The Great Wall of China is one of the most popular sites on earth. Movies like The Bucket List reinforce it as a must-see place to visit. It was also high on our list of the best places to visit in China, but we wanted to avoid the crowds of tour buses and souvenir vendors catering to those visitors that can turn a Great Wall of China visit into an ordeal.
Most tour groups leave Beijing for one day trips to the access point at Badaling. This heavily photographed spot is where you’ll typically see photos of visiting celebrities and dignitaries astride the Great Wall. However, if you look in the background of those photos you’ll see hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of tourists elbow-to-elbow jostling each other for position as they climb the wall. These groups, armed with smart phone cameras instead of the swords of a bygone era, arrive by the thousands each day.
Our goal when we travel is to avoid the crowds. To see as many sites as we can in their more natural state. We managed to avoid the hordes at the Great Wall by veering slightly off the beaten path to tour a part of the Wall that is less visited. Hiring your own driver for not much more than the cost of a tour will also vastly improve your Great Wall experience. That way you’re not showing up in a clump with eighty of your new closest friends.
Chinese emperors built the Great Wall to keep out rampaging hordes of Mongolian soldiers mounted on horseback streaming down from the north; but no amount of stone and mortar can repel conquering hordes of tourists straddling luxury motor coaches.
According to urban legend the Great Wall is visible from outer space. Like many of these tales that get passed around from modem to modem, it is wrong. The structure, which follows the undulating contours of the hills and is in some areas no more than an earth colored pile of dirt and rubble, is barely visible from an airplane flying at 40,000 feet; let alone by an astronaut probing the far reaches of the atmosphere.
What may be visible from outer space though are the numerous shiny trinkets and tchotkes sold at the unending souvenir stands at Badaling, the most popular choice for tourists to view the Wall. We’d wager that if all the souvenir stalls were placed end-to-end they may rival the length of the Great Wall itself. The place should rightfully rename itself Bada-bling.
Badaling suffers from its close proximity to Beijing. From the capital it is easy to sign up for a bus tour or even hire a taxi that will take you there. Since Badaling is conveniently located right off of a multi-lane interstate highway, it is much more accessible to tour buses. The interstate also means that there will be more truck traffic causing congestion so while it is the closest access point to Beijing on a map, it is not always the quickest to get to.
To see the Wall in its more native state one must venture further afield, beyond the range of the Beijing tour buses to take in the true glory of ancient China. A much less visited section of the Wall is located 55 miles north of central Beijing at Mutianyu. The last ten miles to visit this section are by local roads which makes it less accessible for tour buses. The ride from Beijing took us about an hour and ten minutes, so even though Mutianyu is farther than Badaling it’s not exactly far. Badaling often has over 100 tour buses in its parking lot, when we went to Mutianyu there were two—and only enough parking spaces for about ten in total.
While the setting is every bit as spectacular as Badaling there are much less people to contend with. Visitors do walk through a row of souvenir vendors to get to the entry gate (they can’t be avoided wherever tourists congregate) but they are less intrusive here.
The Mutianyu section dates from 1368 and was built upon the foundation of an earlier wall from around 550 AD. Visitors can amble anywhere over a 1.5-mile stretch. The structure is about fourteen feet tall and is accessed via a steep hike or short cable car ride. Naturally we opted for the ride.
The view from the peak is superb and more importantly, not blocked by throngs of picture snapping tourists. On our weekday visit there were moments when we had entire sections to ourselves. There are 22 watchtowers along the ridgeline, spaced approximately 100 yards apart, dividing a hike into easily manageable portions. As we strolled along the granite walkways from one watchtower to the next, we could imagine what it was like over 600 years ago for a solitary guard to be on the lookout for invaders.
We brought along a few sandwiches from, believe it or not, a Subway shop (that’s all there was) located near the tram entrance and enjoyed an impromptu picnic. From our vantage point we took in the view of the Wall undulating over the hills in the distance. At this angle it looks like a large gray snake happily sunning itself in the crisp mountain air.
The day was also perfect for a young couple that was taking pictures before their upcoming wedding. We were treated to an impromptu modeling session by the bride and groom as the photographer artfully worked them through various poses. That alone demonstrates the solitude here; can you imagine a bride fanning out her wedding gown amidst a flock of tourists tromping around?
Instead of signing up for a tour bus we hired an individual driver, Joe of Come To Beijing, who we found by checking recommendations on Trip Advisor. The total cost of $150 is not that much more than a bus tour but the benefits are many. Our guide, Joe, was fluent in English and gave us a personalized history lesson along the way. Joe’s greatest value though was that we went only to the Wall and wherever else that WE wanted to go.
Be aware that bus tour groups often only visit the Wall for a 20-minute photo op. The rest of the day is spent (literally) at jade stores, cloisonné factories, herbal medicine shops and various other souvenir stores to separate you from your money. With Joe as our dedicated driver we avoided these shopping detours and had enough time left after our visit to drive back into Beijing and stroll around the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium.
A hired driver also offers greater flexibility with timing. Most tour groups leave at first light so they can arrive early and avoid the crowds. Unfortunately, they arrive along with dozens of other tour groups that have all thought the same thing. We are not crowd people and we are certainly not morning people. We asked Joe to pick us up at 10 AM. We left at a reasonable time and quite often had the place practically to ourselves.
The Great Wall of China is arguably one of the “must see” places in the world. It deserves time for quiet contemplation at its sheer mass and grandeur, as well as the scenic beauty that surrounds it. Unfortunately, the majority of visitors do not get to experience the magical silence of the Wall. For you to do so, go a bit further afield and travel independently. You’ll probably only see the Wall once in your life, it’s worth venturing a little farther off the beaten path to make it a truly memorable experience.
We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our free travel newsletter here.