For first-time visitors to China and Beijing, the chance to feast your eyes on one of the world’s oldest and most enduring man-made structures—The Great Wall of China—is simply beyond compare and, quite frankly, a powerful emotional experience that can be difficult to describe.
On my most recent visit, it was to be my sixth time seeing The Great Wall. That gives you an idea of the perpetual appeal of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the views are constantly changing depending on the light, the season and, of course, your approach.
And my approach this time was to be quite a majestic one. But first, allow me to impart a few tips so you can make the most of your time at one of the world’s busiest tourist attractions.
For starters, you’ll need to plan ahead. Just getting out of Beijing can be a challenge for even the most well-traveled among us, so notorious is the city’s traffic. And getting an early start for your day visiting the Great Wall can stave off some serious headaches. It takes about two to two-and-a-half hours to get to the wall’s main access points from the city, so I always advise that people plan to arrange pickup from their hotel as early as 7 A.M. Having your hotel also arrange coffee-to-go and a bagged breakfast buys you a little extra time in the morning, too, and you’ll appreciate that energy boost for what promises to be a long day of exploring.
The sun is usually a scorcher by midday at The Great Wall, and getting an early start helps avoid heat exhaustion and over exposure. You’ll want to have plenty of sunscreen, snacks, and water along to keep everyone in your entourage in good spirits. And dress as comfortably as your fashion sense will allow you, too, as walking is part of the drill here at some point—even if you opt to skip the hike up and arrive by cable car or take a toboggan run back down from the wall.
There are many ways to access the wall, which was recently discovered to stretch more than 13,000 miles long (it was previously thought to have only been 5,500 miles long, talk about a miscalculation!). The wall’s most accessible stretches, however, are all near Beijing, with Mutianyu and Badaling the two main entry points for seeing the best-preserved and easily accessed sections of the wall.
Mutianyu’s stretch of the wall has been particularly well restored and reaches peak splendor during springtime when wildflowers paint the verdant surrounding scenery with delicate lemony hues. This port of entry also sees far fewer crowds than Badaling, which is the far and away most popular access point for The Great Wall. I like to think of Mutianyu as where in-the-know visitors make the effort to go. It takes a bit more time to get here than Badaling from the city of Beijing, but for avoiding crowds—especially if you’re visiting during peak summer months—I can assure you that it’s worth the extra drive time. Also, Mutianyu is where you have the fun option of a riding a toboggan sled back to the village from the wall, if you’re so inclined.
On my recent trip, however, we decided to approach the wall through Badaling, and I’ll tell you why. Badaling is the only approach where helicopters lift off for tours that take in The Great Wall from on high. I was able to arrange the helicopter tour through my hotel, Rosewood Beijing. Indeed, it seemed that my sixth visit to the wall was setting up to be the most memorable.
As we rose up, light as a feather into the sky, the enormity of what came into view beneath me hit me in a way it truly hadn’t before. It’s impossible to gaze down at the architectural wonder of The Great Wall, to witness its snaking scale, and not be awestruck at the idea of the sheer human toil it took to move all those massive rocks into place. Mind truly blown! The helicopter ride was definitely the highlight of my whirlwind 72 hours in Beijing. And I felt like a bird in the sky as we soared over the beacon towers, the Hero Slope, the Wengcheng parapet and the peaceful prairie lands of the Kangxi grasslands that roll westward from the wall. It was like I was seeing the world wonder for my very first time.
All the impressions of a day spent visiting The Great Wall and the journey to get there itself are enough to exhaust you, both mentally and physically. So it’s good to know that, despite the touristy nature of the attraction, there are some excellent places to refresh and relax with a nice meal before making tracks back to Beijing.
If you visit the Badaling section of the wall, I suggest a meal at The Commune, with its fine selection of Sichuan and Guangdong cuisine and classic Pekin Duck to boost your energy for re-entry into the city. – Vanessa Hong