The decision to visit the Great Wall on our recent trip to China was a no brainer. A marvel of ancient technology, the stuff of legends and a Wonder of the World, the Great Wall is a “must see” for Chinese and foreign tourists alike.
The more difficult decision was figuring out which section of the wall to visit.
After a bit of research, we discovered that there are only specific parts of the more than 8,000 kilometres of wall that are openly accessible to visitors. Other parts are in remote areas, crumbling, or otherwise out of reach.
Since the wall stretches across much of this vast country, many tourists choose to visit the Badaling site, since it is the closest to the Beijing hub. But stories of throngs of tourists in the scorching sun, all scrambling to get on the historic site, made us reconsider.
Mutianyu is a section of the Great Wall located about 70 km northwest of Beijing, in Hairou County. Built in the sixth century, during the Qing Dynasty, it was constructed with granite and is one of the best preserved sections of the wall.
While many opt to visit Mutianyu as a day trip from Beijing, we decided to overnight in the nearby village. We figured that we wouldn’t be rushed, and could head up the wall early in the morning to beat both the crowds and the heat, which had been reaching the mid-30s during our visit.
Taking a private taxi is an option that many tourists take. Feeling adventurous, however, we decided to use public transportation and take a bus that goes directly from the bus station in Beijing to the base of the Great Wall.
Although the trip proved to be hot, crowded and bumpy, the price was right and the bus got us exactly where we wanted to go. We checked into our hotel, wandered around the town for the evening, and settled in for the next day’s adventure.
The Great Wall at Mutianyu has more than 4,000 steps that you can climb to ascend to the crest of the mountain along which the wall is built. However, visitors have several other options if they want to save their energy for walking the wall itself. We chose the latter.
We rose early in the morning and made our way to the entrance gate at its opening time.
Hawkers selling everything from ice water and beer to fans and “I Climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts were opening up their stalls.
We made our way to the cable car station, where we purchased our tickets and boarded a car. There are two options: a ski-lift, or a gondola.
We chose the gondola. This option afforded an incredible view of both the wall itself and the surrounding countryside as we glided up to the 535-metre peak.
As we entered the cable car, we noticed a sign, indicating that we were sitting in the same cable car as the one Bill Clinton used on his 1998 visit to China.
Once atop the wall, we marvelled at the landscape as well as the ingenuity of the structure that is the wall itself.
Mutianyu’s 22-kilometre stretch has 22 strategically placed watchtowers, from which signal beacons would be lit when intruders approached.
The Wall is consistently four to five metres wide and seven to nine metres high.
It is the epitome of imposing. As we stood and tried to soak in where we actually were, our minds shifted between thoughts of the tireless souls dedicated to building and maintaining the structure and the brave, loyal patriots who would have given themselves to keeping protective watch upon it.
We found the wall to be very easy to explore. The Mutianyu section is restored and well-maintained. We felt very safe with our five-year-old son, even at the top of the mountain, a relief when compared to other parts of the wall that are apparently far more difficult to traverse. We spent several hours climbing up and down steps, peering through watchtower windows and parapets, and enjoying the endless pine tree-covered mountains that stretched out before us.
We were truly lucky on this day.
Not only was there just enough cloud cover to dull the scorching heat that had followed us throughout our three weeks in China, the threat of rain (which never came) apparently deterred a lot of the day-trip tourists.
We revelled in the scarcity of others around us, at times feeling like we had the Great Wall pretty much all to ourselves.
As the saying goes, we arrived to the point where what goes up must come down.
But sometimes how you get down makes all the difference. After we had our fill of gorgeous scenery and brisk walking, we decided it was time to descend.
And what a way to descend! We tobogganed down.
The toboggan track looks something like that of a luge track, only much (much!) slower.
We boarded our sleds and down we went. Warned by signs both to ‘slow down’ and ‘no stopping’ we wound our way down the mountain, our son shouting with glee.
The wall was for us — and likely is for many — one of the highlights of the China experience.
Whether you go because of an interest in the marvels of ancient architecture, a “Wonder of the World” bucket list, a passion for military strategy, or just sheer adventure, The Great Wall is not to be missed.
Kristin Harris Walsh and Kieran Walsh have visited five continents over the past sixteen years. Their son, Declan, has been their enthusiastic travel companion for the past five. You can read more about their
adventures on their travel blog: