The Great Wall of China at Simatai and Gubei Water Town

I guess you cannot come to Beijing without going to the Great Wall of China, although on our previous visit to Beijing Diane failed on her three attempts to see the Great Wall. How difficult can it be to get to see the Great Wall you ask? Well on that occasion we booked a tour out to the Great Wall but it was cancelled due to a vicious rain storm, walking on the slippery wall was deemed too dangerous even for the Safety Challenged Chinese, so it must have been bad. The tour was rescheduled for the next day and you would not believe it, but our tour bus was involved in a car accident on the way to the Wall, and Di and Jess were taken to hospital with minor injuries. It was all precautionary because we were foreigners. That tour was rescheduled and Di then got a dose of the flu and was unable to go on the rescheduled tour, so Jess and I went on our own and, for the record, we had the best time of our lives, shame you missed it Mum. This trip, Di was determined to see the Great Wall, I repeat, how difficult could it be?

There are several places to visit the Great Wall from Beijing. The most common of these are Badaling and Mutianyu, which are the closest to Beijing. If you go on a tour the likelihood is that they will take you to Badaling and then second choice Mutianyu. This of course means Badaling is very crowded with tourists; with Di and I being travellers and NOT tourists, we shudder and break out in a cold sweat when we see a tourist swarm descending onto a location – it is enough to drive me to drink. So we try to avoid the tourist places if we can.

We chose to go to Simatai to see the Great Wall and included in that was a trip through the picturesque Gubei Water Town. We also chose to do all this by public transport and do it all ourselves  – Di had tried the tour option three times previously and failed every time – how difficult can it be?

We caught the subway to Dongzhimen Station which is on both Lines 2 and 13 – 3 Yuan each. We took exit B for the Transport Hub or bus terminal.

When you walk out of the exit you should see KFC, you walk into the building to the right of the KFC.


There you will see the bus terminal and you head for the sign bus number 980. All simple so far! Well it gets a bit difficult getting on the bus.

Firstly, you will probably find you are the only westerner getting on the bus. Secondly, ‘Rafferty’s Rules’, meaning there are no rules, exists in getting on the bus when it pulls up. You just have to push and shove or you will not get on the bus. Thirdly, if you do not have a prepaid bus pass and are paying cash, then you must pay exact money as NO change is given. Fourthly, when your wife drops the exact money for two people into the pay slot, SHE SHOULD TELL THE BUS DRIVER IT IS FOR TWO PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Di dropped the fare for two people, 12 Yuan in total (AUD$2.20) into the payment slot and kept walking, me being the obedient husband followed, the bus driver then stood up pointed at me and started yelling at me. My keen ears detected that his words were not of the complimentary type and I deducted he was accusing me of not paying – Di started to explain – why bother, I just took a 10 Yuan note out and put it in the slot – we paid AUD$2 too much. The amazing thing was that when the driver started yelling, the bus went quiet and all the Chinese trying to get on the bus stopped pushing and clawing at each other so they could witness my brutal demise at the hands of the driver – once it was clear there would be no bloodshed, the noise and the chaos instantly restarted. We were now headed to Miyun Bus Terminal – or so we thought – how difficult can it be?

We reached Miyun about 90 minutes later as this is a public bus and it stops to let passengers on and off the bus. On entering Miyun we had a moment, a moment where we should have known better. The bus stopped at a bus stop to let a passenger off, just as the bus started to go a man was banging his hand on the side of the bus and the bus stopped. The man got on the bus – I thought he was the passenger who had just got off and had forgotten something – to my surprise he walked straight to Di and I and said in extremely poor English ‘Bus stop, to Simatai, Great Wall.’ I looked around and all the passengers, the bus driver, the bus guard were looking at us – I said to the guard ‘Simatai bus, here?’ He kind of nodded though with a great deal of indifference. I said ‘lets go’, Di said ‘are you sure’. My gut said ‘no’, but I said ‘yes’. We got off – how difficult can it be?

The guy then led us to a rust bucket of a car, pulled out a picture of the Great Wall and said ‘Simatai’, and pointed for us to get in his car!! It was a #$#@#$$#@#$$$ scam!!!!!!!! He started to say a price and I simply exploded with an apocalyptic volley of expletives!!! I walked off with Di in tow, another man was sitting on his car bonnet and he pulled a photo out of Simatai and started to say something and he copped a spray of expletives too. Then there was a third man sitting on the bonnet of his car and he pretended to be admiring the holes in his shoes so he escaped a third bombardment of expletives. We walked for ten minutes and then Di asked ‘where are we going’!!! How difficult can it be?

Google map told us we were still five kilometres from the Miyun Bus Terminal. We walked to the next bus stop and caught the next number 980 bus that came along. This bus cost only 3 Yuan each and the driver was actually a great guy, who tried to speak English and actually took us to a bus stop near the bus terminal where we could catch either bus number 37, 50 or 51 to Water Town. We waited five minutes at the bus stop and along came bus number 51. It cost 15 Yuan each for the 90 minute ride up into the mountains. The bus drive was scenic as we weaved our way up into the mountains and we eventually arrived in Water Town.

Okay, the 140 kilometre journey took over four hours and cost 64 Yuan in total (AUD$12.80) it should have only been 48 Yuan but for the kerfuffle paying for the bus ticket and that lunatic getting us off the bus.

Di googled Simatai tourist scams and found that several other westerners had been deceived into getting off the bus at Miyun and then paying 200 Yuan plus to be driven out of town and then dumped a long way from Simatai – so please take note and beware!!!!!

Water Town is great. We bought an all-inclusive ticket that covered our entry to Water Town, Cable car up and down to Simatai and entry onto the Great Wall for 290 Yuan each or less than AUD$58 each.

We decided to go to the Wall straight away and then work our way back through Water Town after the Wall. Though we were trying to get to the Wall and then take our time walking back through Water Town we could not stop ourselves from taking photos such was the picturesque beauty of this place. Di had her sprinting legs on and when those long legs of hers get going my short stumpy legs have to work in overdrive to keep up. We dodged around gawking Chinese (very few westerners here), we hurdled super model posing housewives, and leaped in a single bound over bare bottomed toddlers. There were times when I saw a gap and a clear way through a SOOOOO SLLLOOOWWWW walking tour group, only to see the gap close in front of me and block me off – this just kept happening and Di was disappearing into the distance – it all felt like a scene from the Truman Show and I was never going to make it out of Water Town!!!  Then it started to rain – how difficult can it be?

About 75% of those visiting this location only go to Water Town and this means the Wall is relatively free of people. We arrived at the cable car and we were the only two getting in our car. You can walk up to the second tower on the Wall if you want to, but it takes between 45 minutes and an hour – we did not have time.

As the cable car ascends you can see the Wall snaking across the rim of the mountain – it is a unique sight.

The Great Wall running along the ridge

The cable car takes you to about 200 metres below the Wall.

Check out the state of the Wall, and the cable car in the distance.

You then have two paths; one to the 8th Tower or one path to the 5th Tower. The 8th is the way we went and is the steepest. Visitors have access to the Wall between Tower 1 and Tower 10. We hiked up to Tower 8, then walked the wall to Tower 10, then walked down the Wall to Tower 4 and then back up to Tower 5 and hiked back to the cable car for the descent.

The Great Wall at Simatai has NOT been restored and as such it is in extremely poor condition in places. Walking on the Wall is uneven and it is easy to trip. There are parts of the Wall that are steep and the steps are all uneven, do not walk and take photos. The Simatai section of the Great Wall is considered the most dangerous part of the Wall open to the public.

The Chinese tourists on the Wall, god love ‘em, will provide hours of free entertainment as they always do. The men will wander around with their shirts off or pulled up over their bulging bellies.

The women will look stunning in their ‘Sunday Best’ clothes and will clatter along in their high heels as they attempt the many daunting broken steps along the Wall – it is a never ending comedy.

The views from the Wall are simply stunning. I was in awe watching the Wall snake off over the mountains below us into the distance. The view down onto Water Town and its lake and river system is utterly amazing. Walking along the Wall is one of the best sights of our trip so far and really is something I recommend everyone should do in their life time.

I believe being on a part of the Wall that is not renovated and looks today (though weather beaten and broken) as it was in the Ming Dynasty is something special and I could feel the history oozing around. Then there is the indescribable beauty of the view.

A slight drawback, okay a huge drawback in my wife’s eyes, is the fact the towers all look fantastic in their decaying originality BUT the wayward Chinese use these towers as toilets and when you wander through them expect to be greeted with the foul stench of urine and other such excrement!!!  PLEASE NOTE; there are no public toilets on the Wall.

A picture tells a thousand words – so here are two of the best pictures!

The hike from Tower 5 to the Cable Car is a lot easier than the hike is to Tower 8, but whichever way you go you still have to climb to reach Tower 10, better to go straight to Tower 8 and walk down from Tower 10 than walk up to Tower 10 from Tower 5 I think.

Di and I were alone in the Cable Car again and as soon as we got down the mountain it was a trip to the loo for us both. I sat outside waiting for Di and a Chinese man brought his daughter over to have a photo with me – there are few westerners here. The next minute I had people lining up to have their photo with me. Di came out of the loo and she too joined meet the Meandering Wanderers Fan Fair!!! We sat there for about ten minutes as the adults now sat next to us and posed shaking my hand as they had their photo snapped – this is when you love the Chinese!

We now explored Water Town.  Water Town is shrouded in old time simplicity and elegance. There are numerous rivers and canals running through the town and this builds on the timeless grandeur. It is one of those places where your camera just keeps clicking away.

Water Town has its own distillery and you can buy and sample terrible Chinese wine. There are many restaurants selling food from throughout China. There are street performances of dancing, singing and martial arts. There are boat trips.

Water Town is a modern built town representing China in years gone by. It looks authentic and it is purpose-built to show you the best of Chinese architecture from years gone by – it is a replica town and because it is a replica town it is squeaky clean and in places too good to be true, but it is a stunning visit.  All the time you are at Water Town you just need to look up at the mountains above you and you can see the Wall.

We left Water Town and it was 5pm, we left our hotel at 8am so it already was a long day and the thought of taking four hours to get back was crushing our resolve. We sat at the bus stop and watched the growing number of people waiting to catch the bus and we were becoming a little dismayed. There were two women sitting next to us who were both well dressed and in their late 50’s early 60’s, they to were waiting for the bus. A car pulled up at the bus stop and a Chinese man started speaking to the crowd – one of the well-dressed ladies spoke with him and then called her friend over. The lady then looked at Di and waved her over. Di went over and then turned to me and called me over. Di said the man wants 120 Yuan to drive people to Miyun, the two ladies are going but if we join them it is only 30 Yuan each. Now we had one near mishap earlier in the day and I was surprised at how quickly we forgot this and only focused on the fact we were tired and the bus was going to be a crush to get on, if we get on!!! We said yep and hopped in. If our children are reading this please do not do what mum and dad just did!!!

The two ladies were in fact Doctors, at least that is what they told us and Di had fun chatting to them with Google Translate as we turned a 90 minute bus trip into a 45 minute car trip.

Squashed in the back of a tiny car with Chinese Doctors

In fact we were dropped off at the Miyun bus station just as bus 980 was leaving. There was hardly anyone on the 980 and it rarely stopped to pick up or drop off passengers. We were back at the Beijing bus terminal by 7.30pm and then the subway and walk home it was 8.30pm. A very long day but boy was it memorable.

A tour to the Great Wall at Simatai and a visit to Water Town with all tickets included and lunch will cost about US$90 each or about AUD$115 – $120 each. You will be picked up at your hotel at 9am and dropped back at 5pm. You will not have to think and it will be all laid out for you. It cost us about AUD$70 each – okay we saved money. Our journey started at 8am and ended at 8.30pm (though it could have been a lot later had we caught the bus). I can see why people just get on tours, for the extra few dollars of the tour removes all the worries. However, I just feel there is more excitement and a sense of adventure doing it yourself – there is a degree of the unknown. Yes, tours are safer, though accidents do happen. I don’t mind mindlessly following along after Di but I do mind mindlessly following along after a flag and a monotone guide. Anyway we had a memorable day and I would recommend the Great Wall at Simatai if you intend to visit Beijing as it is an absolute must see!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! How difficult can it be?

The adventure continues…………………………..


  1. Gilda Baxter

    Loved this post…well done for going independent. It us my dream to see the Great Wall. Would you recommend to stay overnight in Water Tower? Thanks for sharing this trip 🙂


      Thanks Gilda. It can be a bit challenging travelling independently in China, but it always makes for a good story ha. Would definitely recommend seeing the Great Wall, no matter which area you decide to visit.

  2. Lana

    Enjoyed your post very much, my husband and I guess would be tourist, we went with Worldspree at the end of Jan, a cold time to go but great in there is far less crowds. Truly enjoyed visiting this part of history.


      Thanks Lana, it certainly is an amazing part of history. The mind boggles on how they were able to achieve such a monstrous wall.

  3. whereverarewe

    Such an entertaining post. Your experiences of visiting the Great Wall are so different to ours. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, though I guess you’d say we were “tourists” because we were traveling in a small group with Intrepid Travel. We have no regrets with that decision. But – we really want to go back to China and revisit some of our fave places. Bravo you!


      Thanks Sue. Certainly going on a tour makes it a lot easier, but we love the adventure of doing it on our own. It also makes for a good story haha

  4. Margot and John

    The wall and town looked fantastic. Admire your DIY enterprise.


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