Hiking the Great Wall, Jinshanling to Simatai – Take Two

I first did the hike from Jinshanling to Simatai in April 2005. They say that this is the way you should experience the Great Wall –  skip the theme park atmosphere of Badaling and get out walk this less touristed section.

Although I agree, be aware that even this “’less touristed” section is now built up with a larger parking lot, hotels and a camp ground at Jinshanling; and the end point at Simatai is currently closed for restoration. Still, once you are on the wall scrambling up and down from tower to tower it’s a magical feeling. Each view better than the one before.  In early September the hills, brown in April, were a rugged green, a stunning contrast against the stone wall and blue sky.

Booking the Jinshanling to Simatai Hike

Arriving in Beijing the day before on a rainy afternoon, I had first quickly checked the weather forecast before heading over to Beijing Downtown Backpackers to book the Jinshanling to Simatai hike. To my surprise clear blue skies were predicted. The hostel is located on the historic Nanluogu Xiang in a gentrified section of one of Beijing’s hutong (old neighborhood). Trees shade the narrow lanes of gray brick buildings, packed with tourists cruising the cool granola-type shops and chic expat restaurants. Is this really China? Those looking for authenticity might be disappointed, but after three weeks in Kunming something a little less foreign felt good.

The folks at Beijing Downtown Backpackers are friendly and speak good English. I booked my tour for the next day (280 yuan, about $45). Tours depart from the hostel at 8:30AM and arrive in Jinshanling at around 11:00. The six kilometer wall walk takes three and half hours with about three hours actually on the wall. Currently there is a fairly long walk both approaching the wall at the start and descending a long staircase at tower 22, the current end point. There are no side trips to shops or jade factories.

The Jinshanling to Simatai Hike

You want to be in reasonably good shape for the hike. It’s a lot of up and down. The last section has not been rebuilt recently and while it makes for interesting photos and has a more authentic feel, it is much more difficult to negotiate the steep terrain on loose stones.

Take plenty of water and food, especially in hotter months. Alternatively there is always someone around to sell you a bottle of your favorite beverage, including cold beer (well, cool beer). The staff at Backpackers also provides you with a package of chocolate chip cookies, a small bottle of water and a postcard/map of the wall section.

I walked most of the wall with a middle aged Austrian man I had met on the bus. He’s traveled the world, working in his home country only long enough to fund his next trip. A small wiry man, he would stride up to the tower ahead of me, take a few pictures and then turn back to tell me how great the view was, repeating the process for each of the 22 towers. By the last few, before he could say anything I would say “Let’s me guess. The view’s fabulous.” But it was true, every view was stunning; you just had to snap a few.

Some of the vendors along the way can be a nuisance. Although it’s true that they are poor farmers just trying to earn a few extra yuan to feed their families, they do not take no for an answer; following you and pestering you until you finally give in and buy something.

The Austrian bought some postcards from a woman I had exchanged a few words with in Chinese. Wanting to help her out, he paid a bit more than he knew they were worth but not as much as she was asking. The woman continued to follow us until I insisted in Chinese that we were not going to buy anything more and that she should ask someone else. She left us alone until the very last tower where the Austrian found some more cards that he wanted at a much better price than the woman had been asking. Just as he finished the deal the woman pops out, quickly rummaging through her bag of wares to find the exact same item all the while whining that he isn’t buying from her. The disloyalty!

At the sign marking the exit to the parking lot, tower 22, the guide rounds us up like school children counting heads before marching us down the long staircase back to the bus.

Making New Friends

On the long bus ride back to Beijing I chatted with the guy next to me and his traveling companions. The three Canadians were at the start of their trip, 18 days in China. All of us being still high from the incredible Wall experience the conversation flowed easily, sharing backgrounds and travel itineraries.

Hali plans trips based on amazing photos she finds on the internet. A high-tech version of visiting the local postcard stand before touring an area to determine which are the best sights. Some of the photos she had collected were so astounding I was ready to start planning my next trip to China right then. (Check out Zhangjia jie.)

The conversation worked its way around to the topic of food, more specifically Peking duck. I had been wanting to go a duck restaurant, but it’s too much food for just one person. They had never eaten the famous duck and were eager to give it a try. Sorting out where and how we would go, we discovered our hotels were right next door to one another.  What are the chances in a city with a population of 20 million?

Beijing Subway System

Hali wanted to try the subway system but was a little hesitant having never used a subway anywhere. I had never used the Beijing system, but how hard could it be? Turns out it is one the most tourist friendly systems I’ve ever seen. Ticket machine menus are easily switched to English, subway maps are everywhere showing stops in both Chinese characters and Pinyin, and detailed neighborhood maps are posted at the exits. It was so easy we decided to take the subway to the restaurant after a quick stop at the hotel.

Despite the packed subway cars the trip to the restaurant was as easy as expected. Once we emerged from the subway system finding the restaurant was not so obvious and required asking directions several times before we found it hidden just around the corner from the station.

Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant

Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant (北京大董烤鸭店)  located around the corner, towards the overpass, from the Tuanjiehu (团结湖) station on line 10, offers a lower fat duck. The crispy skin is considered the best part of the duck and having the lower fat content makes eating the skin a less greasy experience.

Generally a duck meal starts with cold and hot dishes, many using lesser duck parts – tongues, intestines, feet, etc. We opted for some of the tamer offerings, broccoli and bamboo shoots. The best part of the bamboo dish was the crisp, salty bed of flash fried lettuce, ultra thin and melts in your mouth.

The duck is carved table side and is served with individual trays of condiments, including the standard scallions, cucumber and plum sauce along with fresh garlic, pickled vegetables, and match-stick daikon radish. I showed my new friends how to eat the duck, placing a few slices of duck on a thin pancake laced with plum sauce and garnished with scallions and whichever of the other condiments they preferred, finally rolling it up like a mini burrito. The duck itself was as delectable as ever, rich and crispy skin with a thin layer of meat for flavor.

Dadong is more expensive than indicated in Lonely Planet, with duck prices at around 200 yuan ($32) and other dishes starting at about 30 yuan; many of them much higher as they include seafood, duck parts and other pricier ingredients.  Overall a nice place to enjoy a good duck dinner in a more upscale and elegant setting.

September 11, 2011

For links to all the posts in this series see the Kunming page.