China Day 3: The Great Wall, Olympic Park & Sleeper Train to Xian

It was our third day in China and the one I had been looking forward to the most. We had arranged a day tour with The China Travel Company to visit the Great Wall and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Park.

Just like the previous day, it was an 8.30 a.m. start, with our guide and driver picking us up from the hotel. We were first going to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, about 70 km north of Beijing.

On the way we stopped at a Jade centre, where we got to see the process of carving raw Jade rocks into exquisite ornaments and jewellery. As at the end of every shoppertunity, we were led to a very large Jade shop, which had everything from intricate pendants to life-sized Jade statues. However, we found everything to be quite expensive, especially compared to shops we saw later in Xian and Shanghai.

The Great Wall

We arrived at the Great Wall about 11.00 a.m. First, a little bit of history. The first great wall was built by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, after his unification of China around 200 BC. The wall was built using material available locally, so different sections of the wall was built from stone, brick, wood, sand etc. Subsequent dynasties added and extended the wall, but almost all of this first wall is now eroded. The next period of significant wall construction came with the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. The wall that is seen today dates from this period.

It is possible to view the wall at many different places, depending of how much time you have available and what sort of experience you are after. Badaling is the closest to Beijing and the most popular for local visitors, as it has writings by Chairman Mao. Badaling is by far the busiest section of the wall. The Jinshanling section is best for hiking. Mutianyu has the best preserved wall from the Ming era, and most visited for section foreign visitors.   I found this website very useful when trying to decide which part to visit. We picked Mutianyu wall as it was known to be the best preserved, beautiful scenery and relatively close to Beijing.

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Overview of the Great Wall at Mutianyu
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Background to Mutianyu Greatwall

Once you get to Mutianyu, you can either walk up to the wall, which is a 40/50 minutes uphill walk, or get the cable car which costs 120 Yuan per person. My tip – take the cable car, and save your energy (and time) to walk on the wall once you get to the top. Plus, you get great views of the wall as you ride up in the cable car.

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Cable car ride up to the Great Wall
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Our first view of the Great Wall from the cable car

Once we were at the top, it was a jaw dropping scene. It wasn’t the clearest of days, but we could still see the wall stretching over as far as the eye can see,  like a snake lying across the mountain. Views of the other side of the wall are so fantastic and has been used as a backdrop for many films.

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View of the wall from the top
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Mountains on the other side of the wall

Once at the top, you can either turn left or right along the wall. We explored the wall on both directions. If you want to avoid a steep climb, go left. On the left hand side you can see the wall for many miles, gently rising and falling on the mountain ridge. This section of the wall also has some of the best preserved watchtowers. Most watchtowers were in ruins, but one was still intact and we climbed to the top of this.

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View from top of watch tower

On the right hand side, again you can see the wall for many miles, but it goes up and down a lot more, so there is more climbing. You can also see a small village in the distance.

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The view of the wall on the right hand side
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The wall on the right hand side, there is a lot more climbing

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After 1.5 hours at the top, we headed back down. There are many tourist shops down here, but you have to haggle very hard. Just as an example, we were offered a book about the wall for 240 Yuan, reduced to 50 Yuan in the space of 10 steps.

There is also a small museum about the restoration of this section of the wall in the 20th century, which is worth looking at.

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You can also get a certificate for climbing the wall.

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Tips for Visiting the Great Wall at Mutianyu

  • Take the cable car up (as opposed to walking up). Save your energy (and time) to walk the wall itself.
  • Plan to spend 1-2 hours at the top to explore the wall.
  • Take good footwear.
  • It is cold at the top, so take a coat or jumper. Also take a sun hat and sunscreen.
  • There isn’t any food or drink available at the top (that we saw), so take water and snacks.

Similar to the previous day, lunch was arranged for as part of the tour at a nearby restaurant. After lunch, we headed to the Olympic Park.

2008 Olympic Stadium

We got to the Olympic park around 4 p.m. as dusk was falling. Entry is free to the Olympic Park and you can see the Water Cube, Bird Nest Stadium and the Pagoda media tower (from the outside). It is possible to buy tickets to visit the Bird Nest stadium though.

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You can also see the olympic torch, the sign and a list of medal winners engraved on the wall.

We headed to the station and on the way we stopped by  a traditional teashop, where we had a demonstration of a tea ceremony, with 5 different tea types – Jingseng, black tea, green jasmine tea, fruit tea and rose tea. This was another “shoppertunity” but we enjoyed the tea ceremony demonstration.

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Overnight Train to Xian

We next headed to the Beijing Central railway station to catch our overnight sleep train to Xian (We had checked out of the hotel that morning, so our bags were in the car already).

Station and getting on the train

We had already booked our train ticket through the travel company.  Tickets are booked with your passport number, and at the entrance to the station you need to show your ticket and passport. After this there a luggage security check.

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We next headed to the mini supermarket at the station to stock up for dinner and breakfast on the train. If you prefer a sit down meal before boarding, there are restaurants available on the station as well.

On the central station concourse, there is a departure board that show the train numbers, times, and the waiting room number for each train. We headed to the relevant waiting room, which was easy to find. At the entry to the waiting room, there is another ticket check. The waiting room got very crowded as the train time approached.

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Boarding starts about half an hour before the train departure time. The board in the waiting room will display the platform when the train is ready for boarding. You can get on to the platform straight from the waiting room (there is another ticket check here).

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Then take the escalator to the platform and to the train. You need to show the ticket one more time to the guard to step on board the train.

On the Train

We were on a second class “soft sleeper” compartment with 4 berths. I booked all 4 berths in the compartment although only there were 3 of us. This ended up being about 400 Yuan (£50) extra,  which was the best £50 we spent on the entire trip. Because although the compartment is efficiently setup, space is limited, so getting an extra berth gives you the privacy as well as extra space for your luggage that you need.

There is also luggage space at the top, but you have to be able to lift the luggage above your head to get to this.  Good, clean bedding (pillow, sheet and duvet) and slippers are provided.

Getting to the top bunk is not too difficult, but – you need to be able to reach. If you have knee or back problems, the top bunks are best avoided. The compartment is lockable from the inside.

At each bunk, there is small rack, so you can keep your valuables nearby when you go to sleep. There was also a small TV screen on each bunk, but these were not working.

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Each compartment only has one charging point, which is only really accessible to one of the bottom bunks. There are extra charging points available in the corridor.

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Boiling water is provided from a tap at the end of each carriage.

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Washing and toilet – each carriage has wash room with 3 sinks for washing and a separate toilet. The toilet was in good condition for most of the journey.

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The guard checked every compartment before the train departed, presumably to make sure only ticket holders were on board.

Soon after we set off, the train attendant came to take tea/coffee orders for the next morning.

We laid out our dinner on the small table and had a mini feast. Afterwards, we settled in to sleep. The train vibrated quite a lot, but we managed to get several hours of sleep.

On the whole, the journey was very good. Other passengers in our carriage were pleasant, and everyone minded their own business. The only low point was the ventilation system. The cabin ventilation systems are interlinked, so when someone in another compartment was smoking, this seeps through to the others. Smoking is preventative in China, and smoking bans are a rarity.

The next morning, tea arrived 45 minutes before arrival and there was a rubbish collection about 30 minutes before arrival.

There are two other classes available, 1st class “soft sleeper” with two berths per compartment and third class “hard sleeper”, 6 berths each, and no lockable compartments. More details about different train classes here

Tips for overnight train travel in China:

  • If going in 1st or 2nd class, try to book the entire compartment. It will cost more, but I felt that the extra money was well worth it.
  • Take an eye mask, facemask and ear plugs. The lights on stations that the train goes past are very bright. Unless you have a curtains completely closed, it will disturb your sleep, so eye mask is useful to block out light. A face mask would be handy to reduce any unpleasant smells including smoking.
  • In the morning get up early to use bathroom and washing before others, as it can get busy.
  • Take toilet roll and wet wipes. There are none available on the train.
  • Take some food with you. The trains sometimes have a restaurant car, but this is not guaranteed.
  • Don’t order tea/coffee from the train. We did, and they cost 10 Yuan each (£1.20), but the coffee was undrinkable and the tea was green tea (understandable in China). Instead, get a few “instant” teas from the station supermarket and you can make your own with the hot water from the carriage. These cost 5 Yuan, and taste much better.

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Reflections on Day 3: This was my favourite day of the trip, as we saw the great wall which was truly spectacular. This alone made the trip worth it. The Olympic park was interesting, but if you are pressed for time, this is something you can give a miss. I was pleasantly surprised by the Overnight train trip. This was the bit I was most nervous about the whole trip, but turned out to be great

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