Last November I went to Beijing for SwingTime Ball. Between all the dancing and sore feet, I didn’t do that much site seeing. I went to the Forbidden City and then a couple nearby parks. One of my coworkers was appalled that I hadn’t used that opportunity to visit the Great Wall. (He said that having not been to the Great Wall himself, despite living in China for 6 months longer than I have.) So this year, I went again to SwingTime Ball and sacrificed my feet so I could finally see that dumb wall that couldn’t even keep the Mongols out of China.
Last year one of my co-workers was in Beijing the same weekend I was and said that he found it a perfect time to see the Great Wall: the colder weather probably deters at least a few people, there are no public Chinese holidays, and the fall colors look absolutely stunning.
So… do you just walk the whole wall?
Obviously not. (It’s pretty long.)
There are a couple different places where you can go to visit the Great Wall. Badaling is the closest area to Beijing, but consequently is also the most crowded.
I went to Mutianyu, which is still well-renovated and well-developed, but a little less crowded. It takes about an hour and half to get there if you leave directly from Beijing Capital airport (which is north of the city). When you get to the Mutianyu Visitors Center, they have a shuttle going up the first part of the mountain, then you can walk up a footpath or take the cable car up to the wall. The ticket with the entrance fee, shuttle bus and cable care is 180 RMB total. You can also take a toboggan back down, which brings the ticket to 260 RMB total.
Mutianyu is really cool because you can hike around the restored part of the wall, but there is also an unrestored section that is blocked off but still pretty easy to get to, if you’re not afraid of very narrow outcroppings.
To get to the unrestored section, you basically have to climb out the window of the last guard tower in the southeast direction, where there is a very narrow outcropping which takes you right to the path pictured above. I was too much of a scaredy cat to do it, especially since knowing my luck I would break my ankle, something I didn’t really want to do when the only reason I came to Beijing was to dance. (Also I would have to walk back down the Great Wall which is Not Fun with a broken anything, I imagine.) But plenty of people were out in that section exploring and I didn’t see anyone with broken ankles, so it’s a pretty safe bet.
Getting to the Great Wall
There is a train that goes to Badaling, which takes an hour and twenty minutes. You can also take a bus to Mutianyu, but the best option is to hire a taxi or driver, which will be about 600-700 RMB (85-100 USD) for a round trip, depending on the pick-up/drop-off location. (They will wait for you for about 3-4 hours.) You can also book tours on places like AirBnB experiences, but unless you plan to do serious hiking off the beaten path, or go to another, farther section of the wall I don’t think that’s really necessary. I booked with a woman named Yvonne who was really sweet and responded quickly and efficiently to all my questions. You can find her website here.
Should I even bother?
Yes! The Great Wall is pretty cool, even though it was not successful in its supposed purpose (to keep invaders out of China). (Someone else should care to learn a lesson from that.) It’s a good hike, the surrounding scenery is beautiful, and it’s nice to get out of the pollution of Beijing for a few hours. It’s sort of creepy to stand on the wall, spending 10 minutes trying to get the perfect picture while you know that thousands of people died to build it, but that’s sort of the case with every extraordinary historical monument (a.k.a. all the pretty churches in Europe included). You can’t worry about the ethical implications of everything, or you’ll just drive yourself mad. Don’t be like Chidi. Go to the Great Wall.