Well Fed Wanderer's Guide To The Great Wall
Crouching along the spine of the country, shoulders arched against the sky, the Great Wall strikes its viewers speechless in an instant. In China there is no other site as famous, no other place as romanticized, and no other destination to compare.
This year, I made a day trip with my family to the Great Wall at the site of Mutianyu. My brother and I ate peanut butter sandwiches while looking out a guard tower window, asking each other the big questions that you’re left thinking about in the sight of such grandeur:
What do we dream of? Where do we hope to go? Will we ever see something as eye-opening as this again?
With a heavy head and a light heart, I walked the stones worn smooth by millions of footsteps that came before me. I felt as small and insignificant as a speck of sand.
Photos, from top: 1)The view atop The Great Wall at Mutianyu, 2)Thinking about life from an archer's window.
I can think of no better backdrop to contemplate where we fit in the world than this one.
If you, like me, have always had the Great Wall on your bucket list, arm yourself with these tips to make your dream visit happen:
Where To Go
No two sections of the Great Wall are alike, as each portion was built by the city or village nearest to it. Richer communities were able to build more grandiose sections than poorer ones, meaning where you visit can completely alter your Wall experience. Some regions offer rustic miles of mud and broken rock to hike through while others gleam with smooth stone steps, worn shiny from millions of footsteps, like Mutianyu.
I’ve made two visits to the Great Wall. Both times I went to sites near Beijing, as these are some of the easiest sites to reach for forigners and make a perfect day trip from the city. Both of the following sites can be reached by bus or hired car.
It should be noted, however, that hired cars will often offer to wait while you visit—a convenient arrangement, but also an expensive one, as the driver could as much as triple their original quote.
Entry costs to either site is approx. 50 RMB. Bring extra money to pay for the bus/ski lift/cable car that will actually take you from the ticket office to the wall itself (it's too far to make this trek on foot, trust me I tried!).
The first visit to the Wall I made (in 2012 ish) was to a section called Badaling. Steep stone slopes and little shade make this a trek that will demand a lot from you, and absolutely requires you to pack drinking water, and lots of it! Perhaps the most famous Wall site in the greater Beijing area, crowds here tend to be thick. However, sections where the wall continues right into mountainside offer an amazing view.
Photos: 1) The view from one of the Wall's many watchtowers. 2) My brother and I at Mutianyu.
This spring’s visit to the site called Mutianyu was a world away. The site is definitely more tourist-oriented, with restaurants and shops (and even an eyesore of a Burger King!) on the foothills of the wall. While this could be off-putting to some, the availability of restrooms and option to purchase refreshments (both of which aren’t available at Badaling) can make for a much more comfortable visit. The wall itself at Mutianyu is in better condition that Badaling, and is a less strenuous hike (it is still a major workout, however!). Also, as it is built amidst a mountain range rather than connecting to one, there are stunning panoramas to enjoy throughout your visit.
What sealed the deal for Mutianyu being my favourite? Before climbing onto the wall itself, there is a resting area that offers a beautiful view of the wall and sells Chinese ice cream. I think it’s just the right mix of tourist and authentic!
And.. did I mention they had ice cream???
When To Go
Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit the Wall, as temperatures are milder and the tourists will be fewer. To avoid crowds (and snap some photos without interlopers in the background), plan your visit for early in the day. The wall opens at 7 AM, but tends to be busiest mid-morning to late afternoon. Also, planning your trip on an idle Tuesday rather than a weekend means you won’t be engulfed in waves of selfie-stick wielding tourists.
I hope these tips help your dreams of seeing the great wall become a reality. After all, if we don't make room for our bucket lists on our to-do lists, we can live a whole life and not see nearly enough.