There are some experiences so unique and so special that I think they must be on everyone’s bucket lists, and visiting the Great Wall of China is probably near the top. One of China’s most important landmarks, it draws visitors from around the world who want nothing more than to see it and of course walk along it. As with many famous sites though, the realities of visiting the Wall are different from what you might expect, so I thought I’d share some information based on my own recent experience when I walked the Great Wall of China while on a trip to Beijing. I was in China working on a project with Cathay Pacific Airways, who asked me to put together my ideal first-time visit to China itinerary, and there’s no way I could visit and not see the Great Wall of China. Cathay Pacific really does offer the best flight options to China and I was excited for my first visit. Whether visiting the Great Wall of China is on your immediate bucket list or a more long term goal, here’s what I think everyone should know before visiting.
Which Great Wall of China?
This probably goes without saying, but the Great Wall of China is enormous. Spanning more than 5,000 miles, the Wall includes the manmade portions along with many natural barriers, like mountains and rivers. Starting in the 7th century, the Wall was built as a way to protect the Chinese states and empires from invasions by nomadic hoards. It’s built in sections though, many of which are in total disrepair today and can’t even be visited. If you’re visiting Beijing though, there are several accessible sections of the Wall, all popular with tourists. That was my first challenge, deciding which section to visit during my brief stay in Beijing.
While there are many sections of the Great Wall open to visitors relatively close to Beijing, the most popular are Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshanling and Juyongguan. I spent hours researching them and still I really couldn’t figure out which one was “better” for my one and only experience with this important World Heritage Site. So I decided to ask my friends on social media and the response was unanimous for Mutianyu. Due to its proximity to Beijing and its classic look, Badaling sees more tourists, but that’s also part of the problem – it can be too busy. I wanted to hike a section of the Wall that featured some of the iconic imagery we are all familiar with, but skipping the thousands of tourists and Mutianyu seemed like the best option.
How To Visit
My time in China was brief and I was frankly intimidated by the language, so I hired guides and drivers throughout my short time in Beijing. For the Great Wall of China, I did a lot of online research and ultimately found a tour that sounded perfect. Many of them though are very similar, if not the same, and it’s very easy to hire a guide and driver in Beijing at a reasonable cost. The benefits are many, not the least of which is transportation to and from the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, nearly two-hours outside of Beijing. Once there, my guide quickly bought the tickets, ushered me through all the lines and took me to the top so that I could begin my hike of the Great Wall. No time was wasted, there was no confusion and I didn’t get lost – all abnormalities in my travels and benefits to having a tour guide. There also wasn’t any pressure, my guide told me to enjoy the experience and take my time – there was no firm schedule. With that in mind, I set out to see what the Great Wall of China is all about.
Just a quick note, when planning a visit be sure to skip any and all public holidays in China, as the Wall will be overrun with domestic tourists. Also, take note of the time of year. I visited in spring and the weather was perfect, but in winter it’s extremely cold and summers are incredibly hot, so take the necessary precautions.
What To Do Once You’re There
Even with a guide I was a little confused. Although the Wall is made up of sections, they are large sections and I frankly wasn’t sure which way to go or how to start. Rather than just stand there being pushed by hundreds of my closest friends, I picked a direction and started walking. Away from the main entrance, most of the crowd seemed to disappear immediately and I was left with what I had dreamed of for so very long, the Great Wall of China. At the Mutianyu section at least, the Wall has been restored to a beautiful condition and its location among the rolling hills and mountains is exactly the kind of landscape we all imagine. It’s not a necessarily easy walk though, at least it wasn’t for me. The Great Wall includes many stairs and steps, some steep and some frankly intimidating. I have knee issues, so I took it easy but still managed to see and do as much as I could, including the daunting ascent to Tower 21. This nearly vertical climb was hard, no doubt there, but the views of the Great Wall and surrounding valley was well worth the effort it took to get there.
After a couple of hours, I had walked a lot of the Wall and was beginning to wonder what to do next. Everyone is different, some people could spend all day at the Wall and enjoy every second, but I was done for the day and eager to get to the next stop on my day tour. It’s always sad to leave such an important site. I’m always a little anxious that I didn’t spend enough time appreciating it, or that I missed something. But when it comes to the Great Wall of China, I’m satisfied with my experience. It truly is a beautiful and remarkable feat of engineering and standing there on top of it, looking out across to the horizon was just as special as I had always imagined. It’s a major touristy activity, complete with Burger King and Starbucks, but it’s an important one. It’s important to get out there and experience the Great Wall of China not just for its importance in Chinese history, but in world history and of course to admire its inherent beauty. Walking across the Great Wall of China is just one of those special and iconic travel moments everyone should try to do at least once in their lives.