Don’t for one second think about going to Beijing and not visiting the Great Wall. That would be a crime, and I’m not talking a minor misdemeanour. It’s something you would long regret, along the lines of wearing acid wash denim in the 80’s. Quelle horreur.
The first thing you have to do is choose which section you are going to visit. None of them are particularly close to Beijing, and all offer a different experience. For example, visiting the wall at Badaling is like visiting a completely different structure to the wall at Gubeikou. So choose wisely my friends. (There is an old Chinese proverb in that for sure.)
Let’s start with Badaling as that is where most tourists choose to start. And sadly finish. It is the closest to Beijing, and therefore the most popular and extremely crowded. Most tour buses will head here. I can’t tell you much more than that because the mere mention of crowds made us steer clear. By all accounts it is very grand but perhaps restored a bit too much, as even most of the bricks are no longer original. A bit like a celebrity who has had too much plastic surgery to try to recapture yesteryear.
We decided our first stop should be Mutianyu (about 2 hours from Beijing), not least because it is family friendly, and as we were there with the kids this kind of seemed important. It was also billed as being less busy and more original than Badaling, but I gotta say boy was it busy.
Mutianyu is only 2.5km long, and this is longest restored section open to tourists. Don’t make the mistake though of thinking you will walk this length of this in 20 minutes. Apart from the fact that most of this section is steps, steps and more steps (some of which are knee height) the scenery is breathtaking. Forests cover more than 90% of the area. In spring you can add flowers to the mix, and long grasses in summer. In autumn the leaves are red and yellow giving the mountains a golden glow. In winter, for those brave, hardy and some would say, foolish souls, the wall is covered in snow. You will need to allow at least an hour, and even then you may not cover the whole thing.
The kid-friendly thing needs to be addressed. There are cable cars up and down. Inappropriate was my first thought, but oh so practical, especially for little legs, the lazy, the elderly and in 40-degree heat. If you decide to be a purist (or your name is Tenzing Norgay) and climb up to the wall, this is going to add at least 40 minutes to your visit. No purists in our family, we took the cable car.
We elected not to take it down though. And that’s because we took the downhill luge! Yes, I know, even more inappropriate but so much fun!
I had my heart set though on exploring the wild wall, and it’s for that reason the very next day we headed to Jinshanling (nearly 3 hours from Beijing). The wild parts of the Great Wall are less visited and more original. They are the ‘true’ Great Wall, where you can avoid huge crowds of humanity, and enjoy the very essence of the wall in peace.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling is one of the best-preserved parts. Still, with many original features, it is half restored and half wild. Untouched, no people, weathered stones, overgrown and blending into the landscape. Scrambling up and down uneven and crumbling steps, navigating trees, shrubs and ruins, this was an experience that will last a lifetime. If you want to see people, go to Badaling. If you want to see the wall in all its glory, go to the wild wall at Jinshanling.
Lots of people say the wall is just as they expected it to be. For me ,it was the opposite. I expected to see one long continuous wall. Was I ever wrong. It does snake both ways far into the distance, but it also branches off in many directions. There are always pieces of wall in front of you, behind you and every which way you look. While there are lots of answers to the question ‘how long is the Great Wall’, the best answer comes from the Chinese themselves. It is the Endless Wall.
Chairman Mao once said, “If you don’t get to the Great Wall you are not a good man.” Far be it from me – or you – to disappoint Chairman Mao.