The worst part about traveling, they say, is the travel. For most people, it's a long way to China. There are many things you can do to make getting there more bearable and even enjoyable.
Most people will want to fly to Beijing to visit the Great Wall, but your travel plans may call for visiting other cities in China. Wherever your destination is, use a travel website such as Kayak to compare and search airfares to get the best possible deal. From most places it's a long flight to China, so it's worth taking time to find the best possible schedule. If no direct flight is available, hopefully you can make just one stop. Make sure your layover time at your intermediate airport isn't too short so you won't have much risk of missing the second flight.
Carry some things on the plane to help you pass the time. Different people have different strategies for this. If you can sleep well on an airplane, you have a great advantage. Reading materials are very popular; something interesting to read really helps to pass the time. Other possibilities include music players and games. It's good if these are a part of your cell phone in order to reduce your load.
If you're elsewhere in China, you will choose between airplanes, trains, and buses to get to Beijing or whatever location you're planning for your Great Wall hike. Train travel in China is really quite good, but sometimes availability of tickets can be a problem, and they are not sold far in advance. Traveling by air may be somewhat more expensive, but compared with train travel, it's usually easier to travel on your schedule, especially with short notice. Traveling by bus is another possibility, but it's less safe and for longer trips it's not the best choice.
Things change rapidly in China. Transportation, including bus and train schedules and stations, can be significantly different from year to year. For this reason, publishing specific bus and train information in books is not useful because these details will quickly become outdated. It's easy to find Websites that provide up-to-date bus and train schedules for China. Please refer to the Internet for the most current and accurate transportation schedules.
There are many different types of trains in China: new and old, fast and slow, many stops or express. Types of trains are designated by a letter, which is the first character in a train number. For example, D305 is a D train from Shanghai to Beijing. The following types of trains are available:
C and G trains: These are the fastest
and best trains.
D train: high-speed bullet.
Z train: overnight express, few if any stops.
T train: slower than a Z train.
K and N train: slower than a T train, even though they are called “fast”.
In addition, you may occasionally find the following additional types of trains:
L train: peak period express.
A train: scheduled when load is high.
Y train: tourist route train.
To avoid confusion and disappointment, it's always a good idea to ask not only what time a train departs but also what time it's due to arrive at your destination.
Various types of trains offer various types of accommodations. Here are the possible types of accommodations you may find on trains, listed from most comfortable and most expensive to least comfortable and least expensive:
Deluxe soft sleeper: 2 beds in a private room with restroom. This is the best way to travel by train, but only a few modern trains have this option.
Soft sleeper: Four bunks per room, one on the top and one on the bottom on each side of the room. There is also a locking door.
Hard sleeper: There are six bunks, three on each side, per room. The beds are slightly less comfortable, but they are fine for most people. There is no door in hard sleeper rooms.
Soft seat: Comfortable and reasonably spacious assigned seats.
First-class seat: Similar to a soft seat, but found on different trains.
Second-class seat: Less comfortable and less spacious than soft seats, but better than hard seats. Expect to find people standing, sitting, and even sleeping in the aisles in second-class seat cars.
Hard seat: Less comfortable and less spacious assigned seats. Good for short trips. Expect to find people standing, sitting, and even sleeping in the aisles in hard seat cars.
All trains except for deluxe soft sleeper cars have community restrooms. Not all train routes offer all types of trains and all types of rooms and seats.
Train tickets can be purchased in train stations, and for an additional fee, they can be bought at some hotels and at some travel agencies within China. When buying train tickets in big-city rail stations, you may choose to use the foreigners' ticket window in order to talk with an English-speaking clerk. You must show your passport to use these windows. Lines can be very long in train stations, so be prepared to spend some time there when buying a ticket.
A great website for Chinese trail travel reference is http://www.seat61.com.
Bus travel in China is an adventure. Traveling a short distance (an hour or two) by bus is often a good way to get where you're going. Long-distance bus travel is more dubious. But bus travel is the most economical way to travel in China.
When traveling a short distance by bus, seats are just general admission. Seating choice is first come, first served. Some seats may have more space than others, and these seats will generally be taken by the first people to get on the bus.
On longer-distance bus routes, sleeper seats are sometimes available. You will also find luxury buses on some routes. They are more comfortable, and more expensive.
Some buses have restrooms. Other buses stop from time to time to allow you to use a restroom. If you do get off the bus to use the restroom or just to stretch your legs, don't leave your belongings on the bus, for theft is possible. And be sure to stay close by in order not to miss the bus when it leaves. A driver may announce how long the bus will be stopped, but if they think all passengers are on board, they may depart sooner than expected.
Often buses will leave the station of origin not at a set time, but rather when enough tickets have been sold that the bus is sufficiently full to satisfy the driver, whose pay depends on how many tickets are sold.
Air travel within China is not as common as ground travel, primarily because it's more expensive. But it's getting more popular and additional routes and flights are being added. If you decide to travel by air within China, it's possible to buy your tickets ahead of time, even in another country. You can also ask your hotel to obtain the tickets for you, and often they can do so at a reduced fare. Online, consider using http://www.ctrip.com for flight information and reservations.
Taxi service in China is a very popular means of transportation. Taxis vary from old and very small Chinese vehicles to newer, bigger, foreign vehicles. Volkswagen and Hyundai are very common brands. The better the car, the higher the fare you should be willing to pay.
Taxi drivers are usually very friendly and accommodating to foreigners, especially if you can speak even minimal Chinese. They will be glad to drive you to the Great Wall, wait there for you all day (or come back later if it's preferable), and take you back to your hotel or other destination. They are also glad to stop at a restaurant on the way, and even more so if you invite them to join you for your meal.
Once you find a good driver with a good car, you can get their telephone number and call them to come back and take you to other places in the future. This is an especially good idea when you find someone whose driving style makes you comfortable.
You can ask a driver to use the meter, or you can agree on a fixed price before you get into the car. If you're using the meter, it's still a good idea to discuss the price, even if it's an approximate amount. Drivers have been known to take less than the most direct route in order to elevate the meter fare. A GPS is great defense against this tactic. Make sure the driver knows you are following your path on a GPS or that you know the best way to get where you are going if you haven't discussed a price ahead of time.
China offers a wide variety of hotels and other lodging where a visitor can reside for a short or long stay. Like most places, China has a wide variety of hotels and rooms from fancy and expensive to basic and inexpensive, and everything in between.
What's particularly pleasing is the fact that hotels and guest houses in China cost significantly less than an equivalent offering in many other countries.
The biggest problem most visitors face is the language barrier. Larger hotels, and especially in larger cities such as Beijing, usually have some English-speaking staff members at the front desk. Smaller hotels and guest houses are not likely to have anyone who can speak any language other than Chinese. If you're traveling with a group or a tour guide, this may not be an issue, but if you're traveling alone or with a few friends or family members, some preparation is required in order to be able to inquire about the availability and rate of rooms. Basically, the choices are to learn some Chinese, to bring written questions and sentences such as a phrase book with you, or to hire someone to translate for you. Learning enough Chinese to communicate is not especially difficult, but for those who have never used any similar languages, it can be more challenging than expected. The phrase book technique can be difficult, but many people have managed using this method. And hiring a translator is easier than you might think; in larger cities like Beijing, many English language students are anxious for a chance to interact with native English speakers, and may be willing to help you for a very reasonable price. They can meet you at an airport, help you with ground transportation, lodging, food, and so forth, and provide any other assistance you may want. Several websites are available at which you can find a Chinese tour guide or travel companion.
In addition to lodging, the basic necessities of food and transportation must be satisfied. Again, language can be a barrier in these areas. Some restaurants have menus with English translations or photos. And some transportation modes like subways and buses may have information in Pinyin or English. In general, the closer you are to a large city like Beijing, the greater the ease with which you can get along on your own in China. Just take things in stride and don't allow anyone to take advantage of you by charging you too much money or convincing you to do something you don't want to do because they think you don't know any better.
Most people who visit China will want to stay in Beijing at least for a period of time. This is especially true for those who are interested in the Great Wall.
Staying in the city of Beijing is easy, and especially so for those who are willing to spend a reasonable amount of money for a decent hotel.
If you're willing to pay for a nice hotel, consider staying downtown near the main railway station. There are several hotels in the immediate vicinity that offer nice rooms and good service. This location offers easy access to trains, of course, and also to the subway.
If you're hoping to stay at a less expensive place but still want to be in the city, the Qianmen (前门) area has a lot to offer. In addition to being convenient to the subway, Qianmen is within walking distance of many Beijing attractions, including the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City), Tiananmen Square, Wangfujing shopping area, and more. This area has many hotels, hostels, and guest houses. It also has many restaurants, street vendors, bars, night clubs, and many entertainment possibilities. Also available at Qianmen are tour operators who can take you to other tourist sites, including several Great Wall locations.
A range of new boutique hotels are also opening in the Gulou and Sanlitun neighbourhoods, both of which are popular locations.
If you're serious about exploring the Great Wall for a period of time longer than a few days, you may want to get out of the city and stay further north, near the Great Wall. There are three basic choices; northwest of the city in Yanqing County, north of the city in Huairou District, or northeast of the city in Miyun County. The Yanqing location will provide you with access to many Great Wall locations including Juyongguan, Shuiguan, Badaling, Huajiayao, Bangshuiyu, Shixiaguan, Chenjiabao, Dayingpan, Shuitoucun, and Bijiashan. Staying in Huairou puts you in close proximity to many Great Wall locations from Qinglongxia all the way to Xishuiyu, and including the popular destinations of Mutianyu, Jiankou, and Huanghuacheng. The Miyun location puts you close to the Great Wall at Gubeikou, Jinshanling, Simatai, and Bailingguan.
In Yanqing County, the most upscale choice is the Commune at the Great Wall. This hotel features several separate buildings designed by prominent architects from various countries and is located near the Shuiguan Great Wall. The more economical choice is to stay at a guest house. There are several at both Shuiguan and at Chadaocun (Chadao Ancient Village) near the Badaling Great Wall. This village is a short walk west of the Badaling main entrance, just beyond the Badaling railway station. The village offers many guest houses from which to choose. They are reasonably priced and offer friendly accommodations and good food.
In Huairou District, there are many hotels in and around the Huairou urban area. This is a small city with most any convenience you may require, from shopping and dining to entertainment and socializing. This town is easily reached by bus from Dongzhimen station in Beijing. From here you can easily reach various Great Wall destinations by buses or via the many available taxis.
In Miyun County, the Gubeikou area is the best place to stay. Gubeikou is larger than Chadaocun but smaller than the Huairou urban area. There are a few hotels and many guest houses there. Gubeikou offers many places to explore a variety of Great Wall sites as well as temples and other interesting attractions. From Gubeikou, you can walk along the Great Wall to Jinshanling and Simatai, or you can take taxis to your destination. Also, there are hotels and guest houses at the Jinshanling and Simatai Great Wall locations.
If you're interested in visiting locations in provinces other than Beijing, you'll be looking for accommodations there. In general, almost any sizeable town along the Great Wall is going to offer guest houses. Larger and more popular locations will also offer hotels. The Great Wall locations outside of Beijing that offer hotels include Shanhaiguan, Huangyaguan, Zhangjiakou, Yinchuan, Zhongwei, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, and others.
You and your hiking companions have three basic choices: You can make your own way to and from the Great Wall, you can sign on with a group, or you can hire a private tour guide. The choice is personal and people frequently have successful first outings to the Great Wall with any of these choices. Conversely, people sometimes have problems both with all of them. Groups and tour guides do not guarantee freedom from troubles, but they do reduce the likelihood somewhat.
Do some research before you go and you will improve your chances of success with a private or group tour guide.
The best thing about using a private tour guide is convenience. They take care of planning and logistical details for you so that you can just enjoy the experience. Of course, this convenience costs money.
Private tour guides offer the advantage of tailoring the trip to your desires. You can select a tour guide that can take you exactly where you want to go and for exactly how long you want to stay there. A good private tour guide can also point things out to you that you might miss on your own.
It's your responsibility to choose a tour guide. When choosing a private tour guide, look for an individual or an organization with experience and good references. Compare details like what type of vehicle they use, whether they speak your language, and what is included in their price (admission tickets and highway tolls, for example, often aren't). You may want to find two or more and then make your final selection based on price. Be aware that their fees are negotiable in many cases, especially with individuals and smaller companies.
Again, you may want to consider using a student for a tour guide. They may not have much experience with guiding, and they may well require the use of public transportation, but students generally make eager and friendly tour guides who will spend time with you for a low fee in order to practice their English language skills. They may also be more likely to know of the best restaurants and other desirable and interesting places to visit.
The advantages to group tours are similar to the advantages of a private tour guide, but there are more disadvantages. Group tours follow a predetermined schedule that's not usually up for negotiation. Hiking in a large group is more restrictive than hiking in a small group. If you're going with a group, compare the group size. Remember that groups offer the disadvantage of having to go at the pace of the slowest walker, so larger groups statistically have a slower pace. And when you're taking photos, it's more difficult to get clear shots of the Great Wall when there are a lot of people around. Carefully check and confirm the schedule for your group tour. Are there additional stops on the way to or from the Great Wall? These are often shopping or other stops that don't interest you and that benefit someone else and reduce your time at the Great Wall, even though you are the one paying for the tour.
One reputable hiking tour group that offers wonderful Great Wall hiking tour is Beijing Hikers, at http://www.beijinghikers.com. Their excursions often sell out, so reserve early.
If you are considering a group tour and you haven't arranged anything in advance, you will find many tour operators in Qianmen area of downtown Beijing, just south of the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City) and Tiananmen Square. These tour operators accept walk-in guests and their fees are negotiable. This is not the ideal way to see the Great Wall, but it's better than not being able to go at all.
Hotel tours are another alternative. Many hotels offer tours to various tourist areas of the Great Wall. These tours are usually quite expensive, so if cost is a concern then you should consider these tours your last resort.
If you've decided to make your own way to the Great Wall, rather than using a private tour guide or a group tour, see Reaching the Great Wall.