Seeing the Great Wall of China is obviously a must do when you have the opportunity to visit Beijing, but the very last thing we wanted was to deal with this:
The Badaling section of the wall is the most famous, the closest to Beijing, the easiest to get to, and as such, the most crowded. Granted, the photo above was taken during China’s national holiday so it’s extra congested, but nonetheless, Badaling is still very busy on a normal day.
In anticipation of our travels, Adam’s brother had gotten him a China Lonely Planet guidebook, and there was a blurb on how to get to the Jinshanling section of the wall by bus. This greatly appealed to us because we prefer to avoid joining tour groups as much as possible. While tour groups are convenient and makes things much easier, especially if you’re on a tight schedule, we’d much rather have the freedom to slowly explore the area and do things at our own pace.
Jinshanling quick facts:
- Located 125 km northeast of Beijing
- Constructed in the Ming dynasty
- Total length of 10.5 km, with 5 passes, 67 towers and 2 beacon towers
- Made of brick and stone
- 700 meters above sea level
Another great thing about Jinshanling is that is it connected to the Simatai section (UNESCO) to the east. While the initial section of Jinshanling has been restored to original condition, the wall deteriorates as it approaches Simatai, which is of original construction. What this means is that at Jinshanling, you get to see the wall in both old and new conditions. Badaling on the other hand has undergone heavy restoration.
At the time we visited (July 2013), Simatai was closed for repairs (and seems to still be closed at the time of this writing), so the closest you can get to it is by trekking from Jinshanling.
There are several ways to get to Jinshanling. The easier of which is to take the tourist bus from Dongzhimen Bus Station. It departs at 7:30 am and returns at 2:30 pm. The tourist bus is 120 RMB (around $20 CDN), which includes the round trip bus fare, entrance fee, cable car and tourist car. While this option is great and reasonably priced, we opted to go by public bus, partially because 7:30 am is just SO early!
Jinshanling by Public Bus
I felt the need to do a post about how to get to Jinshanling by public bus because we struggled with getting there ourselves based on the information we found online. So here’s a brief summary of how to get there without joining a tour group, followed by an OCD guide with every little detail we can offer you.
1. Start at Dongzhimen Bus Terminal (东直门长途汽车站). One way to get there is by taking the subway to Dongzhimen station.
2. Follow the signs to bus 980 at the North Bus Platform. The first bus 980 stop you see will likely be the 980 slow bus. Go past that for the 980 fast bus.
3. Take bus 980 to the very last stop – Miyun Bus Terminal. 15 RMB per person (~$2.50 CAD). Scam alert – beware of the bus attendant’s assistance. They may tell you to get off at the wrong stop. Make sure you get off at the last stop.
4. Take a minibus to Jinshanling. 50 RMB per person (~ $8.50 CAD). The minibuses will arrive at the spot where bus 980 drops you off. If you don’t see them, then just wait in the same area. Be prepared to be swarmed by all kinds of driver touts. You will need to talk to the minibus drivers to see which one of them is willing to take you to Jinshanling, but chances are they will approach you instead.
On our particular trip, the minibus driver was taking passengers to Gubeikou, a town to the west of the Jinshanling entrance, and then went further to take Adam and I to the Wall.
In the map below: (A) = Dongzhimen, Beijing. (B) = Miyun Bus Terminal. (C) = Gubeikou. (D) = Jinshanling entrance.
And now the detailed guide, including our experience with the trip.
1. Dongzhimen Bus Terminal (东直门长途汽车站)
If you’re arriving by subway at Dongzhimen Station, look for the “Bus Transfer Hall” signs.
2. Follow the signs to bus 980 at the North Bus Platform
Assuming the layout stays the same, the first bus 980 sign you see will be for the slow bus.
Continue walking to the end for the 980 fast bus.
3. Take bus 980 to the very last stop – Miyun Bus Terminal. Beware of bus attendants offering to “help” you
The bus ticket should be 15 RMB per person (~ $2.50 CAD).
You will very likely be offered assistance if you are visibly a foreigner. Adam gets this a lot because he is Caucasian.
The bus attendant probably saw Adam as soon as we approached bus 980. She waved us over and asked us where we were going. We told her we wanted to go to Jinshanling, and she kindly wrote down on a piece of paper the name of the stop where we should get off, emphasizing that it will be the 5th stop. She went on to tell us that once we get there, we will have to take a car the rest of the way.
Luckily Adam had read about these helpful attendants beforehand, so we were on guard. The scam is that both you and the attendant know you need to get off at “Miyun”. The problem however, is that everything is in Chinese, which you probably can’t read, and which the scammers count on. If you take a look at the enlarged photo of the bus stops below, the stops are listed left to right, and they are read top to bottom. Starting with the 5th stop, the first two characters of the stops are the same all the way until the last stop. These first two characters say “Miyun” in Chinese.
The stop you want is the last one – Miyun Bus Terminal. However, the scammers will tell you to get off at the 5th stop, which is the 1st stop where the word “Miyun” is in the bus station name. Once you get off there, you will be approached by private car drivers who will offer to take you to Jinshanling, but for a much higher price because you are in fact very far away from the Wall, seeing as how you should’ve taken the bus 13 more stops.
The bus we took departed at 12:45 pm. We know this is late, but our intention was to stay near the wall for the night, and then get an early start the next morning.
When we arrived at the first “Miyun” stop, a very helpful Chinese gentleman came onboard and walked purposely towards Adam (the only white guy on the bus). The gentleman told us that we have arrived at Miyun, and to get off the bus. Luckily I speak a tiny bit of Mandarin, so I told him “no, we’re going to the Miyun bus station”. The gentleman didn’t push it too hard. He turned around and got off the bus. We assume the bus attendant who assisted us called to give him a heads up that some foreigners were on their way.
4. Take a minibus to Jinshanling
Being in a foreign place, it’s difficult to be confident that you’re going the right way. We started to get concerned as the bus got emptier and emptier. I asked a few passengers around us in my broken Mandarin how to get to Jinshanling. Luckily one lady who overheard our struggles offered to help. She was going in the same direction, and will be taking a minibus once she got to the Miyun Bus Terminal. She offered to speak to the driver for us and we can follow her. She said the fare should be around 15 RMB (~ $2.50 CAD), but because we are tourists, we will probably be charged more.
Once we got to the final station, we were immediately swarmed by bus touts. The nice lady motioned for us to follow her, and she too was surrounded by touts. There was a lot of loud talking between her and a bunch of drivers. Our best guess was that she got overwhelmed, because she eventually left us with a tout who said he would take care of us.
We had read beforehand that once we got to Miyun Bus Station, we should be able to take a minibus to Jinshanling for 50 RMB per person (~ $8.50 CAD). Finding this minibus proved to be a challenge, made more difficult by many touts speaking loudly at you in Mandarin and the fact that we didn’t know what these minibuses look like.
The driver tout we were left with was very friendly. He gave us information about the wall, and quoted us 350 RMB total for the ride (~ $60 CAD). We thought this guy was trying to scam us hard! But eventually figured out that 350 RMB is for a private car that goes directly to the Wall.
We tried to leave him and look around for alternatives, but that also proved to be more difficult than expected. He followed us around lagging a few feet behind and kept saying “trust me little girl, you won’t find another driver for cheaper than that. Feel free to look around, but you’ll come back to me in the end”.
The guy was persistent! We had to walk a lot further than we would’ve liked to shake him off. It was a scorching hot day and our patience was wearing thin. Adam was upset because having this guy follow us was probably a sign to others that we’re his mark, so others should back off, and certainly not offer assistance to the foreigners.
The surrounding areas we wandered to were very bare. We were off of a highway with very little going on. Nothing looked like a minibus station or something we needed.
We started asking around for help. Gas station attendants, street vendors, people waiting for busses, etc. While some people tried to help us, the language barrier was too much for my limited Mandarin. I simply could not understand their directions and descriptions, nor did we know how the transit system worked. We would walk in the direction that people point us to, but we didn’t know what we were looking for.
We took one street vendor’s advice to check the route maps at a bus stop. I tried to find the Chinese words “Jinshanling” on the signs, but failed. At this point, someone asked where we were trying to go. I thought he was a kind soul trying to help, but it turned out he was also a private driver. He offered to drive us for 200 RMB (~ $34 CAD). This was better than the 350 RMB quote we got earlier, but still more than the 50 RMB each that we had expected to pay.
While we stood there trying to explain that we were looking for a minibus (I had no idea how to say “minibus” in Mandarin), more and more private drivers approached us. Each of them tried to convince us to take a private car, saying 200 RMB is cheap. They even nudged Adam and said to me “He’s a foreigner. He’s got money. Wink wink”.
The private drivers eventually gave up upon our insistence to get on a minibus, but one guy stayed back to help us out. He said to wait where we were. Eventually a minibus showed up and was able to take us to the Wall for 50 RMB.
The way these minibuses work is that they don’t leave until it is sufficiently full. As Adam and I were the only passengers on this particular bus, we had to wait until our driver gathered more passengers before we could be on our way. The driver drove around to a few spots several times to solicit more passengers, one of which was where bus 980 had dropped us off! The same spot we had run away from to shake off the first driver tout.
We watched the driver run after public busses that arrive and swarm the people getting off. It took approximately 30 minutes of driving around in circles before the driver gathered 6 more passengers, and was finally willing to get on the road. It’s a very unusual system, but I guess it works.
The minibus had proper seats for 6, plus a small padded bench that could seat another 3 people if necessary. The AC was on while we waited for more passengers, but it was turned off once we got on the highway. We also overheard the other passengers saying that the fare was 15 RMB.
At last we were off. As previously mentioned, the minibus driver was taking passengers to Gubeikou, a town to the west of the Jinshanling entrance. After he dropped everyone off in the town, he took Adam and I to the Wall.
We had read that there were hostels near the base of the Wall for 15 RMB a night. We had no such luck finding these hostels, so we eventually settled for a room in a guest house for 80 RMB / night (~ $ 13 CAD). The average rate requested was 120 RMB (~$20 CAD), but seeing as how it was a very slow night, we were able to bargain the price down.
At our guest house, we could’ve gotten an ensuite room if we paid a bit more, but we chose not to, so 80 RMB / night got us a clean room with twin beds, AC, and access to a washroom that was shared with other guests (of which there were none) and the family that owns the guest house. Note that the washroom at our particular guest house consisted of two keyhole crouch toilets and a separate wet room, that being a shower room where the owner also stored their washing machine and cleaning products.
We brought some snacks and fruits with us for food, but we have no idea where you can go eat except for the fancy Great Wall hotel near the entrance.
The Great Wall
We spent the night at the base of the Wall in our guest house, and got an early start the next morning. The entrance tickets were 40 RMB / person (~ $7 CAD).
I will now leave you with a bajillion photos of the Great Wall and its surrounding areas.
I can’t say seeing the Great Wall the way we did was the best. It was certainly more of a hassle to find our own way there, and we also don’t get a tour guide who explains the significance of everything. For a round trip, getting to the Wall on our own cost us 130 RMB each (~ $22 CAD, 15 RMB for bus 980 + 50 RMB for the minibus each way) plus entrance fee of 40 RMB, while the tourist package was 120 RMB, which includes the entrance fee.
I would say that getting the Wall practically all to ourselves was pretty sweet though. To be able to enjoy such an epic piece of history at our own pace was worth the headaches we gave ourselves in getting there.