I don’t mean to brag but, I got to see the Great Wall of China when it was pretty much empty while I was on my 72 hour visa-free transit in Beijing. No, I’m not lucky, I’m just really good at research and common sense! When I heard all of the negative things people said about the Great Wall of China, I wasn’t deterred, I was informed.
I easily noted that Badaling was the area of the Great Wall where tour groups herd tourists like cattle, so that was an easy double-scratch off my list; no tours and no Badaling. Then I did my research on what areas were the least touristy, and combined that with the typical common sense I use when trying to get somewhere before anyone else, and voila! I had a beautiful section of the Great Wall of China all to myself on a perfect sunny day in Beijing.
Do note though, as much as it looks like and sounds like it was sunshine and rainbows for me to get to this fairly empty part of the Great Wall of China, I honestly found Beijing to be one of the most strenuous, frustrating, and unhelpful places that I’ve traveled. But, I learned most of the information to do the trip through dealing with all of that, so hopefully you won’t have to!
(Note: Exchange Rate is $1 USD = 6.56 CNY)
Taking a tour to the Great Wall of China may seem like the easiest, most practical way to see the World Wonder, but it probably won’t be as memorable as if you did it on your own. Most of the tours are super packed, and so is the area of the Great Wall that they’ll likely take you to called Badaling. I did my research and did it on my own, and ended up having a phenomenal time at the Wall with hardly any other tourists.
I also noticed that most tours leave from the city center of Beijing, which meant that’s where I did not want to be. Looking at the map, I noticed that the airport is actually closer to some sections of the wall that are farther from Badaling, so I got a hotel room near the airport, so I could leave from there instead.
Section: Mutianyu and Jianku
Drive Time: 1 hour 45 minute drive (each way) from the airport area
Hike Time: 3 Hours if you want to get to Jianku from Mutianyu and back
Cost: 60 CNY (~$9) for the entrance ticket and shuttle, additional 100 CNY (~$15) for the lift (recommended)
As I mentioned, my goal was to avoid the touristy Badaling section of the Great Wall of China at all costs, and go to lesser-known area that’s also not completely restored to look like was just built yesterday. I believe the farther East you go, the more authentic and un-restored the Wall is, but I only had time to go to the closest section, Mutianyu. I did end up accidentally hiking up to the even more un-restored section connected to it over the mountain called Jianku, but since my lovely less-than-helpful hotel gave me a time limit for the driver, I didn’t get to keep going.
To get to Jianku from Mutianyu by foot you need to turn left (North-West-ish) when you get to the top of the lifts, then hike for quite a bit before you reach what seems like the most stairs you’ve ever seen in your life.
Climb them, they’re not that bad, and once you get to the top, look for people sitting even higher up towards the top of the mountain. Here’s the interesting/bad-assery part…the final tower of Mutianyu is actually sealed shut and it seems like there’s a break in the pathway on the other side. But, there’s no rules or signs that say you can’t climb over the low portion of the tower wall, shimmy along the ledge (over a cliff) and hop onto the platform that leads to the higher stairs.
From there, keep going straight up until you get to the incredible, slightly creepy, highest tower that is pretty much in crumbles. There’s some original wall for ya! Keep going towards the tip top of the mountain and you’ll be on your way to the other side, which is the area of Jianku. Oh, and be careful.
DISCLAIMER: All of the sites I researched about this area said to “Be very careful and climb at your own risk” so yeah, do that.
How to get a Driver: Ask your hotel front desk to call a taxi and ask or ask if the hotel offers driving services. Or, flag a taxi down off the street or from the airport.
Cost: 350 – 530 CNY (~$40-80) depending on your negotiating skills
Time Needed: Minimum 5 hours
Instead of taking a tour or a public bus (which might actually be cheaper, but still crowded, and won’t get you there early), try your luck at negotiating with a driver or taxi to take you to the Great Wall, wait for you for a few hours, and then take you back to your hotel. I read online that many people were able to hire drivers for the full day for around 350 CNY, but of course my inability to haggle left me obliging to the 500 CNY (~$80) the front desk guys insisted on when I asked them if they could call me a taxi (one of the guys just drove me instead…it was super awkward, I tried to talk to him since I knew he spoke English and he just wouldn’t respond).
But regardless, it worked, and for 500 CNY he drove me about an hour and forty five minutes to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China from my hotel which was right next to the airport , waited for me for three hours, then drove me back. I think I only saw two tour groups the entire time I was there.
Tip: Translate what you want to pitch (i.e. “Can you please take me to Mutianyu, wait for me for a few hours, then drive me back to my hotel for 350 CNY?”), take a photo or copy and paste it onto your phone’s notepad, and use that to communicate with the drivers.
Mutianyu Opening Hours: 8:00am
Everyone keeps asking how I get these awesome shots of super crowded tourist places like the Great Wall of China with no one else at them except for me. Well, it’s because I wake up early AF to get there when they open, when most people, especially in groups or on tours, have to wait for each other and don’t end up getting there for a few hours later.
Make plans with your driver the night before, or get up extra early to find one at the airport or on the street.
Another reason why I always have some awesome ass pictures is because I stalk the weather report like it’s my job, and plan to go and do certain things accordingly. I kept checking the weather starting 2 weeks before my trip, and planned the dates for my 72 hours in Beijing during a small window when it was actually supposed to be 100% sunny. And it was. So I got my awesome pictures. Yay.
Oh it was also hot AF and the sun was strong AF, so make sure you bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and water.
I had a huge debate with myself over whether or not to bring sneakers while I was packing my one carry-on for one month of traveling through Asia, and it was mostly because I thought I’d need them for the Great Wall of China. But, since it was literally only a few hours out of 30 days, I voted no and opted for my compact yet not always so comfortable pair of Tom’s instead.
Not going to lie, my Tom’s did a pretty damn good job of hiking the Great Wall of China! The lightweight and flexibility was perfect for fluttering up all the steps (two people literally commented about how agile I looked gliding up and down the stairs in slippers).
I used my sturdy backpack to carry my wallet, GoPros, Nikon, water, and sunscreen, and although I was quite hot, wore a fairly conservative top and jeans. Not going to lie, jeans weren’t the most comfortable thing to wear, but they made me feel way more comfortable than if I were to have worn my only other clothing option, leggings.
Water bottles are sold at the very entrance of the Mutianyu area of the Great Wall of China, but once you get up to the Wall there’s only a couple of vendors, and they’re all the way at the top. It can get pretty exhausting, and seriously hot depending on when you go, so yeah…bring a lot of water.
This is mostly so that you can buy a water (or beer!) at the top of the climb if you need to. You can also get little souvenirs, like a metal plaque or keychain with your name on it that says you climbed the Great Wall of China. I also bought a little scroll with some art on a piece of silk from the little lady named Chang who was the vendor at the very top; mostly because she was so sweet and insisted on taking my photo while I waved the China flag around at the top of the Great Wall!
Lift Cost: 100 CNY (~$15)
Hiking up to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China from the bottom isn’t terribly treacherous, but if you want more time to climb to the highest section and to get a peak at the Jianku side, you should just pay the 100 CNY extra to take the lifts up and then back down to the bottom. Plus you get a really cool view…like you’re in an ancient Chinese Jurassic Park or something.
There were like 5 different times when I was debating going back down or continuing to climb higher up the Great Wall of China. But even just writing that sentence makes me think, “Duh, obviously keep climbing higher”.
The view from the very top is nothing short of breathtaking, and the higher you go, the more “original” portions you’ll see. The staircases are a bit steep and the steps are uneven at certain points, but the overall climb really isn’t that bad, and definitely worth it when you get to the top!
I am 100% of wanting to rush to a site to be the first person there and get the best picture with no one else around. But, this is the freaking Great Wall of China, so it’s not like there’s going to be no other people wanting to see it at the same time as you.
For a lot of my photos, if there was even one other person in the shot, I sat and patiently waited until they made their way out of it. I didn’t get irritated or annoyed when people took their time or stopped to take pictures, because as a well-traveled human I can respect the time other people take admiring what they’re seeing. Plus it forced me to stop and rest!