A day trip to the Great Wall easily qualifies as a major highlight of our month long travels across China. In fact, I would even go as far as saying that if I had to pick just one “must” from a long list of great things to do/see in China, touring the Great Wall would be it — although to visit only one location in China would be very distressing, as the rest of the country is fascinating.
Why does the Great Wall qualify as my top attraction in China? It’s all about the scale — not just the sheer mass, breadth, and length of the construction, but also how long it took to construct it, how many human lives – those ordinary and those who’ve shaped history for millions – it witnessed pass, how many major historical events played out right in front of it. Consider just a few astounding facts about the Great Wall:
- It took over 2 thousand years to build it; the earliest sections of the Wall were built in 3rd century BC (!), final construction took place as late as 17th century.
- From the time of its completion, it took another 3 centuries for the Wall to be opened to tourists – first visitors were officially permitted in 1957.
- Counting all of its branches the Wall stretches for over 20,000 kilometers and covers eleven of China’s provinces, making it the longest structure ever built.
- Various sources claim that between four and 50 million visitors make the pilgrimage to the Great Wall every year.
- The most visited section of the wall is Badaling; in addition to receiving millions of regular visitors, Badaling played host to over 300 heads of state and other VIPs.
All of these facts sound neat – but kind of abstract. That is until you get up to the Great Wall. Hopefully it’s a clear day, so that you can see the Wall stretching up and over in all directions. It’s exhilarating. I just kept thinking about the millions of people who toiled to build it, how short people (historically speaking!) could walk (run?!) on such giant steps (I am about average height and it was a struggle to scale a few of the step stretches), and about how all of that was for naught when the Mongol invaders came riding roughshod into the heart of the Forbidden City in the 13th century.
If you are planning your own trip out to the Great Wall, here are a few things to consider. Several sections are accessible on day trips from Beijing. Most tour operators and guesthouses send tourists to the Badaling section, which is closest to the capital. By default that translates into Badaling being the busiest, the most touristy, and from what we’ve heard – the most commercialized section of the Great Wall. We chose to visit the Mutianyu section to avoid the crowds of tourists and vendors.
And you can absolutely do this on your own as well. Now Mitanyui won’t be deserted – but unless you plan to visit during peak tourist season, you should have plenty of sections of the wall where you can walk, explore, and hang out at will. When we went there were school kids brought in on a couple of tour buses, plus some independent travelers, but nothing too bad. We had plenty of opportunities to take great pictures of just the wall. Or just the wall and us.
The Mutianyu section is mostly restored, though you can easily walk over to the end of the reconstructed area and venture just a bit past it – there the Great Wall is quite overgrown, which gives much perspective on how much work went into restoring the bits now open to the public.
How to get to the great wall in Mutianyu by public bus:
We took public bus #867 from Dongzhimen Bus Station to get to the Mutianyu Great Wall.
- To get to the bus stop take Line 2 to Dongzhimen metro stop, exit B. Walk straight down until you reach a major intersection, cross the street staying on the same side, and walk diagonally into the parking lot.
- The whole walk from the metro to the bus parking lot should take about 10 minutes. The bus is parked toward the back, and if you show up at 7:45 there will already be a line of people waiting. Buses, on average, always leave a minute or two early then scheduled, so be ware.
- The ride is long – 2.5 hours. There is no need to worry about which stop to get off, it will be the last one, and it’s very easy to tell that you have arrived at the final destination – there is a large parking lot, tour buses, and tourists.
- You can take the same bus back, there is one at 2 pm and 4 pm. It will pull up in the same spot where it drops off.