When I started planning our trip to China, seeing the Great Wall was, of course, on the itinerary. But at over 3700 miles, the wall is longer than the United States is wide, so where exactly do you visit it? In my uninformed mind, I had visions of traveling deep into the Chinese countryside to get to the wall. As it turns out, I was completely wrong; the best sections are within a few hours of Beijing. But then again, I genuinely had no idea of what to expect.
Even though Mutianyu, the closest section to Beijing, is only 45 miles away, everything I read said it would take an hour and a half to get there. I thought this had to be an exaggeration. On the day we went, it seemed as though all of Beijing’s 21 million people were on the road with us. Our driver skillfully maneuvered his way through the traffic but it still took almost two hours to get to Mutianyu.
How To Get To The Top
After getting out of the car, it was a ten-minute walk to the ticket booth and bathrooms. I definitely recommend using the facilities—especially if you want a Western-style toilet. There are no facilities on the wall itself. Don’t forget to bring your own toilet tissue and hand sanitizer!
Until we got to the base of the wall and looked up, I never thought about how difficult it could to get on the wall. My daughter, Alyssa, quoting Mulan quipped, “No one can get through the Great Wall.” One option is to climb 4,000 steps. Now, the whole reason to visit is to actually walk on the wall. So, we opted for the alternative. We took a rickety, old chairlift (think very outdated ski resort) and within a matter of minutes arrived at the base of the wall.
Walk the Wall
From the chairlift station, we climbed one set a stairs and ended up close to Tower 14. We turned toward the left and began walking the wall towards Tower 23. Because Mutianyu has been completely restored, the granite slabs were relatively easy to walk on. However, I would definitely recommend sneakers or hiking boots to navigate the many steps and undulating ground on the wall.
Walking between Tower 14 and 23, along a wavy mountain ridge, we passed a watchtower approximately every 100 yards. We climbed to the top of some of the fortified towers and admired the crenellations, a hole in the wall for soldiers to shoot arrows at the approaching enemy. Being there was absolutely awe-inspiring, especially as I contemplated the human and material resources needed to build this wall.
Make sure to bring bottled water with you. Don’t worry too much about the bathroom situation—you’ll most likely sweat it out. Sunscreen and a hat are an absolute must. A walking stick can definitely help as you navigate the uneven ground and large, uneven steps. The crowds (mostly big tours) are worst in the morning. We got to the Great Wall around 1pm and the tour buses were leaving. I was surprised at how few people were on the wall with us.
Let me start by saying that I am a risk-averse physician who treated chronic pain patients for over 20 years. You can take a toboggan ride to the base. However, after I found out that you don’t wear a helmet and there wasn’t a steering device, I bailed. I’m all for adventure but I didn’t think the odds were in my favor. I rode the chairlift down. My husband and daughter, always adventurous, hopped into their toboggans and essentially playing bumper cars the whole way down. I don’t think this is what the Chinese emperors had in mind.
We decided to go to the Mutianyu section because of its proximity to Beijing, the fact that it was completely restored, and the ease of getting on and off the wall. I was happy to have a day for our trip so that we did not feel rushed once we got to the wall. No picture adequately captures the amazing experience of walking on the Great Wall of China.
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