CHINA - Arrival and the Great Wall - September/October 2019

China's flag
Asia » China » Beijing
September 21st 2019
Published: September 24th 2019
Edit Blog Post


Well it has been absolutely ages since we were last travelled and I really do miss our frequent wanderings around the globe, although we have had many journeys throughout the UK it was now time to get ‘abroad’ again. … … Last year we visited India and enjoyed every moment and for our main break this year we decided it was time for us to visit ancient China. We very nearly visited in 2014 but ended up only reaching the border in the north of Vietnam when we visited Sapa and the surrounds. We have many pleasant memories of our time in the north of Vietnam which you can read about in previous blogs if you wish.

Of course we would not have travelled now if we knew we would be escaping the Brexit debacle - would not want to miss that for the world!

One of the main reason for our visit to the People's Republic of China was to hike on some sections of the Great Wall and of course to see a ‘Panda’ as we cannot have an adventure without wildlife of some sort! Last year our visit to India was hopefully to see a Sloth Bear but sadly we did not get to see one, although we saw many wild Tigers. It was typical, we were searching for Sloth Bears whilst everyone else was looking for Tigers, they saw bears and we were really lucky with many tiger sightings in various national parks … … In China we hope we will get really lucky and at least see a Panda, this amazing iconic bear as well as put our feet down on the Great Wall and hikes some of its less visited sections.


The word China is a non-Chinese term believed to derive from the name Qin (Ch’in) the first dynasty to unify China after the Warring States period. Even today, the Chinese still call their nation Zhongguo, literally meaning Middle Kingdom, referring to its position in the centre of the universe.

China currently has the largest population in the world, with over 1.4 billion people equivalent to over 18%!o(MISSING)f the total world population. India is not far behind though with 1.3 billion people, and they're estimated to take over the first place in a few years time.

China is considered to be the oldest civilisation and has the world's longest used written language. The main language in China today is Standard Mandarin but it is home to 56 ethnic groups, all of whom have played a critical role in the development of the various languages spoken in China. Linguists believe that there are 297 living languages in China today, I think it is not going to be easy to communicate!

Ancient China was a land of invention and for many centuries was much more advanced than most other countries in science and technology, astronomy and maths. The Chinese invented paper made by pulping rags and wood fibre, the magnetic compass, block printing, tea porcelain, silk as well as gunpowder which was used to propel arrows from bamboo tubes.

As a Communist country, China has no official religion. That being said, the government does officially recognise five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. As of the last official census over 50% of the population said they were unaffiliated with any religion. The Great Silk Road played an important role in the formation of Chinese culture, because it was the route, by which Buddhism, one of the main religions of Chinese civilisation, found its way to the Empire.

In the UK we celebrate New Year on the last day of December and the first day of January so just one day. The Chinese New Year celebration lasts for 15 days and every year is represented by one of 12 animals. 2019 is represented by the Pig and the following years will be Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Chicken and Dog and then it will be back to Pig again in 2031.


Before travelling to China you have to obtain a visiting Visa and you should be aware that there have been recent changes to the process. From November 2018, all British Citizens aged between 14 and 70 need to make their visa application in person at a Visa Application Centre. Lucky for us we are both in our 70s and so we did not need to visit a visa centre to provide fingerprints … …

We flew direct with Air China from Heathrow to Beijing a flight time of about nine and half hours. We had a really smooth flight and followed the curve of the earth passing over Russia and Mongolia and we could see the Gobi Desert far beneath us.

We were hoping to include Japan in this trip but decided to visit that at a separate time as our visit coincided with the World Rugby Cup. That being said our plane was full of many young men on the way to the tournament and I must say they were all very well behaved on the plane.

We would be in China for just over a month joining a Wendy Wu tour for the middle part of the trip and doing our own thing at each end.

After a day of rest to catch up on some sleep we had arranged for a private guide to take us to a section of the Great Wall that we would not be visiting with on our tour group. Some research before we left informed us that the Jinshanling section was notable and had the most beautiful original architecture but was also renowned as the best route to hike the as it was slightly off the beaten path - so us!

Even though we were not joining our group for a few days we were delighted to be met at the Airport by Helen our National Guide for the tour. She lives in Guilan which we would be visiting on the tour and in the taxi on the way from the airport she said that this was a lovely part of the country.

On the way to the hotel she pointed out some places of interested and informed us that sadly we would not have any WIFI at all for the next 7 nights due to Government restrictions because of the country’s 70 year celebrations of the founding of People's Republic of China. This would also greatly restricts our sightseeing in the city of Beijing as they prepared for the massive celebrations, but more on that later. She explained a little about the occasion and we noticed a huge number of flags as we drove into the centre of Beijing as well as some very well attended floral displays along the roadsides.

It took us an hour to get to our hotel and Helen told us to sit down and she would deal with all the formalities. So we just sat and relaxed and Helen even took us up to our room and showed us where everything was. I must say its quite nice having someone sort everything out for you for a change we usually find our own way around new destinations …. … … She informed us there would be total of nine people on our tour and she said this was a good number as it was thought of as ‘lucky’ in China.

Sadly later that day Paul was not feeling well, so we spent the evening in our room and had an early night hoping he would be feeling better in the morning as we had to be up early to meet our local guide, Marco at 0730 hours.


After a very early breakfast we met up with Marco (his tourist name as he said no-one could pronounce his Chinese name) and headed out into the streets of Beijing. Marco used to teach but now enjoys taking tourist around his city. As mentioned above we had carried out a bit of research before we left the UK on where was best to visit the Great Wall and decided that it was worth journeying slightly further away from Beijing, to Jinshanling, with its spectacular views and mountain scenery. Hopefully to also escape the crowds and see a part of the wall that retains some of its original form and natural features, battle scars and all … …. …

This turned out to be a good plan as we will never forget the moment we first set eyes on the Great Wall, so high in the distance wandering across the skyline. I had looked for it from our aeroplane window as we flew over the city without success … …. … as apparently it can be seen from ‘space’ so should be easily spotted from a flight window! Contrary to common belief, the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from space with the naked eye, however it can be seen with aid. So this was our very first sighting of this amazing structure, spotted from the window of our car.


The Great Wall stretches across North China from east to west through the northern countryside from the Gobi Desert in the west into the Bahai Sea in the East crossing mountains and deserts travelling through 15 provinces of China.

Marco informed us that over many dynasties the wall was built, eroded, rebuilt and extended many times. The ‘Long Wall’ as it was known has an equally long history of more than 2,300 years. It was built in different areas by different states to protect various territorial borders. It's often said that the First Emperor of Qin built the Great Wall (221-207 BC) but apparently a Qi State Duke first built walls to prevent invasion from other states (770-221 BC) see detailed photograph. Later emperors extended the Great Wall far into today's western China to protect Silk Road trade. The latest construction took place in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) crossing high mountains and fast flowing rivers and the wall then reached around 5,500 miles.

The height of the Great Wall varies from 16 to 26 feet where it is this intact or restored. It was designed to be at least three times the height of a man. Some of the Wall was built along ridges, which makes it look taller and as you stared out into the distance it towered over ridges, hills and mountains without end or so it seemed. Although due to natural erosion and human damage, about 2,000 kms or 30% of the Ming Great Wall has totally disappeared and been swallowed up by vegetation. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many bricks of the Great Wall were taken away to use in building homes, farms or reservoirs. Otherwise many sections of the Great Wall would be preserved much better than what they are like today.

The Great Wall was not just a wall it was an integrated military defensive system with watchtowers for surveillance, fortresses for command posts and logistics, beacon towers for communications. After the Ming Dynasty, there was no need for any empires in China to rebuild the Great Wall as their defense system but other countries continued to do so. We remember vividly the dividing wall in Berlin having lived there before it was taken down in the mid 80s. It really sad to think that countries are still building walls today.


It was quite a long car journey about three hours from Beijing to get to the Jinshanling section but so worth it and the road was excellent as well. This section being one of the farthest from the city. Macro pointed out a new Bullet Train rail being built along the way which would greatly speed up his journey to his hometown but not to the wall. We finally stopped at a ticket office where there was a huge red flower display ready for the country’s 70 year celebrations. A large red sign detailed 1949 - 2019, the year I was born, but no they were not celebrating my birthday but the birthday of their motherland which falls on 1 October … … …

After purchasing tickets we jumped into a small two seater cable car to take us up the mountain. You had to be really quick to jump in as the car did not stop and was going quite fast but just enough time for two people to jump in after one after each other. Marco travelled in the car behind ours. As we headed very slowly up the mountain over the tops of the trees the mist was still lingering and it was a magical moment heading into the unknown with soft Chinese music playing in the background.

Five minutes later and we jumped out at the cable station and headed out on to the wall. We were early so it was very quiet, Marco said it was usually much busier but never as crowded as some sections, so we were indeed lucky to see some sections on our own.

The Jinshanling Great Wall was initially built between 1368 and 1389 during the Ming Dynasty, and in 1567 rebuilding of the wall was amplified because of frequent attacks from the Mongolian steppe. Poems and tablet writings are still found on this section from time to time. It extends from Longyukou in the west and ends at Wangjinglou Tower in the east. This section stretches for about 10.5 km and includes 5 passes, 67 guarded towers and 3 beacon towers. Marco pointed out to us several barrier walls, a series of shorter walls that cross about two thirds of the width of the path along the top of the great wall. These are found on incline areas near watch towers and they can only be found on a few places on the Great Wall other than Jinshanling These walls were built to provide yet another layer of defence by making it easier to defend the towers against enemy forces that may have made it onto the Great Wall at a lower point.


As we hiked from tower to tower with the high wall endlessly snaking away into the far distance you really appreciate the magnitude of the building of this iconic place. Such an exceptional feat of engineering it had to be seen to be believed. Marco pointed out that during its construction, the Great Wall of China was called ‘the longest cemetery on earth’ because so many people died building it - it is reported that it cost the lives of more than one million people. Archaeologists have found human remains buried under parts of the wall. It was built by soldiers, peasants, and rebels using stone, soil, sand and brick all delivered by hand, rope, cart and goats. Apparently originally glutinous rice flour was used in making the binding material to bind the bricks!

It was not easy walking on this section of the wall, the terrain in parts was really rough under foot and the steep uphill sections took one’s breathe away in more ways than one … … Some of the sides had disappeared and you had to watch where you were walking as there were long drops on either side. We saw some sections of the wall that were completely original whilst others had been authentically reconstructed. Marco also pointed out drainage and lookout holes in the South side and said that the lookout holes on this side were to let the breeze flow on to the wall. This was the side that the Chinese lived but on the north side the lookout holes were to stop the Mongolians from entering the Chinese Kingdom. There were also no drainage holes on the north side, as of course the Chinese wanted any precious rainwater to drain into their side. Hence the wall was always slightly sloped from north to south. Small wooden door openings were also located on the south side to let the multitude of workers in and out.

We throughly enjoyed our day out hiking on the wall and really appreciated that this was one of the quietest and most attractive parts of the wall although as we were leaving more people were arriving. It was definitely worth getting up early before the crowds and the hot sunshine as well and a big thank you to Marco for telling us so many stories about his country and the contraction of the Great Wall of China.

We took the cable car back down the mountainside admiring the views as the mist had cleared. We stopped at a local restaurant with our driver and Marco and had a delicious meal in the usual Chinese way on a table with a revolving top to select your food. We even tried chop sticks and were quite good with some of the food but the rice was definitely another matter - it just would not stay put! Over three hours later due to heavy traffic we were back in our hotel and we said goodbye to Marco who had been a brilliant guide - thank you and hope you manage to link to our blog.


That evening entering the restaurant we were greeted by a young girl with a phone who immediately started talking into it before handing it over to us. She was asking us what we wanted and we answered, also using the App translator, whether they were open for dinner, she smiled and showed us to some seats (we were the only ones in the restaurant not a good sign).

We had been informed that English was the most widely spoken foreign language in China, studied from the age of 6 but apart from our National Guide and Marco we have not come across anyone yet who we could converse with, but sign language is a great medium or was until technology took over … … … … Not saying we should expect local people to speak our native tongue but we had anticipated, from information we had gleaned, that English was widely understood of course our Chinese being 0.001%!!(MISSING)! Although we have been trying to communicate in Chinese, the correct pronunciation seem to be getting us nowhere, although we have already got used to few words; - hello, please and thank you, beer, wine and plus ‘Knife and Fork’ (Paul has really really tried using chop sticks)!

To compound the linguistic complications the Chinese themselves speak a profusion of regional dialects as mentioned above with possibly 297 living languages! Someone from the north of the country scarcely understands someone from the South although the government is encouraging everyone to speak Putonghua (Mandarin) now. We found however you can nearly always get away with a nod and a smile you might not get what you want but a smile goes a long long way …. … …

Back to the restaurant story - The lovely young girl that came over complete with menus and phone of course. Having made our selection she disappeared into the kitchen only to reappear with two chefs who were all talking together - a sign of something not quite right …. …. She came over to us with the App which said ‘we are out of that ‘weirdo just pork and steak’. We just roared with laughter it reminded us of when we tried to check in at the airport in Heathrow and the computer said to Paul ‘you are not that old man’ and we had to be taken to a ‘proper’ check-in desk and the girl apologised for the choice of words.

Technology is great when it works …… … China is definitely high tech, we noticed our National Guide had to show her face at reception for computer facial recognition, similar but a little bit more sophisticated to Passport photo procedure. Watching Chinese TV later apparently lots of shops are now using facial recognition technology so that one does not need to carry anything with them, cash, cards or ID etc etc

One more thing on the restaurant story - I chose an omelette thinking that this would be OK only for the App to inform me that was also ‘off the menu’. In the end I decided to have the Chinese Business Dinner that Paul had ordered as that seemed to be available. This was greeted with a broad smile and it arrived a little while later, although delicious the main dish was far to HOT for me but the rice and vegetable were just fine … … … and it was all served with a lovely smile.

We have another couple of days in the city before we join our group and see some of the other main highlights of Beijing. Hopefully we will not get lost before then as our map is only in Chinese but I am sure we will - see you there.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


24th September 2019

I look forward to Following you on your visit to China...
it will bring back memories. This blog brought back memories of having to converse using our cell phones (five doctors trying to tell us what was wrong with my sick son) and trying to order food (ordering waffles at a Sofitel, but unable to obtain syrup only after many items were brought to us). Our visit to the Great Wall was very crowded. I just sat with a group of older Chinese who shared their snacks with me (not sure what I was eating) as we communicated through sign language. You will have a wonderful time!
27th September 2019

All good
Thanks for your comments and all super good so far. Hope your son got sorted in the end and you found some Syrup 🤣 Cheers from us both
25th September 2019

Beautiful photos of the wall
Your trip looks amazingly diverse, and I'm looking forward to reading about it all. I'm sure you'll be super proficient users of chopsticks by the end of the trip :) Cheers, Ren
27th September 2019

Thank you for your comments - cheers
28th September 2019
Unrestored ancient Watchtower

The unrestored sections are awesome
I have visited the Great Wall a few times and I enjoyed the unrestored sections more. I would like to make a trip along the wall from east to west some time. Not going exactly along the wall all the way, but sort of having the wall as a theme. I think that would be a really interesting trip. Your roundtrip in China looks like a wonderful adventure. I wish you good luck. /Ake
28th September 2019
Unrestored ancient Watchtower

The Great Wall
Hi Ake - Thanks for your comment and It certainly is a wow and would be amazing to visit all the different sections. Regards Sheila
28th September 2019

Wow! Your itinerary and map look amazing, it seems you have a very exciting journey ahead of you! I look forward to following along. Great to read that you were able to find a quieter section of the Great Wall. What a fantastic introduction to this amazing country! 😊
28th September 2019

Beguiling China
Hi Alex - certainly enjoying the adventure so far and so much more to come - the Great Wall was indeed a highlight and so glad we managed to see several sections to get more of an idea of its tremendous size and the struggle to build it snaking across the mountain tops. Regards Sheila
29th September 2019
Our Planned Journey

What a plan!
So thrilled to read along and learn. We've not been to china yet... soon we hope.
29th September 2019
Our Planned Journey

A must see
Hello Dave and Merry - you must put it on your list it is so different and we are throughly enjoying every moment. Cheers Sheila

Tot: 0.339s; Tpl: 0.031s; cc: 27; qc: 122; dbt: 0.0322s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 2.1mb