Most sites offering a Great Wall of China Tour fail to tell you anything how about how to get on or off the wall. It’s all about the wall itself, nothing about the journey. This wasn’t something we’d even thought about before we visited, but there is one exciting option you won’t want to miss! The important thing is to make sure you’re heading for the right part of the wall!
Here’s everything you need to know to have a memorable tour:
The Best Section to Visit for Your Great Wall of China Tour:
We recommend visiting the easily walked section of the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Fully renovated, it’s one of the best to visit, with 5 stars on Tripadvisor. It’s 47 miles (76km) from the city centre, a little further away from Beijing than some of the other areas offered by tour operators, but that’s a bonus. As it’s further away, it’s less crowded and you get MUCH better photo opportunities!
How to Get to The Great Wall
There are three ways to get to the Great Wall at Mutianyu from Beijing:
- Public transport
- Private cars
- Private tours.
Pros: public transport is the best option if you’re on a budget. There are plentiful buses to Mutianyu from Beijing
Cons: Most bus stops are only signposted in Chinese, so it can be rather nerve-wracking wondering whether you’ve reached the right stop. If you choose to travel by bus, it’s useful to print your destination (and return destination) off, so you can show the driver.
You’ll also need to change buses, as there’s no direct bus from Beijing to Mutianyu!
Pros: The comfortable drive from downtown Beijing to Mutianyu takes about one and a half hours and you should expect to pay around CNY 800-1,000.
Cons: A driver (without a guide) might not speak English or might have very limited English. Be very clear about your pick up time and location, and about how long you want to spend on the wall, so they can be ready to pick you up again afterwards. (The car park at the Wall is huge and you don’t want to be wandering around searching for your driver and car).
Private day tour
Pros: Hiring both a tour guide and a driver will make your trip safer and easier, plus you’ll learn all about the wall from a knowledgeable, state-licensed, English-speaking guide. We think this is the best choice for first-time visitors – especially if you hate being herded through shops as part of each tour you’re offered!.
Seriously – would you rather be picked up from your hotel and swept off in a swanky air-conditioned car or trek across Beijing to the bus station then take two hot, sweaty buses to the Great Wall? Here’s 8 reasons for hiring a private tour guide in China.
Cons: Naturally, it’s a little more expensive to hire a private guide than to choose one of the DIY options, but we think it’s worth the extra money and that it’s a safer way to visit the wall if you don’t speak any Chinese. If you’re travelling in the summer, it’s a no brainer for the aircon alone!
We think the best of the privately guided trips is this Half-Day Private Tour to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Unlike other tours, this includes a pick up from your own hotel and there will be a maximum of six people on the trip.
Note: Most tours to the Great Wall depart early in the morning (around 7.30) so if you don’t go with a private guide, be sure to factor in enough time to cross Beijing in the horrendous early morning traffic!!
While the Mutianyu section of the wall has parts that are easy to walk, other parts are very steep with high steps. You’ll get fantastic views of the wall from the moment you step onto it, so you don’t actually have to tackle the steep parts (unless you want to) and you’ll still have plenty of photo opportunities.
If you have elderly/disabled folk in your party, look out for the disabled lifts from the car park. Other routes are quite physically challenging and uneven.
When to Take a Great Wall of China Tour
All of the sections of the wall that are easily accessed from Beijing get very crowded during high season (April to June) and in early October. This is when local people travel during their holidays and to celebrate China’s National Day (1 October).
- Aim to visit on a weekday, as weekends are much busier
- Arrive early to beat the queues for tickets, for the shuttle bus and for the cablecar or chairlift. You’ll capture the best photos when the wall is less busy.
After you/your guide pick-up your entry tickets, get the shuttle bus to the departure point but be prepared for this to be very busy too.
On arrival at the departure area, it’s time for you to choose how you want to get up and off the wall!
How to Get Onto the Wall
Are you kidding me? If you’re fit AND have lots of time to spare, this may be the option for you. It’s a long walk, followed by a seriously steep climb up 400 steps! The steps are old and uneven, plus they’re rather daunting if it’s misty, and downright dangerous if it’s wet. It’s much harder to descend the steps than ascend.
If this sounds like your thing you, go and grab your boots. Take plenty of water and sturdy walking shoes…
2. Cable Car
If you fancy being whisked
The photo opp
3. Chair Lift
This is the fun option (and the ONLY way to get to the toboggan run). The chair lift takes you up over the toboggan run and onto an easily walked section of the wall. 100 CNY each way per person.
Views From the Wall
Turn right when you ascend the wall (via the chairlift) and you’re very close to one of the steep stepped sections. Don’t worry about those steps though, you can get all the photos you want without breaking a sweat. Position yourself at the top of the steps to enjoy the view of the ancient wall that took so many centuries to build. As the wall snakes away over the hills into the distance you’ll fall under the spell of this ancient landmark.
Pause awhile and imagine what life was like for the labourers who built the wall. If you visit during the winter, it’s hard not to think about the soldiers who lived on the wall in all weathers, guarding against invaders.
Turn left from the arrival point to reach one of the gatehouses on the wall, where the soldiers lived. Don’t miss the chance to explore inside them, as the views from here are some of the best. You can even climb up onto the roof.
Note: There is one flight of steep steps up to the gatehouse (and no handrails!)
The gatehouses are bleak and must have been freezing in the high, exposed mountains during winter months!
Things to watch out for
Time to explore
Some Great Wall of China tour companies only allow about two hours for you to explore the wall. If you only want to take a short walk and some photos, this will work well for you. If you prefer to walk further, maybe to more than one gatehouse, you’ll be very pressed for time.
We met people who were disappointed that they didn’t have enough time to explore as far as they wanted on the wall.
Check how long you’ll have to explore before you buy tickets or book your tour with a private guide.
The high cost of refreshments on the wall
Once you’ve seen enough of the wall, you can have a sneaky celebratory beer in the little beer garden just by the chairlift station. Be warned though – the beer is not cheap!! (We paid about £12 per bottle and thought it was worth it for a celebratory 50th birthday photo with the Great Wall in the background).
Beware of the local scammers who will try to sell you their own Great Wall packages or encourage you to take photos with them. They will want you to pay for the privilege.
Look out too for people dressed as ancient warriors and guards. They will want payment for photos you take too.
Tourist Traps on the Way
You’ll run the gauntlet of a long strip of tacky tourist shops and fast food outlets on your way from the car park to the queue for the shuttle bus. You’ll also have to walk past them again on your way back…
How to End Your Great Wall of China Tour
If you’ve gone up to the wall by cable car, the only way down is to return by cable car. If you went up by chairlift, you have two choices:
Simply ride back down the same way you arrived. Nice and easy. It’s a sensible and relaxing option. It’s the option our guide expected us to take…
Are you up for an exhilarating 20-minute slide down the world’s longest toboggan run? (1,580 metres) This is the ultimate thrill! You’ll reach speeds of up to 30 kph on your way down the twisting, turning route (provided you don’t get stuck with a “slowcoach” in front of you).
Pro Tip: While you’re in the queue for the ride, check out the ride instructions. Some of the translations are hilarious!
Look up and smile on the way down, as you’ll get your photo snapped. The camera captures the wall in the photo, making a nice keepsake of your Great Wall of China tour. It’s about £5 for the photo which comes in a folder with information about the Mutianyu section of the wall.
The charge for the toboggan run is not usually covered if you’re on a tour, but it’s well worth the extra cost (100 CNY).
Pro Tip: If you want a good, fast run, leave a long gap between yourself and the rider in front of you. (You don’t want to get snarled up in a toboggan jam, or to end up tailing a slow rider) It’s so much more exciting to really whizz down! If you think you’re setting off too close to the rider in front, just pretend you need to ask how the brakes work.
The toboggan run was the unexpected highlight of our Great Wall of China tour, finishing our visit with a real adrenalin rush. Visiting the Great Wall was well worth waiting 25 years for and it was the most memorable part of our visit to China.
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Have you been to the Great Wall of China? Which section did you visit? Did I miss anything important? Let me know in the comments if you’ve got more recommendations! I’d love to hear what you think x