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Travel Tips for Hiking the Great Wall of China Without a Tour

An article on how to get to the Great Wall from Beijing, day trip ideas, hiking and trekking opportunities, the best photography & Instagram spots, and more.

“He who doesn’t reach the Great Wall is not a true man” Chairman Mao once said, so you better start exercising in order to climb the Great Wall of China, or should I say the Great Walls of China?

You’ve probably heard that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made monument that can be seen from space. Not only that is totally untrue but also quite misleading since there is NO such thing as the “Great Wall of China”.

Instead, what we have is a set of multiple non-continuous stretches of separate walls that were designed centuries ago to keep away the Mongols. Or rather, to keep the illusion that a Mongol invasion could be avoided.

Suffice to say, it didn’t work. Kublai Khan’s army entered through one of the many gaps between one wall and the other, eventually reaching the Chinese capital, where he overthrew the ruling dynasty and started his own, the Yuan dynasty.

The travels of Marco Polo detail many aspects of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and yet, they somehow omit the Great Wall, while some historians still debate whether Marco Polo visited China or not, the reason for this omission is most likely because the defining characteristics of the Great Wall, that is, the house-like watchtowers and the snake-like design was a much later addition of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

To Marco Polo, the “Great Wall of China” probably looked like no more than just a simple stone fortification! Who knew that eventually this monument would be improved and is now considered one of the wonders of the World?

An Overview of the Many Great Walls

If you’re traveling to Beijing, a visit to one of the Great Walls of China is a must. As of 2014, there are basically two main sections of the wall that are open and totally accessible to all sorts of visitors: Badaling and Mutianyu.

Both have cable cars in order to facilitate access to people who cannot do the not-so-complicated uphill hike. However, be warned that both are tourists traps, Badaling more so since it is nearer to Beijing and reachable by public transportation in a free-of-hassle way.

The reason why I opted out of visiting Badaling is that it is totally crowded, making it almost impossible to take photographs without hundreds of tourists being in it.

Also, because they have a completely despicable “bear pit” where people can throw all sorts of junk food to three cute bears.

Such animal cruelty!

72 Hours in Beijing Itinerary
The Great Wall of China, a perfect day trip from Beijing

If you do want to visit Badaling (mainly because of the low prices of reaching it compared to Mutianyu), I recommend you to take local buses leaving from downtown Beijing early in the morning and once you’re there, opt for the hike instead of the cable-car. It is considerable easier than hiking Mutianyu (and Mutianyu is extremely easy itself!). Buy all provisions you need before departing since on-site you’ll find hawkers selling them at triple the price!

Also, if you want to have a more authentic experience, many youth hostels offer daily trips to unrestored sections of the wall. These are quite safe from any real danger but you must keep your wits in order to avoid injuries when hiking. Prices vary but they are not fixed so be ready to negotiate with the hostel manager/tour operator, especially if you are in a big group.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China, the Perfect Day Trip from Beijing

Exploring Mutianyu

I ended up choosing the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Even though there is a local bus that goes nearby (after which you’ll have to take a taxi to actually reach it), I decided to catch hail a taxi all the way from Beijing. Since most of the drivers do not speak/read/understand English, I recommend you to write down the Chinese name of the attraction (慕田峪长城) or just take a screen capture of the place and be load and clear when saying: MU-TIAN-YU.

Once the destination is clear, write in a piece of paper your proposed price and the number of hours the taxi driver will have to wait for you. I strongly recommend you to spend at least three hours at the place, this can be cut down to two if you insist in taking the cable car, but trust me, the scenery of the hike is extremely breath-taking, specially in autumn.

The driver and I agreed on 400 RMB for a roundtrip with a waiting time of 3 hours. He started by asking 1000 RMB and we took it down from there. It was around 11am so it must have been a very slow day for him because a quick search online reveals that the average fare is about 600 RMB.

It takes about two hours to reach the entrance to the Mutianyu Great Wall so just relax and enjoy the ride, on the way you will pass through Beijing’s business district where you can see some kitsch futuristic-looking buildings, other than that, there’s nothing much to see on the road between Beijing and Mutianyu.

The Man of Wonders at the Great Wall
The Man of Wonders at the Great Wall

Once you’re at the parking lot, write down the number of the taxi’s plaque and leave to explore the Great Wall.

DO NOT PAY the driver now or otherwise you’ll return to find out that he’s gone for good. Yes, it might seem as extremely rude to depart without giving the driver at least half of the fare but trust is a hard-earned currency.

At the base of Mutianyu, you can find hordes of street sellers, a subway sandwich shop, local fruit vendors, a (kind of) crazy man wearing a Chinese armor and a single Mongolian Bactrian Camel (?) whose owner charges you for taking a photograph of the camel itself (!).

Ignore all the hawkers and wannabe tour guides and just proceed to the northern entrance where you can buy your ticket (45 RMB). From here on, it takes about 45 minutes to hike up with some rests along the way and photo opportunities. The way down is considerable shorter, I’m not in a very good athletic shape and I made it in less than 25 minutes!

Once you reach the top, you can relax and pat yourself in the back. You made it! From here on, you can either continue to the right and take the (controversial) slide ride down or continue to the left to reach the spot where the cable-car terminates. Here, you can buy a chocolate medal from one of the few street vendors located at the wall itself. It is both tasty and a symbolic!

Also, you can use the western-style bathrooms and take your photo next to a big boulder that commemorates the restoration of the Mutianyu wall and serves as a certificate of its…greatness?

72 Hours in Beijing Itinerary
Tiananmen Square, the number one square of all China

Is The Great Wall of China Worth It?

Once you’ve taken enough photos at the Great Wall (and realized that each section looks almost identical to the previous one), you can start the hike down.

Yes, my original plan was to visit each and every section of the Mutianyu wall and visit Badaling the next day, however, after thirty minutes or so in Mutianyu, I got a strange feeling of…disappointment? No, I’m NOT saying that visiting it isn’t worth it. Let me explain!

Out of all of Beijing’s attractions, the Great Wall ranks very low in my top 10, not only because of all the hassle involved (which I can only compare to the one encountered at the Pyramids of Egypt) but also because of the fact that the Chinese Government TOTALLY restored the main two accessible areas, rendering them worthless from an archeological and historical point of view.

Nevertheless, don’t be discouraged from climbing up to this wonderful achievement of mankind! In fact, upon returning to Beijing, why not reward yourself with a very special dish of Beijing’s duck? It’s a local specialty that serves as a nice bookend to your Great Wall experience!

And yes, you’ll probably have to wait a little longer to upload those amazing photos to Facebook since it is banned in China. Click here to learn how I survived the Great FIRE-Wall of China.

Have you ever been to the Not-So-Great Wall of China? Would you like? What do you think about Beijing’s Duck? Share your thoughts!!!

Last but not least, don’t forget to use our Affiliate Link of Wonders for making hotel reservations.

Same price for you and a small pocket money commission for this website of yours.

Sweet deal, uh?

The Great Wall of China is a bucket list must for a reason. How to get to the Great Wall from Beijing, day trip ideas, hiking and trekking opportunities, the best photography & Instagram spots, and more.
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