Getting the chance to walk on the Great Wall of China is probably something everyone dreams about doing at some point in their life, especially if you’re a travel fanatic like me. When I recently had a real opportunity to accomplish this lifelong dream, I nearly missed it. With what truly seemed like an episode of The Amazing Race, my wife and I were able to accomplish this amazing feat while on a layover in Beijing. While this was possible, I wouldn’t recommend repeating our steps without some real advice from someone who’s done it. Below is our story.
The Chance of a Life Time
For our 18th wedding anniversary, my wife Charity and I took a trip to Thailand. You can read all about that trip in my recent post – Phuket, Thailand – Asia’s Tropical Paradise. The flights we had going took us from Dallas/Fort Worth to Seoul (Incheon) where we stopped over for about 4 hours before continuing on to Phuket. While we would have loved to spend some time exploring South Korea, we couldn’t do it in 4 hours. This will have to be saved for a return trip someday. The way back home however provided us a little more room to work with. We had flights from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we would spend 2½ hours and then board a flight to Beijing, China. This last flight happens to be the same exact route that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took when it mysteriously vanished mid-flight in early 2014! Had we known this prior to the flight, we may have opted for a different route, but needless to say, we survived and had an uneventful flight. Upon landing in Beijing we would have a lengthy 12 hour layover before boarding our flight back to Dallas/Fort Worth. The plan was to use this window of time to visit the Great Wall of China.
Entry into China
China requires a visa for entry for most countries, however we were able to enter without one by using China’s 72 hour visa-free policy. This policy allows you to transit through China from one country to another with China in the middle. This means you if you’re traveling from Country A to Country B, you can stop in China between the two and stay without a visa for up to 72 hours. This policy has many limitations and rules to it though. Some are based on the area of China you are visiting, and others are related to the flights. There are also travel restrictions within China if utilizing the policy which you need to be aware of. So, if you’re planning on visiting China the way we did (visa-free) and want more information on how this works, leave me a comment and I’ll explain it in more detail for you.
This doesn’t count Hong Kong by the way. Hong Kong doesn’t require a visa for entry for most of the world’s citizens. The USA, Canada, South America, Australia, and most of Europe including Russia can all visit Hong Kong without a visa. While Hong Kong is “technically” part of China, it’s a Special Administrative Region with its own laws, currency, passports, even flag, so for all intents and purposes it’s not “real” China. To get into mainland China – or as I like to say “China – China”, there are 2 ways. Well, actually 3, but the 3rd involves sneaking across the border illegally which I don’t recommend! The 2 legal ways to do it are as follows:
- Visit your closest Chinese Embassy and apply for a visa ($140 fee for US Citizens).
- Enter China using its visa-free transit program – Free of charge (with rules and limitations).
We took advantage of the 2nd option and we had no problems.
Planning our Journey
So I started to plan out our journey to one of the oldest monuments in human history, and one of the great wonders of the world – The Great Wall of China! This was exciting! I knew I would have to be meticulous in my planning because every minute would count since we were on a very strict time table.
After several hours of research including looking at maps, translating Chinese bus schedules, learning some Chinese letters, and reading numerous blogs on the topic (like this one), along with Chinese visitor guides and the like, we were set! We just had one very important decision to make – which section to visit?
There are 2 popular locations to visit the Great Wall in the Beijing vicinity. These are the Badaling Section, and the Mutainyu Section. Each of these sections are in excellent condition, very well preserved, and receive many tourists each year. In fact, they are the most visited locations of the wall over its total 5,500 mile (8851 km) length. But which one should we visit?
I spent a lot of time debating this after reading about the two different sections. Although I could easily write a whole separate article on the differences between the two (based on what I read), I will instead summarize what seems to be the consensus as to what makes them different.
Badaling vs. Mutainyu – Comparing the Sections of the Great Wall of China
By all counts on everything I have researched, the Badaling Section is the far more popular section for several reasons.
- It is easier to get to – especially by public transportation.
- It is “grander” (in some people’s opinion)
- It is wider at the base and at the top
- It is not as steep between watchtowers
- It is the preferred location of several world leaders who have visited, and most tourists.
And here is why we chose the other location – the Mutainyu Section:
Although the Mutainyu is harder to reach because it is not along any major roads (see map below), and pretty much hidden in the mountains; to us (and many other travel bloggers), it’s what makes this location that much more appealing! It may be much steeper,and narrower than it’s counterpart, but when I think of the Great Wall of China after seeing all kinds of photos and videos throughout my life, I picture it to be this way. Steep, narrow and winding its way through the mountains of China. This to us is what makes the Great Wall so beautiful!
For these two reasons, we chose to visit the less popular, yet harder to get to, Mutainyu. Was this a wise decision? Perhaps not for a flight layover. You be the judge.
The Plan in Action
So we landed in Beijing on a foggy Monday morning. We could tell rain had fallen because puddles were all over the ramp at the airport. We were hoping it wouldn’t be a washout day (It wasn’t). After exiting the plane, getting through customs and Chinese immigration, baggage claim, and then transferring terminals to check our luggage on the next flight (so we wouldn’t have to keep up with it), this chewed up 3 hours of our 12 hour window. We figured with a 4:25pm flight we needed to get back to the airport no later than 2:00pm, 2:30pm at the latest.
We boarded the Beijing Airport Express Train (like a subway or metro) and took it into Beijing where we transferred to a bus that took us to the small town of Huairou, north of Beijing. The bus ride alone took about an hour. When we got off the bus we were immediately greeted by an eager Chinese man willing to take us to the Mutainyu section of the wall. I had read all about this and expected it, so we negotiated a price and were off. The man spoke very little English but enough for us to make the simple exchange on where we were headed and how much we were going to pay for the ride. I don’t know the man’s name but for the sake of this article I’m going to refer to him as “The Chinese man”. This guy could drive! If we ever made it on the popular TV show The Amazing Race, I would certainly want this guy driving us around! This guy drove like we were in the show. He cut across lanes, crossed the divider on the opposite side of the road (many times) to pass slower traffic, and even drove on the shoulder! While a little nervous for his reckless driving habits, we were a little grateful since we needed to get there as quickly as we could.
The Mob Scene
We arrived at the Mutainyu Ticket Office and there was still no sign of the wall. The weather had totally cleared up and the skies were blue and beautiful! This could very well explain the large crowd of people we saw at the ticketing area, because we later found out that the previous several days were rainy.
The Chinese man had me follow him to the booth where they were selling the tickets and the next scene had us both in shock. There was a crowd of people practically fighting to get to the ticket window! There was absolutely no order to this line. It was complete chaos! I noticed that the sign above the window said “Tour Groups” so I wondered if I was even in the right place. I motioned to the Chinese man questioning if this was the correct line. I figured he would know since he was a local. He assured me it was where I needed to be and gestured for me to fight my way to the front. I’m from New York City originally and I know how to be aggressive when I need to be, but this was ridiculous! I’ve never seen anything like it! Charity just stood to the side and watched. She should have had popcorn because it was quite the show! While neither of us thought to take a photo, it was like the photo of the crowded wall, except imagine a ticket window and everyone fighting for it. That’s what it was like.
So I tried to move ahead in line, but I didn’t speak Mandarin, and I didn’t want to push and shove strangers, so I did a pretty pitiful job of it. The Chinese man saw my poor attempt at being rude, so he grabbed me and pulled me through the chaos to the front! He obviously knew how it’s done because we quickly made it to the window. I motioned to the attendant that I wanted to purchase 2 tickets for the lift to the Great Wall, and before long I had the tickets in my hand and was out of the utter confusion.
The Chinese man then motioned which way we should go to get on the lift and asked us what time he should meet us to drive us back. It was about 10:00am at the time, having taken us 2½ hours to get here from the airport! We asked him to meet us at 11:30am (We actually had to type out the numbers on our phone due to the language barrier). He looked at us like we were crazy but agreed to meet us at 11:30am. We thought we would just go up to the wall, look around for about 40 minutes or so, and come back down. Sounded good to us! We couldn’t be more clueless as to what we were in for.
We paid the Chinese man for the ride and started walking in the direction he had pointed. It was a lot further than we originally anticipated. After walking about 500 yards (457 meters), we reached a parking lot where buses were shuttling tourists further up the hillside. We waited in this line and boarded the bus. After exiting the bus we had yet another long hike up the hill to where the lifts were. The “lifts” to the Great Wall are just like your typical ski lifts. They carry you up the side of the mountain for access to the wall. However, this section had multiple lifts which carried you to various spots on the wall. It also featured a luge style toboggan slide down! This seemed like a fun way to get down so when I purchased the tickets I requested tickets for the slide as well.
We made it to the top of the hill and found the line for the lift which didn’t seem too bad (maybe 30 people). So we waited in the line and when we got to the front the lady checking tickets informed us we were in the wrong lift line. She motioned for us to go down the hill a little further and take a left. So, we headed down the hill a little and made the left and found the line to another lift. It too had a reasonable wait. We got to the front of the line and again the attendant told us we were in the wrong lift line and motioned yet further down the hill! At this point we were getting a little aggravated since there weren’t clear directions as to which line we were supposed to be headed to, and I didn’t see what difference it made – they’re all going to the same wall!!! (Just different locations) So, again we headed further down the hill and found the correct line we needed to be in, and IT WAS LONG! VERY LONG.
We entered the long line and started to wait patiently. The line moved incredibly slow and time was ticking away. After about 30 minutes of waiting I realized there was no way we were going to be back down in time to meet the Chinese man for our ride back to the bus. After another 30 minutes we realized we were now jeopardizing our chances to even make it back in time for our return flight home! In the following minutes of waiting we were stuck with the serious decision of bailing in order to ensure we got back to the airport on time for our flight.
We didn’t know what to do! Charity was ready to go, but I didn’t want to. We had come SO close! We were here! In China! The Great Wall was just up the hill! We came all this way and now to turn back seemed very upsetting. At this point I formulated an alternative plan in my head and laid it out to Charity who was panicking. I told her we came this far so we should see it through. Once we made it back down I would hire a driver (beg if I had to) to take us straight to the airport (regardless of the cost). She agreed, so we waited out the rest of the long, slow moving line until we made it to the lift.
The ride to the top was very peaceful and beautiful. You could see the wall clearly now sitting at the top snaking it’s way through the mountains of China just as I had always pictured. It was beautiful. The toboggan slide was below us and people were slowly making their way down. While it looked fun, the people weren’t moving nearly as fast as I initially thought they might be. This is probably preferable for most people, however Charity and I were hoping for a fast exhilarating ride down!
We made it to the top! We exited the lift and quickly walked onto the wall. We did it! We were here at last! A lifetime goal accomplished! We were on The Great Wall of China! Just like I had read, although the line to get up was long, there weren’t a lot of people on the wall itself. There were people of course, but it wasn’t crowded. There was plenty of room to move around and take photos without a hundred people in your shot.
We walked around for a little while and I snapped as many pictures as I possibly could before we had to start heading back. It was amazing to see how the wall climbs the sides of the mountains. Practically the entire top of the wall was stairs here because of the incline. It was so cool! We got to walk through one of the many watchtowers which is part of what gives the wall its iconic look. Walking through it transported me back in time to my childhood, when I saw these very towers in photos and on TV. I was here! I still couldn’t believe it.
While we would have loved to spend an hour or even longer walking up and down the wall, we were forced to start heading back in order to make our return flight. I was satisfied. We had made it here, and got to walk on the Great Wall of China. That’s more than many people can say I thought, which made me realize again how very blessed I am that I am even able to make these amazing journeys. This is something I never want to take for granted and I remind myself of it constantly.
We didn’t have time to take the toboggan slide down, because we could only imagine the line for it must be as long as the line to come up, if not longer. We instead decided to take the lift back down as it had no wait. We made it back down and once we were off, we FLEW down the hill as fast as we could, boarded the bus back to the ticketing area, and raced our way back to where a crowd of drivers were waiting for passengers.
There was no sign of the Chinese man since it was now past 12:30pm. I started immediately asking for a ride to the airport. A man told me that no drivers would be willing to take us directly to the airport from here because it was too far, and he kept offering to take us to the bus station! This wouldn’t do as it would put us getting to the airport about 3:30pm, which is not nearly enough time to make it through the international security checkpoint in Beijing. I kept saying no and as nicely as I could insisted we had to be taken directly to the airport. I even stated I would pay all the money I had on me.
It was at this point that the man said he may have someone willing to drive us. After a brief wait a different man (who spoke very little English) came up and said 400 (Meaning 400 Chinese Yuan). This equals roughly $60 USD. I pulled out my cash and counted it and it totaled 280 Yuan (approx. $42 USD). I responded 280 and after the first man translated it for the other the man, he said no. I then said it was all the money I had and we really needed to get to the airport. The man reluctantly agreed to drive us. We would have happily paid the 400 Yuan, since we didn’t feel that was an unfair price for a ride from there to the airport, however we are so thankful he agreed to less.
Thank you! I said as we raced off to get in his car. This man must be cousins with the Chinese man, because he drove equally as chaotic – which was fine by us in this instance. We drove like we were headed to a fire, and before long we were at the place were the bus had let us off. I started to get nervous thinking he was dropping us off at the bus station so I said “Airport?” to ensure that was our destination. He nodded in agreement which settled us for the time being. Then I realized he stopped by here to quickly chat with some of his driver buddies who were sitting at the bus stop waiting for passengers to give rides to. Sitting at the station was the Chinese man! He saw us in the back seat of the car and he came over and was yapping something in Mandarin which we couldn’t understand and kept staring at us while the man driving us talked to one of his buddies through the car window! I kept thinking “Could we hurry up and go???”. I didn’t know if the Chinese man was angry, upset, confused, or what! As we started to pull away I opened the window to apologize for not being there at our agreed upon time. I started saying I’m sorry that we couldn’t get down in time, but it was pointless. The Chinese man didn’t understand what I was saying.
We continued on our way and for a while everything was going great. We were making great time due to the drivers ludicrous driving skills, and we would make it on time. I opened the map on my phone and turned on GPS to follow along with the most direct route to the airport and so far we were on it! But then we weren’t. The driver turned off and headed down a road and then turned into a small narrow street. I was thinking um, where are we headed? So again I leaned over and said “Airport?”. The man just nodded and smiled and pulled over and pointed to the building we were at while he quickly got out of the car. It was the public toilet. I was like oh, nature was calling.
So the man returned and as promised he delivered us safe and sound to the Beijing Capital Airport with time to spare. We thanked him, paid him, and before we could step on the curb he was off, as quickly as we had left the wall.
Moral of the Story
In closing, we succeeded in what we planned, but not without a lot of unexpected delays which nearly spoiled the adventure. If I had to do it all over again I would strongly suggest not using public transportation. I read in numerous places before going that public transportation was the best way to go and it wouldn’t take more than an hour and a half in each direction. Perhaps some things weren’t accounted for (time of year, traffic, etc.), but I can assure you that it might take you an incredible amount of time to do it this way.
If you would like to visit the Great Wall of China during a layover like we did, our suggestion to you would be to hire a private car in advance to pick you up at the airport and take you back to the airport. This will save you a lot of time and needless aggravation. While it may be possible, and a lot cheaper, to do using public transportation, please take it from us that it’s not worth it.
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