On the Great Wall of China, not the best place for misunderstandings

I book tour guides very rarely, I do it only when I feel going by myself could make me waste time or not properly appreciate what I’m meant to visit. These are the main reasons why I booked a guided tour to go to the Great Wall in Beijing, China, in August.

great wall

A view of the Great Wall from the entrance in Beijing.

It’s fair to say that at the time I had been in China for about two weeks and I hadn’t started my Chinese classes so I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin language, which made all communication impossible since locals spoke no English. After the Ming Tombs, all due “shopping stops” and the lunch, in the afternoon we finally made it to the longed spot, what we all had been waiting for.

The UNESCO-listed Great Wall of China is arguably one of China’s most visited landmarks. An ancient fortification built to protect China from foreign invasions, it’s more than 20,000 km long, as announced by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage after a survey. Started in the 8th century BC and built throughout the following centuries, today it’s a favourite trip from Beijing for families with kids.

great wall

In August the Great Wall is packed with tourists.

Although everybody knew that the fact that the Great Wall is visible from the moon is a myth, we were nevertheless looking forward to walking on one of the most awe-inspiring world’s wonders.

Our guide warned us from the bus: “Today is one of the worst days to visit the Great Wall, it’s not just during summer holidays, it’s also the weekend!” We got what she meant as soon as we arrived: a huge human flow was spread-out all along the Wall, from the entrance to the top. Most of them were Chinese, and this is where I had the full idea of being in the most populous country on earth. I felt like the whole population was there on the same day as me.

great wall of China

One more view of Beijing Great Wall.

In her shaky English, our guide, who didn’t come with us all the way up to the Wall, instructed us to go back through the same path we used to go up. That made sense when we started our march, but once at the top didn’t really seem to be so straightforward.

We got swept by the continuous flow of people, both on our way up and when we were starting our descent towards the modern world. We tried to go down the same route we used to come up, religiously following our guide’s instructions, but it was physically impossible as the enormous crowd of civil pilgrims wouldn’t allow us to go against the flow.

As we didn’t see anybody defying (nor trying to, for that matter) such a powerful human flood, we follow the trend and went down the very parallel route. “What’s the harm?” I thought. “We are still here!”

great wall of China

The famous last words. In less than no time, and in a way that still remains a mystery to me, we ended up in an unknown land. Nothing was like we remembered, the way down proved to be harder than its corresponding uphill climb, instead of a paved way, we found a path bristled with pitfalls and little rolling stones, the big door at the exit was different from when we entered (it was supposed to be the same), the little souvenir shops were not there anymore, and more importantly, our bus was not there.

We tried to ask the other tourists, who amazingly happened to be all Chinese, and whenever they caught the word “exit” they all pointed us the same direction.

As every other thing, also the parking looked different, much less crowded, different shops, not familiar at all.

I was with my parents and we soon realized we were lost. We didn’t speak a word of Chinese, nobody spoke a word of English, we had never felt so unable to communicate and to ask for help like that day. And if this wasn’t enough, the blazing heat didn’t help us see straight.

We called our guide and when we described what we were seeing, she unveiled the truth: “Oh my, you are in Mongolia!” “What?!” We echoed.

Wasn’t Mongolia another country? When did we cross the border? How did we end up out of China?

great wall

In China, Facebook and other websites are subject to government filter. This is why it’s good to have a VPN service to be able to access all websites by connecting to foreign servers. I have always used ExpressVPN because it’s the most reliable among the ones I have tried, both paid and free ones. With ExpressVPN you will have a fast connection, a big choice of servers and with the same subscription, you can install it on more than one device. You can do a monthly or annual subscription, obviously the annual is cheaper: last time I bought it was one month at the cost of $12.95, while the annual package costs $8.32 per month.

To our (little) relief, we had not crossed any border, we ended up in Inner Mongolia, still a part of China, precisely the former country whose nomadic tribes used to invade China and to stop which the Han Chinese built the Great Wall.

However, this didn’t make things easy for us. We gave our phone to a taxi driver so he could talk to our guide and understand where to take us, but we soon found out that not all cabs could drive to the other side of the wall, so we had to find one with the right license.

When we finally found the way, we were worn-out, and although we suspected that this was going to be our favorite joke to tell family and friends back home, at the time we had no energy left even for a little chuckle.

If it wasn’t evident before, after our adventure, it became crystal clear how important was for me to learn Chinese if I had the intention to stay in China.

After six months, I’m by no means fluent, but I can communicate, I can manage to find the words to ensure a smooth survival, and last but not no least, I can find my way home if I get lost.

  1. Sono stato sul muro, è esattamente cosi ! Complimenti

  2. Encore des photos et un article interessants! Et je peux témoigner de la véridicité de ton récit!

  3. Having been to China, I can certainly commiserate with you. Glad you found your way back!

    • What an experience that was… melting under August sun and in such a hard pathway. We made it eventually, but we were exhausted!

  4. What a great story about your experience. Enjoyed it very much. I can imagine being in that situation! The Great Wall is very high on my list — I will attempt to learn Chinese first.

    • I highly recommend you learn some basic Chinese expressions, such as how to ask for directions, although I have to say that since August, now I’m meeting much more people able to understand and make themselves understood in English. Now that I’m fluent in Mandarin! (Wishful thinking… :P)

  5. Very nice photos, Angela! It’s unusual to see such clear blue skies in China! I’m glad that everything worked out for you in the end.

    • You’re right, it’s rare to see such a blue sky, all the other photos I have are pretty gray! Finally today was quite clear in Shanghai, hopefully it will last :)

  6. I’m very disappointed. Two trips to the great wall and I never got lost in Inner Mongolia. I also didn’t encounter the horrible hordes of people–definitely got lucky on that one.

    • LOL! What a shame you didn’t get lost! A tip: if you plan to get lost, try at least to go spring time, not too cold and not too hot, otherwise the experience will be inevitably spoiled :P

  7. Oh Angela, you are such a trooper. I don’t care for adventures like the one you described.

    I got on the wrong bus departing Bavaria, Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. It wasn’t until we headed on the freeway that I realized we were not stopping at the bottom of the hill – where I was to meet my husband. The bus driver understood my panicked “STOP,” immediately and brought me back to the castle.

  8. Love your photos — and the story! Glad you hadn’t actually crossed a border!

    • No, the actual country of Mongolia is way too far to make such a mistake! I believe I would have realized long before getting there ;)

  9. sounds like a true adventure! My trip to the wall wasn’t nearly as exciting. Keep going with the Chinese, the first six months were certainly the hardest for me.

    • I feel somehow my Chinese is improving but I don’t even understand how this is happening. I still have hard time to understand people speaking though, and if this wasn’t enough, Shanghai is meltin pot of dialects and accents!

  10. China can certainly be confusing! So lucky you had your phone with you and were able to call your guide!

  11. Angela, nice, you wrote an easy and pleasant to read story.
    You’d better use tiny ribbons next time, to mark your way back. Ribbons, smaller than the Chinese dancing ribbons: http://bit.ly/xwMOP9 Tie these in the twigs along your way. Probably you’ll start a new cultural habit… :-)

    Your impressive photo’s are telling their own stories – you revealed an overwhelming impregnable wideness. Beautiful.

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