Beijing's proximity to the Great Wall of China (about 90 minutes by car) makes it a frequent launch point for tours of the medieval Chinese fortification. The Chinese government has designated specific portions of the 6,000+ km long wall (or even longer, depending on how you measure) as sites for tourists. These sections have been reconstructed to make sure they are in overall good shape and somewhat more safe to hike along. Adventurous types can walk beyond the tourist zones to see the wall in an untouched state, standing tall still in most places but overcome with brush and vegetation.
There are several options to consider when going to the Great Wall that include:
- Will I join a tour group or higher a driver?
- Which part of the wall will I see? The most common options are the sites at Badaling and Mutianyu.
Tour groups are cheaper than hiring a taxi for the day (although hiring a taxi isn't too expensive, about $50), but they offer almost no flexibility and may include a stop on the way back at a 'craft market' that they have a special relationship with for souvenir purchases. We searched for a tour group and found one through our hostel that was well reviewed and skipped the shopping trip.
Other travelers we had talked to in Japan had called Badaling the "Disneyland of the Great Wall" with its many vendors and dense crowds, so deciding upon Mutianyu was an easy choice. Additionally, Mutianyu features a toboggan slide down the side of the mountain after you're done visiting the wall.
The wall at Mutianyu, like much of the wall, is placed at the top of a range of hills and mountains. The area that the wall is located would already be difficult to climb. Placing the wall atop of it makes for an imposing barrier.
Upon arrival we took the optional gondola ride up the hill to one of the towers of the wall. When the wall was active soldiers would patrol the wall 24 hours a day with quarters in small towers every several hundred meters along the wall. The Mutianyu site consists of 24 towers and the wall sections between them that were restored in the 1980s. The day we visited there were minor repair efforts going on at several points. The task of repairing the wall looked difficult today as portions of the wall are so incredibly steep that lugging up construction materials is an amazingly daunting task. I'm not sure how they pulled it off when they first built the wall about 2000 years ago. And they didn't just build the wall once. Most of the wall has been rebuilt by various emperors and dynasties, with some sections of the wall being build and rebuilt 13 times.
We hiked up to one end of the Mutianyu section of the wall and reached the area that had not yet been restored before backtracking down the mountain to pick up the toboggan ride down the hill to our tour group and lunch. The video below both shows the wall and gives a taste of the toboggon ride. As you can see, we really loved our day- both the view, the exercise, and the historical experience made it one of our favorite days on the world tour so far.