Monday, February 22, 2010

Great Wall of China Group Tour: To book or not to book?

It was no ordinary Monday, for that day we fulfilled one of our travel dreams - to tread on the Great Wall of China. Now let me tell you how that day turned out to be a disappointment.

Approaching the most photographed of all walls, Badaling.

Shervin and I almost always steer away from group tours. Why? Simply because they cost more than DIY exploring. More so, we don't have to deal with tourmates we dislike (we hate putting up with tourists who complain so much).

Prior our China trip, we researched on how to get to the Great Wall without booking a tour. It's indeed possible, though a bit tricky. We laid out a meticulously-planned itinerary, for we are checking it out on our last day in Beijing. In the evening, we'll be taking the train to Xi'an, Shaanxi to see the Terracotta Warriors.

We were staying at Beijing City Central Youth Hostel. It has its own travel agent. Out of curiosity, we asked the lady manning the booth regarding prices for Badaling and Mutianyu (two of the more popular walls). She gave us the prices, ¥180 and ¥280. When asked about the packages, she mentioned similar inclusions. Transportation, admission fee and English-speaking guide. The difference? She admitted that the guide for the ¥180-tour is not given a salary and will take the tourists to jade factories or Chinese medicine shops so he/she will be given a commission when tourists buy items. The guide of the ¥280-tour on the other hand is provided a salary, and he/she need not whisk the unknowing tourists to such stores.

We appreciated her honesty, and told her we'll think about it (though in reality, we've made up our minds about getting there ourselves). And oh, I kind of lost my trust in her when I asked her about the cost of a cable car ride in Mutianyu and she answered it doesn't exist. It got me thinking, has she ever been there?


Anyway, if you're not booking a tour, here are your transport options (for Badaling Wall):
1. Beijing Sightseeing Bus. Terminals should be located northeast and northwest of Qianmen (south of Tiananmen Square). On weekdays though, buses seem to park some place else (we found them along Chongwenmen Xidajie). Ask locals for 'Badaling bus', don't mention Great Wall, most of them won't understand what you're talking about. ¥160, an hour and fifteen minutes max.
2. Bus 919. Leaves from the Deshengmen old gate. Take the subway to Jishuitan Station (along Line 2). From there, it's a 500m walk to the terminal. Fare about ¥12, ride will take an hour and a half. Ask where exactly you will be dropped off. I did not notice any 919 buses dropping off passengers near the premises of the Badaling Wall.
3. Hire a taxi for the day, around ¥400 for a group of four. Sounds reasonable, but take note that admission fee's (¥45) still not included.

For Mutianyu Wall:
1. Beijing Sightseeing Bus (see item no. 1 above). Though they don't seem to be available on weekdays. ¥110, about two hours.
2. From Dongzhimen long-distance bus station, take bus 916 to Huairou. ¥8 for an hour and forty-five minutes. From Huairou take a minibus to Mutianyu , ¥25.
Cable car ride: ¥35 single, ¥50 return.

From our hostel, we took the subway train (¥2 flat fare) to Tiananmen Square. We asked the guards roving around the square about the Beijing Sightseeing Bus Station and even showed it on our map, but they didn't know where it is. They spoke to us in Mandarin and pointed their fingers to random directions. One local must have sensed what we were looking for and asked us, "Badaling?". We nodded our heads and he led us to a bus queue. He turned us over to the tour guide, who spoke very limited English (the guy by the way didn't leave us until we handed him a ¥10 'tip'). Each sightseeing bus has a coordinator or guide, who oversees the activities. It's like any other tour, except they don't offer hotel pick up and drop off.

Our guide wrote ¥160 on a piece of paper, and also '-->9:30 <--5:00'. She was telling us that the bus leaves for Badaling at 9:30AM and will come back at 5:00PM. It didn't sound right. It's such a long period of time, even if they take us to the Ming Tombs as well. We had a feeling that a sidetrip to factories will be squeezed in between sightseeing.

We asked also if admission fee's included, and she sort of said yes. We assumed so anyways since ¥160 is too much for transportation alone. Our bus only had four non-Chinese tourists: Shervin, me and a European couple seated behind us. The bus left almost 10:00AM and arrived at Badaling around quarter past eleven.


I froze instantly as we got off the bus. I've been using 'froze' for all of my China posts I know, but that's what happened to me every single winter day. The Badaling Wall is situated in a mountainous area, and there's nowhere to hide from the harsh cold breeze sweeping through the slopes. That being said, it's better to visit in autumn (summer can get too hot) when the weather's much pleasant. Hues are also more picturesque during this season.

The guide instructed us to return to the bus at 12:30PM, then her rip-off attempt. She asked us for ¥45 each for the admission fee. Shervin argued that earlier she said it's already included. She started shouting in Mandarin. Shervin didn't back down, but kept his cool. He kept repeating it's already paid for. I watched them bicker in their respective native tongues, which was a pretty entertaining sight. I should have joined the chaos (and ranted in Tagalog!), that might have given me some heat.

She finally gave up and stomped away from us, but we still headed to the entrance's turnstile. The guards didn't ask for tickets. They must have seen us walking with the tour group.

The Great Wall's width is narrower than I expected. No wonder it cannot be seen from space with the naked eye. Its steps are already eroding like Angkor Wat's. We weren't able to walk to the farther watchtowers because I was just so cold. My runny nose was already giving me a headache, and climbing up the stairs was a laborious task for my numb feet.

Sporting a fake smile. After this photo was taken I was on the verge of tears, it was darn freezing out there!

I pleaded Shervin that we start walking back to the bus. He agreed. While looking for our bus, we bumped into the European couple and chitchatted with them for a bit. They mentioned that they weren't interested in visiting the Ming Tombs (it's included in our tour), and so were we. We told our guide to drop us off a station where Bus 919 passes so we can go home on our own.

The guide appeared to be more than happy to get rid of us.

Moral of the story: It's advisable to book a group tour. It may cost more (check package inclusions) but it saves you from getting ripped off. In a country where English is the nth language, you'll need a good and honest translator. And if you're not the bookworm type, you can rely on the brief descriptions provided by your guide. In China, facts are overwhelming (hence I didn't discuss the Great Wall's history on this post), so you can just ask what you're interested to know.

Plus if you've waited all your life to see the wall like me, then it's best to get there in a worry-free way so you can fully appreciate it.


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flipnomad said...
March 10, 2010 at 10:44 AM

nice article gaye. would love to viit this place in the future...

lakwatsera de primera said...
March 10, 2010 at 11:36 AM

I guess I'll take your advice for this one if I get the chance to visit The Great Wall. This place is in my bucket list :-)

Janet said...
March 10, 2010 at 3:15 PM

yehey! thanks for posting. the most informative blog i found discussing how to get to great wall. however i will just follow your advice about booking a tour. we will go summer.

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
March 12, 2010 at 11:33 AM

Claire, I am sure you will have that chance someday. And when you do, tell me all about it!

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
March 12, 2010 at 11:52 AM

Hi Janet! Yeah, booking a tour is worth the extra yuans. And if you're travelling with someone, you need not join another group, cause 'group' pertains to two or more people. Have fun!

The Nomadic Pinoy said...
March 14, 2010 at 7:50 PM

From your photo, I can see why you feel so cold that day - your outerlayer looks not enough. A down jacket would have sufficed.

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
March 14, 2010 at 8:01 PM

Dennis, I actually had a warmer down jacket... but it didn't make any difference either. I'm just really not used to cold weather. Five layers don't even work for me :(

Manlalakbay said...
March 15, 2010 at 10:04 AM

idol talaga! galing ng blog! informative with witty and funny personal insights. sana magawa ko rin ito. kaso hindi ako magaling magsulat hehe. i also like your photos. sakto lang. hindi exaggerated ang pag-edit at alam namin kung maganda talaga ang lugar hindi yung maganda lang sa litrato. more power!

pinoy boy journals said...
March 16, 2010 at 6:51 AM

i couldn't agree with you more. there are times when taking the tour is much more practical. but atleast you were able to visit the great wall. i haven't been there and thanks to you for the advice, i shall definitely take the tour when going there..

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
March 19, 2010 at 1:02 AM

Yep Jerik, it was of course still worth it.

Anonymous said...
March 19, 2010 at 6:48 AM

thanks for the advice! too bad it didn't work out well for you..

in countries that do not speak English, backpacking style is definitely harder. hope it's not true for other places.

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
March 20, 2010 at 12:25 PM

So true HappySole. It is more difficult to ask for directions, haggle, and even just chitchat. Tour guides can be lifesavers. And they give you a lot of information you won't get from the internet and guide books.

princess_dyanie said...
April 14, 2010 at 9:52 AM

yay i want to go to great wall too! kaso gudlak kung kayanin ko ang lamig haha! :P

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
April 14, 2010 at 3:10 PM

Not to worry, summer and autumn should be the perfect time to visit. We just wanted to know how it's like to travel in winter season. Ayun, ginaw na ginaw kami. Haha.

JODYxBUFFY said...
April 16, 2010 at 2:37 AM

For a truly "authentic" and unforgettable Great Wall experience (read, very few tourists), I recommend the hike from Simatai to Jinshanling. This is a fairly grueling hike, as it steeply ascends and descends the meandering wall. One must be in good physical condition to do the hike. I did it several years ago by myself in the heat of summer and almost collapsed. Thank goodness for the wonderful old lady who agreed to carry my rucksack over the last few miles. (I repaid her by buying a ubiquitous "I Climbed the Great Wall" T-shirt and some trinkets.) Despite the challenge, this trek offers stupendous views photography.

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
April 16, 2010 at 3:33 AM

Oh, I've read about that part of the wall - sounds really interesting! Hopefully someday we can go back to China and try that hike.

Wow, that old lady must be real fit!

Calvin said...
May 16, 2010 at 7:31 PM

hi just stumbled upon your site. my wife and i also went to china and it was a DIY thing. we went to mutianyu instead of badaling because we want to ride the cable car up and bobsled the way down. sarap! it was also cold that time but i think february is much colder.

our winter jacket from columbia was enough pero the problem was the hands. no gloves can ward away the cold. the only way is to get used to it which is hard for filipinos. same with the face, wearing a mask or scarf over your nose is no fun.

we didn't go to xi'an but went to datong instead for the hanging monastery. you should check out our trip on the travelogue section of my blog.

oh yeah, we had an advantage because my sister works in beijing and knows mandarin. :P she would be happy to help you out if she'd known.

☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
May 16, 2010 at 8:51 PM

Hi Calvin! We really wanted to go to Mutianyu also because of the cable car and bobsled, but then luck wasn't on our side. We were not able to find the bus to Mutianyu.

And yes, the winter cold can just be unbearable for us Filipinos.

We'd like to go back to China someday, to explore the western regions - and see more of the Silk Road. Datong is pretty interesting too. Another destination in our bucket list!

Ian said...
December 15, 2010 at 11:29 AM

I will take your advise when I visit the Great Wall, it is helpful when visiting one of the world's famed spot, however what is the difference visiting between Mutianyu and Badaling Wall? It is also very cold visitng on March?


☮Pinay Travel Junkie☮ said...
December 15, 2010 at 3:19 PM

Hi Ian! Mutianyu Wall is less crowded plus it's got a cable car ride. It's still cold in March for us Pinoys. It can get 0 deg C in the evenings and slightly above 10 deg C at daytime.

the traveling OT said...
February 12, 2012 at 1:07 PM

i went to badaling great wall via an s-train for RMB6 (one way) last month. it took me ~1 hour 15 mins to go there from beijing railway station. entrance is still at RMB45 (discounted winter fee). the train ride is very convenient and scenic (not many travelers know it though), highly recommended!

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