Sunday, April 7, 2013

[QINHUANGDAO] Where the Great Wall Meets the Bohai Sea

I've been to Beijing several times already but I haven't experienced the Great Wall just yet. Let's skip the I-know-I-Will-Be-Back-Anyway excuse and go straight to the point, now shall we? East of Beijing lies a portion of the province of Hebei by the Bohai Sea. It's called Qinhuangdao which is always compared to Maine because this is where government officials are said to spend their vacation in summer while drafting new laws. The place is littered with resorts and is popular with tourists both Chinese and Russian alike, if we base it on the written Russian visible almost everywhere.

One of three districts is called Shanhuaiguan, and is popular thanks to its section of the great wall, the easternmost tip that juts out to the Bohai Sea. Along with it is a mix of reconstructed and original parts of the wall that has since been the district's main tourist draw. I'd say that the Old Dragon's Head is good, but the Pass Under Heaven is a bit too commercialized.

Wikitravel says that you cannot really stay at Shanhuaiguan because accommodations there only accept locals, although there seems to be two that do but their rates are a bit steep. I think this is the reason why I reserved my accommodation at Haigang, which has a very downtown vibe with all the malls and street shopping options available. In a way, Shanhuaiguan could be imagined as the heritage site; Haigang, the trendy area; and Beidahe, the resort getaway.

You have several options to and from Beijing. Shanhuaiguan has its own train station owing to the popularity of its tourist attractions. The fast Dong trains only take two hours and a half to reach the capital. If landing at Beijing Capital Airport, one can opt for the mini shuttle bus for 140 yuan which is what I took when I landed at Beijing's international airport Saturday morning. It takes four hours and drops you off at Qinhuangdao's train station. If in a rush and not particularly going to the airport, I recommend the train.

If you plan to be based at Haigang like what I did, you can take bus 25 to Shanhaiguan. The last stop is the train station and it takes around an hour to get there, not to mention it only costs 2 yuan. The First Pass Under Heaven is just across the street leading to the train station. The Old Dragon's Head is a couple of stops away also on bus 25, around 10 minutes all in all.

I thought that the two attractions would be within the same vicinity and under one entrance fee, and so you can imagine how I felt scammed when I realized that that pass under heaven thingy was the wall overlooking the mountains. That part next to Bohai Sea, referred to as the Old Dragon's Head, is a couple of stops away on the same number 25 bus.

The advantage of the First Pass Under Heaven as a tourist attraction would be the traditional Chinese village that they reconstructed between the south gate and the mountains. You'll love the touristy feel, but the persistence of the touts could be a bit unnerving. Nonetheless there are still several sights that you could see within the walls as there are some interesting sculptures to pose in front of. The theme is mostly that of ancient Chinese warriors. If that is not your thing, then there is always the wall.

The wall is kind of annoying because many sections are closed by bluntly putting another wall as a hindrance. If you trace the visible trail, you'll  see that it actually extends all the way up to the mountains, and you could probably get to climb them if you can find a way to do so. Time to release your inner Peter Parker! Otherwise, the overtly commercial appeal will just annoy you. Photos while in a costume business, check. Old ladies hawking their talismans and beads, check. Fake golden horse statues that do not make sense, check.

One thing I found really odd was the football field when you look down to the left. Like, really? It destroys the vibe because no matter how much you imagine yourself to be in ancient China, one simple glimpse down below brings you back to modernity. Well, on that side of the wall at least, because it has no vendors trying to sell you their stuff. There are also some legit looking, uhm, those thingies that look like mini castles on top of the gates. What are they called? Unfortunately, the sun will not always side with you, meaning bad pictures.

And so I asked one of the vendors regarding the Old Dragon's Head and she told me the particular bus stop for it, which was very obvious because it bears the same name. From that pass under heaven thingy, it takes around ten minutes on bus 25 and another 10 to walk to the north gate. The west gate is actually closer but you pay the entrance fee there because that is where the beautiful scenery is accessible. As for the north gate...

The north gate was also full of tourists and they usually go straight to those rather strange swaths of green on the shallow part of the sea with shovels in hand. I no longer bothered to ask what the hell they were searching for. Gold? Pearls? Were they farming rice? All I wanted to know was how to climb the damn wall so I can take my photo on it. Here comes the illegal tip. You will see on the far right side that there is a crashed ship by the shore surrounded by a fence. The fence is easy to bypass when the tide is low and you will see a lot of people crossing to the paid area without tickets.

But I guess that clever ploy is not that effective because some men are now guarding the area and they routinely ask people to show them their tickets. I don't know how much the penalty would be if you are caught in the act. A more valuable tip from me to you would be to just pay the 60 yuan admission fee because the area is worth the price anyway. Together with the 50 yuan you pay for the First Pass Under Heaven, that sets you back a total of 110 yuan.

Before we proceed, just a word of caution. If you are taking the train back to Beijing, you might want to buy a ticket before you go sightseeing. I almost did not make it and had to wait for two hours at Shanhuaiguan Train Station, which I believe has no heating system. I was on the verge of hypothermia when the train finally arrived, only to find out that I got sold a standing ticket for a two hour and a half train ride back to Beijing. Just my luck.

Anyway, the Old Dragon's Head is scenic alright. It is composed of a not so large square with some displays of life back then as a garrison. There was some sort of maze called eight something something and again those pavilion like thingies usually found on top of gates. Most of them are worthy to be backgrounds for your camwhoring adventures. There are two colorful pavilions on both edges of the wall facing the sea. The splash of color is a welcome complement to the predominant concrete that makes up the walls.

I think there was a trio of women on the wall offering photo services. The smallest size, I believe, is cheap at 3 yuan. Otherwise, you can always try your luck on a self portrait which is not that hard to do because the wall is wide anyway. Unless your face is as big as the Marshmallow Man's in Ghostbusters, there really is no reason for you not to be able to put yourself and that section of the wall in one frame.

All in all, it was quite a good Great Wall Experience. I thought it was going to end at the First Pass Under Heaven, which underwhelmed me, in all honesty. That Great Wall Meets the Sea drama saved my day. I would have stayed for a while but the cold weather was a bitch and I did not want to freeze to death. I think summer is the best time to go. Besides, where else could you enjoy such an odd combination of old world and beach!

[QINHUANGDAO] Where the Great Wall Meets the Bohai Sea

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