Great Wall of China, Mutianyu Wall

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If you journey about two hours outside of Beijing, you can visit one of the seven wonders of the world. UNESCO has now declared it the largest man made structure on earth. It’s ancient. It’s awe-inspiring. The Great Wall of China. It is one of the top ten most visited tourist attractions in the world. With good reason, as the Great Wall of China is over 2,300 years old and spans over 13,000 miles in length! Yes, that’s over 6 dynasty’s worth of wall.

Great Wall of China
Our tour group members walking the Great Wall of China

A Wall with 2,300+ years of history

If you find yourself in northern China, you likely would not want to leave without visiting one of it’s most recognizable attractions. For many, visiting the Great Wall of China is high on the bucket list. But why? What’s this wall all about?

Around 221 BC, emperor Qin Shi Huang commanded construction of the wall. It’s purpose? Essentially, to keep intruders out of China. It is said that thousands and thousands of people died during the construction of the wall. Many of them are believed to be buried inside. Over centuries, the various dynasty’s repaired and continued to extend the wall. In present times, the Great Wall of China receives upwards to 10 million visitors annually, flocking to see this human made feat with their own eyes.

How do I get to the Great Wall of China?

If based in Beijing, it is roughly a two hour journey by car to reach the Great Wall of China. Incidentally, if you are looking for a wonderful hotel to stay in while in Beijing, I highly recommend Beijing Double Happiness. Here are different ways you can obtain transportation:

  • Bus
  • Taxi
  • Hire a private car
  • Tour Group

How you select your mode of transport will depend on your time and budget constraints and your level of desire and interest to have a guide. For example, the bus will take a bit longer – by at least 45 minutes or so. Taxi’s in this region are very reasonable. It’s likely you can obtain a taxi ride from Beijing to the Great Wall for less than $40 one way, which is a modest fare given the distance.

Great Wall of China     
Mutianyu Great Wall
Great Wall of China, Mutianyu

Should I join a Tour?

While we do not join tours for everything, we decided that for this excursion we would join a small group tour. We used Urban Adventures, Great Wall Experience. Having taken tours spanning across 6 continents, we have quite a bit of “group tour experience” to draw from. This is one of the best tours I’d ever been on for a variety of reasons:

  • Group size was small & intimate
  • Our tour guide was native to northern China & spoke excellent English
  • Absolutely amazing energy from our tour guide & fellow tour group members
  • Tour was informative but still allowed autonomy for us to explore the wall at our own leisure
  • Our guide made time for and assisted with lots of photos!
  • We enjoyed an authentic Chinese lunch at a restaurant our guide brought us too
  • Lunch is included in your tour fee
Great Wall of China 
Mutianyu Great Wall
Having a blast on the Great Wall of China, Mutianyu

Select the tour you join based on what PART of the wall you want to see

Perhaps not widely known, there isn’t just one “Great Wall” to visit. The Wall is divided into many walls. In other words, you’ll need to select the tour you take based on the part(s)of the wall you wish to see. Therefore, unless you’ve done extensive research, your average traveler will likely not readily know which portion they wish to visit. We visited the Mutianyu wall.

Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall

Mutianyu

Urban Adventures, Great Wall Experience took us to Mutianyu. We chose Mutianyu with intentionality. Why? The Mutianyu section has an added attraction. When you reach the highest point of the wall, instead of walking back down, you can Toboggan down! That’s right. Cap off your Great Wall of China visit by bobsledding down the mountainside. I attest, it’s as fun as it sounds. However, the Mutianyu wall does have some very steep areas to walk through. At the highest tower, the steps were so steep that almost all of us were crouched down or on our hands and knees at one point. Once you reach the highest tower, you’ll find vendors selling drinks, snacks, various souvenirs and trinkets. You can get your name written in Chinese characters, purchase a fun hat or, above all, simply take a breather.

The highest tower in the Mutianyu section – much steeper than it looks!
Arriving at the Mutianyu Great Wall
Tobogganing down Mutianyu, photo taken by Brady’s POV

Although not exhaustive, here are some other popular sections to visit:

Jiankou

Jiankou: Busloads of tourists visit the Great Wall of China daily. Millions visit annually. Few visit this part of the wall. Hiking Jiankou is a rugged, remote and potentially dangerous adventure. First, have about a 45 minute mountain hike ahead of you as you navigate through forest. Up until recently, this entire area was completely untouched and unrestored. It’s weathered, ancient ruin appearance adds to the mystique of this experience for hikers, but it also adds to the risk. It is said that some of the watchtowers on this route house overnight hikers to this day. Jiankou is considered a great, open air museum.

Badaling

Badaling: This is often considered the most popular part of the wall to visit. It’s highly developed and has many restaurants, snack and souvenir shops around the entrance. It’s one of the most well preserved and restored sections. Due to its accessibility, it can get much more crowded than other areas of the wall. Depending on the experience you’re looking for, it’s something to keep in mind.

Gubeikou

Gubeikou: A well preserved, yet unrestored treasure, Gubeikou’s a favorite among hikers. The Gubeikou wall is known for being the epicenter of numerous battles. This area is rugged, deserted and in disrepair. However, incredibly peaceful and tranquil to explore. In addition, it’s about three hours from Beijing, so a bit further out. Many consider it worth it to enjoy a less crowded, non-touristy experience.

Visiting the Mutianyu Wall

When you arrive at the Mutianyu wall, you have the choice of beginning your journey at the very beginning, the base of the wall, and walking the entire way. Or, you can buy a Sky Tram ticket for what is equivalent to roughly $15 USD, one way, per person. After that, you’ll take the Sky Tram to the 5th tower and begin your hike from there. This, of course, is going to be a personal preference decision, but I recommend starting at Tower 5. Not only will this help save time, but similarly, it will also help you save your energy for the more ‘interesting’ parts of the Mutianyu wall. A lovely Australian couple on our tour decided to walk from the base to the highest tower and shared with us that they regretted it.

Before you embark on either option, I highly encourage you to make sure you use the bathroom beforehand. You’ll be spending hours exploring the wall. There are bathrooms located at the entrance. As I always mention, carry toilet paper with you everywhere you go in China. There will be none for you at the restroom.

When to Visit the Great Wall of China

Visiting by season:

  • Summer: Very Hot & Crowded
  • Spring: Considered the “optimal” time to visit. Tepid temperatures, less crowded and everything is in bloom.
  • Fall: Also a favored time to visit. Cooler weather with only a few rainy days. Even less crowded. Fall colors.
  • Winter: Least Crowded. Very cold weather. Everything is less expensive. Potential for snow. Worsened air quality.

Have you ever seen a picture of the Great Wall during peak season? Packed wall to wall with tourists?

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images courtesy of CNN

We visited in January. So it looked like this:

Great Wall of Mutianyu in January

Visiting the Great Wall in the Winter

Yes, it was freezing. True, all the vegetation was brown and dead. Sure, our photos probably would’ve been nicer a different time of year. BUT. There were no crowds. Everything was less expensive. Also, the cool weather made it very pleasant to hike the wall. I could not imagine hiking it in extreme heat! It did not snow while we were there, but it could’ve. If you do encounter snow, make sure you wear hiking boots instead of tennis shoes as it can get pretty slippery! Needless to say, if you visit in the winter dress warmly and wear layers.

Magical views at the Great Wall Mutianyu

I plan to return in the future to explore other parts of the Great Wall. Walking through this piece of ancient Chinese history is such a special experience. This wonder of the world has become a symbol for the Chinese civilization’s endurance and strength. I highly encourage you to visit for yourself. Walk the turns and bends for spectacular views and sites unlike any other.

Next, we head south to Shanghai and explore another ancient site. You can read about it here.

Is the Great Wall of China on your bucket list?

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