to the cable car ticket office, you first have to walk through souvenir stalls selling all sorts of gaudy memorabilia, including cheap t-shirts that scream “I climbed the Great Wall of China”.
You can choose to take a cable car to Tower 6 or Tower 14 and it costs about 80 RMB one way or 120 RMB return. Unfortunately, the two cable cars are run by different companies, so you can’t go up to one tower and then back down the other on the same ticket.
The cable car glides over pines and cypresses and as it gains height you catch your first glimpse of the Great Wall snaking along the mountainside for as far as the eye can see, despite Beijing’s infamous smog.
As we reached the Wall near Tower 6, it was a sight to behold with its watchtowers, fortresses and crenelated parapets – first built by the Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577) over 1,400 years ago and later restored during the Ming Dynasty.
We chose to visit early on a weekday, before the tourists converged in their hundreds, and were able to wander the ramparts and explore the battlements and parapets with relative ease.
An Aussie expat who accompanies us said other sections of the Wall, including the most popular section at Badaling, had become virtual no-go zones because of the tens of thousands of tourists that visit there, particularly on weekends and national holidays in May and October.
“Don’t even think of visiting the Wall during Golden Week,” she warned. That’s the mandated seven-day holiday in China every October, when hundreds of millions of mainland Chinese head to the same attractions at the same time.
The Mutianyu section of Wall, just two hours from Beijing, seems much more civilised, with just a dozen or so people at the Wall when we arrived around 8am.
Historically, this section played a crucial role in defending the capital as well as imperial tombs from northern invaders.
It’s a tiny part of the Wall really, at just 2.2km long, but it’s unique in that there are 23 watchtowers built at 100 metre intervals – far more than on other sections of the Wall – highlighting its strategic importance.
As well as providing somewhere to store weapons and for officers to sleep, eat and rest, the signalling platforms in the watchtowers were an ideal place to spot invaders. They’d light a fire to warn nearby towers of the impending danger.
We spent a couple of hours exploring this section of Wall and taking lots of photos, but eventually the searing heat and humidity took its toll.
So, what better way to leave the Wall than by taking a 1,580-metre aluminium toboggan ride down the mountainside? The toboggan ride is actually a lot of fun and you are always in control with a brake lever that allows you to slow or speed up depending on how fast you want to travel.
Installed in 1998, the toboggan runs all year round, only pausing during extreme weather conditions like heavy rain or snow.
The toboggan ride costs 60 RMB and is open from 8am to 5pm in summer and 8.30 to 4.30 pm in winter. Be aware though, you cannot use a toboggan ticket on a cable car and vice versa, as different companies run each service. You must buy separate tickets for each.
The Great Wall is the perfect example of a tourist destination giving the visitor precisely what they want: a scenic ride from the valley to the Wall without breaking a sweat, plenty of places to buy knickknacks and refreshments and opportunities to have a photo atop a camel or wearing an Emperor’s garb.
There’s even a firing range at the Juyongguan Pass, near the Badalng section, if shooting is your thing.
It’s all part of the engineered serendipity that makes visiting the Great Wall of China highly memorable. Walt Disney would have been proud.