“Can you believe we’re actually here?” This is the sentiment I overheard people say the most at the Great Wall of China. And even though I’d already visited the modern world wonder over two decades before, I couldn’t quite believe I was here either.
Being synonymous with China, the Great Wall is probably the only thing some will think of when you mention the country.
One of the few things people asked when we came back from our trip was how our visit to the Great Wall was, and if it lived up to expectations. And even though being the most iconic landmark in a whole country is a high expectation to live up to, I can say it was still even better in real life.
Measuring a total of 13,170 miles (21,196km), equivalent to around twice the length of the UK coastline, there are several different sections of the wall to discover. After a little research, I decided to visit Mutianyu as it was the second-closest to Beijing, meaning it’s still commutable for a day trip while being quieter than the most popular section at Badaling.
The Great Wall Mutianyu
The air was cool and fresh on the morning of our visit while the sun provided a lovely warmth. Overhead, the bright blue sky was streaked only with wisps of white cloud.
Having spent around two hours travelling from Beijing, I was eager to finally see the iconic view which I had so little memory left from my previous visit. As soon as we stepped out of the cable car, I headed straight towards the nearest wall I could find to look out, unable to contain my excitement any longer. Gazing out, I was struck by how green and peaceful it was as I tried to follow the rugged stone structure that snaked along the mountainous landscape, dipping and curving along each peak and disappears far into the distance over the hilltops. At certain points far away, you could just see the small square shapes of the watchtowers among the trees.
We headed north towards tower number 23 first, the furthest point at Mutianyu that’s open to the public while stopping every few hundred metres to admire the greenery around us that stretched to the horizon.
Hugging the mountains, the Great Wall is a surprisingly challenging climb. And though memories of my previous visit to Badaling are faint at best, the one thing I can still recall is having to lift my legs up nearly chest height to climb each of the giant stone steps, which are actually not nearly as tall as I remember them being. Oh, how I’ve surely grown.
After passing two towers, in the distance, I saw what I thought must be the steepest section of the wall – photos don’t do any justice to the angle of this stretch. To reach the tower at this peak, you had to hug the side of the stone steps for balance to scale its near-vertical incline.
At the top though, the view was unbeatable.
A small crowd of equally tired visitors had gathered here to gaze out at the scenery and catch their breath, while a local woman nearby sold some very overpriced snacks from her very unofficial stall. When trying to sell me a bottle of Sprite (at five times the usual cost), she told me it’d taken her two hours to carry everything up here today. I kind of wish I had bought it off her.
Behind her makeshift stall, the more daring and rebellious visitors climbed over the bricked off section to discover the closed-off area of Mutianyu. Exhausted after having just tackled my own personal Everest, I stayed behind while Dave ventured off for some pictures. What he came back with were photos of a wild and un-preserved Great Wall with overgrown shrubs, partly littered with the souvenirs of careless tourists – as well as a few unexpected snaps of him holding up a small union jack flag, which he’d been persuaded to pose with at another secret vendor up ahead!
Having reached the end of the official road, we turned back to continue the rest of our climb to tower 16 (our exit), again stopping every once in a while to take more photos and look back at the scenery we were leaving behind us.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of actually standing on this incredible feat of construction, the sheer scale and effort of which that it took to build over its 2,000-year history being almost impossible for my average brain to consider. I glanced at the faces of other passing visitors who all wore equally contented and contemplative looks, and in each moment it helped me to forget about the experiences of racial prejudice which I can’t help but always carry too heavily on my mind. The Great Wall might only be a highlight of this vast country, but this visit to China truly reminded me to feel proud to have a connection to this wonderful place – and to this country.
I first stepped onto the Great Wall when I was 7 years old as one of the last few days I spent in China before moving to the UK. And now over two decades later, I’m so grateful to have been able to visit this truly must-see landmark once again, and leave with fresh memories I’ll make sure to hold onto tighter this time around.
How to get to The Great Wall Mutianyu from Beijing
Unlike the most popular section at Badaling, there isn’t a direct route to get to Mutianyu from Beijing, but you can still easily do it without a tour. Having spent the first ten days of our trip with my dad acting as our own personal tour guide in Xi’an, it felt a little daunting having to make the trip out there ourselves, but actually, it turned out to be quite a straightforward journey.
You’ll need to get to Dongzhimen metro station in Beijing first which is on subway line 2. From here, walk out of the station to the bus terminal, and look for the 196 express bus. It costs 12 RMB each way to travel from Dongzhimen to HuaiRou BeiDaJie where you’ll want to get off (Huai Rou is the district, and Bei Da Jie is the name of the road). The bus takes cash only, so have this ready before you get on.
Travelling out of the city, the bus will make a few stops in Beijing before heading on the motorway for a large section of the journey, and won’t stop again until it reaches the next town. You’ll want to keep your eyes and ears peeled for the announcements of each stop on the bus, which unfortunately doesn’t display the English phonetic spellings of the names on its screen. To make it easier for you, remember it’s 15 stops and the journey takes around 40 mins.
A scam to look out for
I knew we were getting close to the station, but a few stops before HuaiRou BeiDaJie, a man dressed somewhat officially got on the bus and tried to tell us to get off at the next stop. He told me his car could take us the rest of the way to Mutianyu, and it’d only cost us 10RMB because we could share with two other passengers he’d already got on board.
Having done a ton of reading before we left, I’d heard about this scam and so was on alert, but being able to speak some Mandarin also meant he didn’t try very hard at trying to convince me. I watched as he left at the next stop with a couple who were sitting at the front of the bus, and tried to warn the other tourists behind us not to follow him. I don’t know how much he would’ve actually charged for his car, but I’d advise you to stay on the bus and keep to these directions so you don’t risk paying more than you have to.
Once you’ve reached the correct stop in Huairou, you have two options. The first is to cross to the other side of the road and wait for the local H23 bus which will bring you to the nearest roundabout to Mutianyu – this will take another 30 minutes or so but costs only 4RMB each.
Alternatively, you can get a taxi from here to take you the rest of the way. We opted to do this instead as it was easier and faster, and also got us away from the dozens of vendors trying to get us into their taxis. If you do the same, remember that the official metered cars in Huaroui are blue and white, and the drivers will sit inside their cars waiting for passengers instead of hassling tourists on the street. Again, I don’t know what these unofficial cars will charge you, but I’d recommend using the real taxis so you’re charged an accurate fare (it should be about 40RMB each way).
The Great Wall Mutianyu tickets
After deciding which section of the wall to visit, the second dilemma I had was choosing how to get to and from the wall itself.
At Mutianyu, there’s a ski lift or cable car which operates in both directions, as well as a toboggan ride you can take to go back down. That’s right, you can ride a toboggan back down from the Great Wall! I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t one of the reasons we chose to come to this section instead.
It’s up to you which you take, but the cable car is run by one company, while the ski lift and toboggan are run by another. It costs 120RMB for a return ticket with either company, but if you want to mix and match the two, it’ll cost you 100RMB each way. Although it was more expensive, we decided to do this instead as the lifts are located at two different parts of the wall. Getting the cable car up took us to tower 14, which meant we could walk along the length of the wall to the toboggan ride located at tower 6, instead of having to backtrack on ourselves if we’d used only one company.
You can also hike to and from the wall for free, but I’d probably recommend saving your energy for climbing the wall itself.
Aside from cable rides, you’ll also need to pay for a shuttle bus to take you from the entrance to the gate for 15RMB. The entrance ticket to the Great Wall itself costs 45RMB each – altogether, we paid 260RMB each (£29) excluding buses and taxis, which is a lot less than the price of a tour.