The Great Wall is decidedly the most iconic tourist destination in China. This 2,000 year-old, architectural marvel spans over 13,000 miles across mountains and valleys and passes through ten provinces. One simply does not go to China and not see the Great Wall.
I went to the Great Wall this last May and I picked up a few tips for anyone wanting to visit the Great Wall for the first time.
*If you have the luxury to hang out for a few days, I would recommend waiting for a clear day with a lower AQI. I actually regret not going last January when I was there for New Years. Even though it was cold, it was probably the clearest day of the year because the factories were closed for the holiday.
*Most hostels organize tours to the wall, which is good if you are on a tight schedule, or if you don’t want to deal with the transportation hassle. The downside is that with travel time, you only really have 3-4 hours on the Wall. That, unfortunately, doesn’t give you much time to explore away from the crowds.
*Speaking of crowds, there are a lot! It is an unavoidable fact of China that there will be people everywhere. However, it helps if you are able to go in the middle of the week, and if you can avoid the national holidays.
*That being said, most of the Chinese tourists (especially those with kids and the elderly) don’t go beyond two or three of the watchtowers. So, the further you go, the more luck you have with getting away from the hordes.
*Most tours you book with your hostels are roughly the same and cost anywhere from 180¥-360¥. This includes breakfast, transportation, entry, and lunch. It doesn’t include cost of cable cars or souvenirs.
*To further maximize time, take the cable cars for the initial ascent and descent. The wall doesn’t get interesting until beyond the drop-off point, anyway.
*While there are ten sections of the wall you can access around Beijing, the tours mainly take you to either of these three: Badaling, Mutianyu, and Jinshaling.
*Badaling is the closest section to Beijing and the most restored. It is also incredibly touristy. Most tours will take you there and to the jade markets, where you can watch the locals make jewellery and buy souvenirs. The cost of this tour is the cheapest at about 180¥.
*The second closest part of the wall is Mutianyu. This is where I went. It is about an hour and a half outside the city, which makes it moderately less crowded. This part has a mixture of restored and unrestored sections. The further you go past watchtower ten, the less people there will be. There’s a part of this section that cuts off, and you have to climb over a wall, then jump across to get to the path to continue. It’s pretty much at this point where the casual tourist will turn around. If you keep going beyond here, you’ll be much more isolated. Also, this section has a toboggan slide you can go down, instead of the cable car. The cost of this tour is about 240¥
*The third option you have is Jinshaling. This is a 3-4 hour drive outside of the city, and tours here usually leave at around 6 A.M. This part of the wall is far less crowded than the other two. It is also less restored, so it gives you more of a rustic experience. This tour is a bit more expensive at about 360¥.
* Don’t underestimate how difficult the climb can be. Some sections are extremely steep. Don’t go too fast; take your time, and rest as you need to. I actually saw one guy pass out from exhaustion and dehydration.
*Bring water and a snack with you because they can be quite expensive to buy on the wall, and you will need them.
*You can probably save yourself some money if you skip the group tour, and go on your own. However, this will require more planning and research. I would have liked to try to go without a tour; however, since my group and I only had a three-day weekend, we had to work within our time constraints.
*While the main base of operations for most tours is in Beijing, you can also get to the wall from Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, or Hebei. Even my old province, Shandong, had a section of the wall near Jinan. However, it isn’t the easiest place to get to.
*If you are into running, there is an annual marathon, half marathon, and 5k along the wall. It is ranked one of the most difficult races in the world, but I imagine it would be a great experience.
The Great Wall Marathon
With its huge popularity amongst tourists and nationals, there are countless options and opportunities to see the Great Wall to its fullest. What tips or advice do you have for people traveling to the Great Wall?