Written by: Matt Newkirk
Destination: Beijing, China
Visited: June 2019
For centuries, visitors have marveled at the sheer scale and beauty of the “Great Wall of China”. Spanning some of China’s most rugged terrain along its northern border, the great wall truly is a sight to behold. Running along mountain ridges, and thick forested valleys, the wall is a wonder of ancient construction, and brute-force determination.
It has been called one of man’s greatest achievements and has even been claimed to be the only man-made structure visible from space. As it turns out, this claim was first documented in 1754 by the English writer William Stukeley. Of course, there was no factual basis for this claim at that time, and it has since been completely debunked. The wall is visible only from low Earth orbit under near perfect conditions, unlike many other man-made structures easier to spot from space. Despite the fantastical claims, the Great Wall of China is an awe-inspiring sight, and continues to capture the imaginations of visitors’ centuries after its construction has been completed.
A guard tower on the Mutianyu Great Wall of China
Best of all, the Great Wall of China is easily accessible from the center of China’s capital, Beijing, on a day trip. The Mutianyu section of the is one of the best preserved, and most scenic sections of the wall; it traverses thick forests and jagged peaks just within the city limits. This is an excellent place to visit the Great Wall. It is easy to reach, breath-takingly beautiful, and typically much less crowded than Badaling, and other popular places to see the wall near Beijing.
The crowds were pretty minimal during our visit to Mutianyu Great Wall
The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was approved for full restoration in 1983 by the Chinese Government and was officially opened to outside visitors in 1988. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is considered one of the best tourist destinations in all of China.
The Mutianyu Great Wall is located atop a steep mountain ridge, and while it is possible to take the arduous staircase leading up the mountain to the wall (typically 45 minutes or more). Visitors can save their energy for enjoying the views from the top of the wall by riding up either a chair lift, or a cable car.
The Chairlift going to the top of The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu
If you have been skiing or snowboarding, the chairlift will be a familiar sight as it is identical to ski-lifts found at alpine resorts around the world. The simple metal benches suspended from steel cables pick visitors up at the bottom of the hill and carry them gently to the top of the wall. The view from the chairlift is not quite as scenic as that of the cable car. However, if you would like to take the toboggan down, the chairlift is less expensive going up than the cable car. The tickets can be a bit confusing, because the cable car and the chairlift are run by two separate companies. Tickets can be purchased as a round-trip package with the toboggan for CNY 120. Otherwise one-way tickets are sold for CNY 100.
The toboggan from the top of wall
Thrill seekers will not want to miss out on riding the toboggan down from the Great Wall. The toboggan is somewhere between a bobsled and a roller-coaster that races along a windy metal half-pipe through twists and turns down the mountainside. The ride combines amazing views as you pass through the trees and over hills, with a high-speed adrenaline rush. Be aware you have to control your speed with a simple handbrake as you descend to the bottom of the hill. Having ridden it, I don’t think that it would be too difficult to take a turn too quickly and send your toboggan flying off the track and into the trees. We didn’t see any accidents, but we were stopped along the way down, presumably to clear the track. Toboggan tickets can be purchased as a round-trip package with the chairlift for CNY 120. Otherwise one-way tickets are sold for CNY 100.
The Cable Car gondolas provide an awesome view.
Perhaps the most luxurious way to reach the Mutianyu Great Wall, the cable car consists of a comfortable enclosed gondola suspended from steel cables. In addition to the stunning views, the cable car drops visitors at the highest point of the Mutianyu Great Wall, so the walk along the wall to the toboggan is mostly downhill. Cable car tickets are CNY 120 round trip, or CNY 100 one way. If you want to take the cable car up and the toboggan down, you will have to buy separate one-way tickets for each that are CNY 100 each, and you will have to visit both the toboggan counter and the cable car counter.
There is no shortage of tour busses from Beijing to the Mutianyu Great Wall. Tours pick you up and drop you off straight from your hotel. They are very convenient, but more expensive. When we were in Beijing, the best price we could find was from a small travel agent just outside of our hotel, and the price was around USD $50 per person.
Looking out the window from a guard tower at the wall
Getting to Mutianyu by public bus is a great option if you are on a budget like us, or if you want the freedom to be on your own schedule. You should not be afraid to take the bus, even if you don’t speak Mandarin, it’s easy to navigate.
From Dongzhimen subway station, take exit E. Walk to your left down Dongzhimen Wai Dajie, then turn left at the corner and walk along Dongzhimen Wai Xiejie to the large bus station. At the bus station, find the entrance to the 916 Express Bus. The sign is in English and Chinese. You will need to pay exact fare, CNY 12 on the bus. Ride the 916 Express for about an hour then get off at the 15th stop, Huai Rou Bei Da Jie in the Huairou District. From there, cross the street and catch the H23 (CNY 3) all the way to the park entrance. You can also take a taxi instead of the H23 for about CNY 50. For more detailed instructions on taking the public bus, read this post, which the author updates regularly.
Be sure to leave early to avoid the crowds. Watch out for taxi drivers along the way who will board the bus and try to convince you to get off before the fifteenth stop, or that you must get in their taxi to reach the wall. These are just scams, stick to your guns and you will be fine. The taxi drivers are not physically aggressive, they will just try to frazzle you by approaching in a panic and telling you need to get off the bus. We just told the guy to go away and he did.
The “Great Wall of China” is a bit of a misnomer, as there is not really a single wall. Instead the Great Wall is made up of numerous smaller walls that were built at different times throughout China’s history. The combined sections of wall that make up the Great Wall stretch for a little over an astounding 13,000 miles.
The earliest parts of the wall were originally built in the 7th century BC by independent Chinese states, before China was a single kingdom. These sections of wall were intended to protect small areas from attacks from the north, as well as from other Chinese states. The construction of the early portions of the wall consisted mostly of rammed earth, piled high, and tramped down to harden the structure. Very little of these old walls remain today.
Jaii and Matt riding the Toboggan down from the top
When China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang united China in 221 BC, he ordered that all the various stretches of wall be connected into a single unified wall to protect the new empire from invaders from the north. Since then, later following dynasties have built and maintained various stretches of the wall.
The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) is responsible for building the most famous stretches of the wall that have survived into present day, including the Mutianyu section. The Ming stretches of wall were much better fortified than previous sections, as they were built with stone blocks rather than rammed earth. These sections were built piecemeal, rather than as a large unified construction project. With its solid granite construction featuring 23 watch towers, The Mutianyu Great Wall is often described as the epitome of Ming Dynasty Great Wall construction.