The Great Wall of China: An Iconic Travel Experience
“They surely have the air-conditioning on high around here,” I told Masood as we stood outside the arrivals gate at Beijing airport waiting for a taxi. We just flew in from Guangzhou where we attended the Canton Trade Fair. It was late spring, which meant both Dubai and Guangzhou were pleasantly warm, therefore it did not occur to me at all that it could be cooler in Beijing. It was 13°C. We were here to visit and walk across the Great Wall of China, and April turned out to be a good time time to do it. The weather was quite pleasant and it wasn’t too crowded.
It’s called the Great Wall for a reason.
It stretches about 21,000 kilometres from east to west of China, winding up and down across mountains, plateaus, deserts, and grasslands. When you visit you only see a tiny section of the Great Wall. And the thing is, considering that it’s been around for 2,700 years, some of the Great Wall sections are now in ruins or have disappeared altogether.
The Great Wall of China, frequently billed as the only man-made object visible from space, generally isn’t, at least to the unaided eye in low Earth orbit. It certainly isn’t visible from the Moon. NASA says so.
We hired a tour guide for the first time.
We aren’t big fans of tour guides. We respect the profession and have absolutely nothing against them. Masood and I just like to experience places on our own. I look forward to travel planning and researching on my own. Sometimes, I feel like the planning is the most exciting part of a trip! We like having full control over our time, how we can easily change plans at the last moment, and, of course, the privacy. It’s about saving money, too. Won’t you rather spend that money to rent a car and explore on your own?
Afraid that language would be an inconvenient barrier that could result in precious time—we were in Beijing for only three days—being wasted, we decided to book ourselves a tour with someone who has experience with Muslim travellers. Our request included a masjid tour in time for Dhuhr and Asar prayers, as well as halal food.
After a lot of research, we picked Selena Zhang Tours. We made the right choice. No time was wasted and there was no confusion. Plus, there also wasn’t any time pressure. We were allowed to take our time. Selena is the sweetest lady, very punctual, friendly, and speaks English fluently. We still keep in touch!
Most people head to the Badaling section which is closer to the city, but a lot of bloggers recommend heading to the Mutianyu section which is less crowded.
Mutianyu also has a chair lift. This was a temptation for me, and I planned to cheat my way up to the Great Wall without exerting any physical effort whatsoever. Truth be told, my throat was painfully sore the night before, and I was febrile. Masood wanted to cancel the trip. I was like, “No way! I’ll crawl myself up the wall if I have to, but I’m not leaving without seeing it.”
The following morning on our way to the Great Wall, Selena announced that there was a huge traffic jam on the road leading to Mutianyu so that it would be wiser to visit the Badaling section. Badaling is approximately 70 something km from Beijing city centre.
So to Badaling section we went. It is probably the most visited and usually the most crowded section of the Great Wall. The reasons for its popularity include its proximity to Beijing and because some of the best-preserved sections of the wall—3.74 km of it—is restored and open to visitors. I wasn’t exactly thrilled that we switched from Mutianyu to Badaling, but given the time constraint and my unwell state, this was probably for the best.
If you can, skip Badaling and choose Mutianyu section instead. I’m told the scenery is better (specially during autumn) and there are some unique watchtowers in that section. Also, we left our hotel at 9 am to avoid the morning office and school rush but I would definitely recommend starting out at dawn to avoid the crowd at the wall. Do bring a water bottle. Oh, and I heard drones aren’t allowed.
Go on an adventure that will take you through centuries of history, while simultaneously testing your endurance and strength.
I’m not kidding. Even the easiest section of the Great Wall is quite a workout. It starts out nice and easy, but then the stairs begin. The stairs are not only steep, they are taller than usual and the stones are uneven at some places. Even the walk at Badaling requires some degree of fitness level.
Wear good, comfortable shoes! Get something that provides support and a good grip, for when it rains. The stone pavers can get extremely slippery when wet making it easy to slip and fall. Depending on the season, bring a light jacket along. Because of the elevation it will be cooler at the wall than in Beijing. For rainy days they sell ponchos outside the gates. These are inexpensive and will keep you dry but they look like bright red trash bags and are quite ugly. So for the sake of your Facebook and Instagram pictures, you might want to check the weather and bring your own stylish rain jacket.
So there I stood facing the Great Wall of China. It feels surreal. It’s the same feeling I got when I first saw the Taj Mahal. These are the wonders of the world that we read in books since elementary grade. First you’re in awe with its architectural beauty and magnificence, and then you think about all the people who lost their lives building it.
The Great Wall of China was originally conceived by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the third century B.C. as a means of preventing incursions from barbarian nomads into the Chinese Empire. Though the Great Wall never effectively prevented invaders from entering China, it came to function more as a psychological barrier between Chinese civilization and the world, and remains a powerful symbol of the country’s enduring strength.
I was full of determination and was proudly marching away until about 15 minutes in when I could no longer breathe. I eventually had to stop and let people pass.
Our lovely guide, Selena, visits the wall twice or thrice a month. This was clearly a walk in the park for her. On the other hand I was willing my legs to climb up a few tall steps and then pause briefly to breathe. I wish I could just tell you how easy the climb was and how I managed several kilometres effortlessly. But I’ll stick with the truth and not sugarcoat it: for me, it felt like a battle against gravity. And they say Badaling is the easiest section!
I also kept looking alternately between the distance I had covered and the steps that still lay ahead of me. Good thing there are railings so that folks like me could cling on to it and never let go. Walking across the Great Wall of China is a test of stamina, not speed.
And it’s totally worth the effort.
The views are spectacular. But more than the views, it’s the fact that one is at the Great Wall of China that makes the experience special. This was certainly the highlight of our trip to China and one that we would remember the rest of our lives.
A lot of people got themselves a gold medal with their name etched on it, so we did, too.
A few jubilant-looking folks were returning from their climb sporting gold medals around their necks as we were walking up and catching our breaths. “How’d you get that?” I asked a hijabi lady, who looked like she just returned from conquering Mount Everest. “Oh, this? Just walk up all the way to the end and they give this to you,” she said with a wink and a smile.
You don’t have to kill yourself by walking all the way. There’s a souvenir shop on the way down. You can purchase the gold medal there and have your name etched on it.
Also, a few hijabi women approached me to take selfies with them. They asked nicely so I obliged. This happens in every city I visit. Do you guys do this when you travel? Ask a complete stranger to take a selfie with you?
We ended our trip with a foot massage.
Selena took us for lunch. There’s this place near the Great Wall where they apparently take all the tourists. It felt like the government has mandated certain establishments to be compulsory stops for all tour operators. It’s the same case with the foot massage. While the much-appreciated massage was included in the package the doctors there gave us an unwanted lecture about how our bodies were filled with toxins. Another doctor came in at the end of the lecture and, together, they both spent probably thirty minutes convincing us to buy herbal medicines guaranteed to make us slimmer and healthier.
Selena had cautioned us beforehand that they will try to offer us these medicines but we were under no obligation to make any purchase. So yes, do not be tempted to buy anything. All you need is that relaxing massage. We walked out of that building with a bottle of something that promised to flush toxins our of our liver. We took it but there’s no proof that it worked.
If you intend to ditch guided tours and decide to take matters in your own hand, learn how Jaclyn managed to visit Mutianyu section of the Great Wall on her own for about USD 45. Love how detailed her post is, and how lovely the photographs are!
Now if you’re all revved-up to go conquer the most difficult part of the Great Wall in order to take one of those gorgeous, crowd-free pictures of the wall, I would suggest reading Jen’s incredibly detailed post on how to accomplish that.
It’s always sad to leave such an important site. And while it’s a major touristy activity, the fact remains that it truly is a beautiful and remarkable feat of engineering.
Everyone is different. Some people could spend all day at the Great Wall, hike for hours, and enjoy every second of it. Masood and I, however, spent about three hours and were done for the day. Whichever way you choose to do it, walking across the Great Wall of China is just one of those iconic travel moments everyone should try at least once in their lives.
So, which part of the Great Wall would you choose if you had the chance to visit Beijing? Would you take the easy route (which turned out not too easy for people with my fitness level, obviously)? Or do you prefer waking up at dawn and walk across the hardest part of the wall for the entire day?