No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall, and it is for obvious reasons the biggest tourist destination in Beijing; but when you choose to visit and which location of the Wall can make a BIG difference in your experience and takeaway of this world wonder. With over 1.4 billion Chinese Citizens, non-resident tourists make a very small dent in the visitation numbers to the Great Wall; when you go and how you get there can make all the difference in having an enjoyable visit rather than a very packed, frustrating and long day trip. This guide gives you all the information and tips you need to have a great visit to the Great Wall.
Getting There: there are two main sections of the wall easily accessible from Beijing – Badaling and Mutianyu, you can visit by bus, tour, train, or private charter. I’ll break down recommendations for each below.
Costs: doing the trip on your own by bus is easy and affordable with the entire round trip costing less than $10 USD including admission to the Great Wall.
Suggested Time: plan for a full day trip (8 hours), but read below to find out how we did it in 4 hours and spent the afternoon at the Temple of Heaven.
What to Bring: wear long pants and a sweater, even in the summer, or at the very least bring a windbreaker or your jacket. The wall gets very windy and surprisingly cold, even when its a boiling hot summer day.
Badaling vs. Mutianyu – Which one to visit?
For anyone traveling on a budget or with limited time in Beijing, I’d hands down recommend you visit Badaling. It is easy to get to, has the best preserved sections of the wall, has an optional cable car to the top (additional fee), has direct buses from Beijing, is a one hour drive, and has been visited by over 460 world leaders. Mutianyu does not have direct buses from anywhere other than downtown Beijing and is a two hour drive, there will generally be less people on this section of the Wall, but depending on how you time your trip, that is a relative selling point or consideration. I’d recommend Badaling over Mutianyu based on the fact that if you time it properly you can avoid the crowds, have great photo opportunities, and still make it back to Beijing in time to visit another attraction on the same day.
Badaling Great Wall
To visit the Badaling section of the Great Wall, make your way to the Deshengmen Bus Station and look for Bus 877. As with most of China, hardly anything will be in English (non-resident tourism not being a main concern) so make sure you’ve mapped out how to get here ahead of time. Bus frequency will be every 15 minutes, but as you will see, the bus leaves as soon as its filled up, meaning every 10 – 20 minutes depending on the amount of people in line. The bus will cost 12 RMB one way, and depending on the attendant, having exact change is a must.
The Great Wall opens between 6:30 and 7am depending on the season, and to avoid crowds I’d recommend you go on a weekday avoiding weekends and holidays. During the summer (high season) admission is RMB 45 and during winter hours admission is RMB 40. Rather than making the steep climb to the top on foot, there is an option cable car which will run you RMB 80 one way or RMB 100 round trip.
We left our hostel at 6 am and took the subway to get to Deshengmen Bust Station, once you’ve paid and are on the bus it is about 45 minutes to an hour drive to arrive at the Badaling section of the Great Wall. There will be no signs in English which is confusing as you’ll see throngs of Chinese going past the ticket office and continuing further ahead. They are heading to the Cable Car entrance and admission office, but if you’re just looking for the RMB 40-45 ticket, purchase it at the first set of lines. You’ll see a few shops and food stalls before making your way through a touristy shopping tunnel on your way up to the main pavilion. Once in the pavilion there will be more opportunities for touristy photos with costumes or a green screen of the wall behind you, but behind all of these shops you’ll see the South and North Wall Entrances.
Because we were on the first bus in the morning and went on a Thursday we were able to avoid dealing with crowds and tour buses upon our arrival. We chose the South Wall route, and our early morning pictures (8 – 8:30am) showed nearly anyone else climbing the wall. The wall has steep sections, there aren’t many railings or safety precautions, and on a very windy day, it can be difficult to keep your balance, but the view is absolutely miraculous; even more so when you think about this Wall having been built during the Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644 and stretching over 356 miles long, built by manpower and horse cart. As the morning stretches on, the wall will quickly begin to fill up, making this spot a bit less magical. After hiking the wall for the better part of an hour, we decided to turn around and head back down.
Note: the first buses will not return back to Beijing until 10 to 10:30 am, so if you arrive early to avoid the crowds you will end up possibly waiting for a bus back; but the line for the buses will grow quickly. We were on the first bus returning to Beijing, and waited for 30 minutes, but were happy we’d waited in line a bit early because it was about 500 people deep by the time our bus arrived.
We were back in Beijing by lunchtime and able to spend our afternoon visiting the Temple of Heaven.
Tours, buses, and private charters are all other options for getting to the Wall, but they will all be significantly more expensive and will not save you any time. The train takes approximately 45 minutes instead of the 1 hour bus ride, and is over double the cost. The cheapest tour we could find while on our trip was $55 USD and they don’t take you directly to or from the Wall but rather take you to other tourist traps like a Jade Factory, etc. before taking you to, or bringing you back from the Wall.
Mutianyu Wall Section
To get to the Mutianyu Great Wall section will take you approximately 2 hours each way by bus. The only bus that departs from Beijing is located downtown and is Bus 916, which we were advised leaves every 30 minutes (or when full). This section of the wall is known for being less crowded due to being further from Beijing, but is slightly less maintained. It still has a cable car available, and has 23 watch towers and over 3 miles to explore. The bus will cost the same price of RMB 12 and the tickets are RMB45. This portion of the wall opens between 8:00 and 8:30 am, and we were told that if you take a taxi you MUST make sure it is from a reputable company and that they will wait for you for your return. Many people have paid in advance for round trip only to find that their taxi has left them. Minivan shuttle from downtown Beijing will cost approximately RMB 60 and a scheduled tour which will pick you up from your hotel will run about $90 USD or RMB 540.