Travel and Gamble

Hiking the Great Wall of China

Like many of you, I have dreamt of hiking the Great Wall of China for as long as I can remember.

Needless to say, this has been very high on my travel bucket list even before I met Matt. Thankfully, the onslaught of budget airlines in the country as well as across the Asia Pacific region has made it possible to travel to regional destinations for cheap.

I’ve been to Beijing several times and have hiked the Great Wall twice, and both at winter season: first with friends (Nov 2011), and second, with my mum and sister Len (Feb 2012). On both occasions we went to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.

Something about Mutianyu

Our travel brochure mentioned that the Mutianyu was built as early as the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 -557) and it was rebuilt in the 1300s in order to strengthen its defense. They are built with slabs of granite and stretch to about 22 km long. The walls are about 7 to 8 meters high and 4 or 5 meters wide. As is the other sections of the great wall, the Mutianyu was built primarily to guard the capital and the imperial tombs from the Mongol tribes that invaded China.

Why go to Mutianyu over Badaling?

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is a little further away from Beijing than the crowded Badaling, which is the more famous section for group tours. I can tell you though, I’ve seen Badaling (although we didn’t stop). It’s way too commercialized and crowded.

It’s better driving all the way to Mutianyu (If i remember correctly, about an hour’s drive further) as this section is considered the most beautiful section of the great wall. The drive up there is scenic and the tour normally stops at the Ming Tombs before going to the great wall. The best part about this section, other than the fact that you’ve got spectacular views, is that this is not crowded. The area has 90% forest coverage. On both occasions that i went to it, there were hardly any people there. As a result, I”ve got tons of photos where I was alone with the whole section of the Great Wall. That is pretty rare for China! :)

What to expect at Mutianyu

This section of the wall is fully restored; and there are hand rails to help you up on the very steep parts. There are 22 watchtowers, but we only made it to 3 because the altitude and the steep steps were not an easy challenge. That, or I am just physically unfit! haha!

There are two cable cars that will take you to the top of the wall and back down again. I have tried both on separate occasions. The other cable car is open , more like a chairlift (kinda what you use when you’re skiing) where 2 people can ride, the other is an enclosed cable car that fits about 4 people.

You can buy return tickets or you can buy one way and buy the return at the top. Keep in mind the 2 cable cars are owned by different companies, so when you buy a return ride for one cable car, you can’t use it for the other.  Before you decide that you would like to use another cable car, look at the map you will see at the entrance and anticipate the distance from the one cable car to the other. Do you really want to walk that far to try the other cable car? Can you bear all the hike and will you make it in time before the day ends? Trust me, you don’t wanna mess with those steps! They are quite a challenge!

If not, it may be better for you to just book a return trip. As far as i remember, the fee is cheaper if you book round trip, and that’s what we did.

An alternative way to go down is via a single-rider sled or toboggan. This looked like an adventure to try as you descend from the wall at the top of the hill via a winding metal track. We wanted to experience try, but hesitated in the end as it was too cold at the great wall at that time and we thought using the single rider sled going down may be too tough to do and bear with the cold weather.

There was a Chinese restaurant at the base of the wall where we ate food and had tea before we went up. There are also many souvenir shops at the base where you can haggle for prices.

Why do you need to see it?

This beautiful and massive human ingenuity is said to be the largest man made structure ever to have been built; so large that it can be seen from outer space (of course we all know that this is disputed).  Recently, the Great Wall has also made it to the New 7 Wonders of the World list; a definite must see destination at least once in your lifetime!

Tips when you go:

1. Ensure you look at the map and plan your bathroom visit accordingly as there’s only limited places where you have them.

2. Haggle for the prices at the souvenir shops before paying. Most of the prices they offer you first hand are ballooned (of course, you are a tourist!). I have been able to haggle up prices up to reduced rate of 60-70% of the original price. My friend Teta was an amazing haggler who was able to haggle down to 90%. Now that’s what i call talent! haha!

3. The Ming tombs is normally part of the tour en route to Mutianyu. In our view, you can pass the Ming tombs. Or if you visit, don’t spend as much time there. Rather, ask your guide to drive you to Mutianyu and spend more time there, especially if you  plan to hike up several watch towers.

Good luck and Happy Travels!