On my recent trip to Thailand, the cheapest route included a 16 hour layover in Beijing, China on the way back to San Francisco. My flight landed in Beijing at 5:00 AM and would depart that very evening at 9:00 PM, giving me exactly 16 hours to explore the city I had only seen in the pages of my history textbooks. You'd be surprised how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time when you're eager to see one of the 7 Wonders of the World!
Getting to The Great Wall
The Great Wall is about 1 ½ hours drive from Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK). You have a few options to get here, but let me start by advising against a group tour. Yes, it may be the most practical option, but seeing The Great Wall without large groups of tourists crowding around with their selfie sticks made the experience all the more surreal. I felt like I was lost in a moment in time. Take the road less travelled and be your own tour guide -- I promise, you won't regret it.
Transportation options: Taxi / Private Driver, Car Rental, Public Bus, Day / Overnight Tour
Cost: With a taxi/driver, this can cost anywhere from 500 CNY - 1000 CNY ($72 - $145 USD), dependent largely on your negotiating skills, and could be far more cost efficient if you have 2+ passengers. Since we wanted to hire a driver for the full day to knock out The Great Wall and other attractions in the city, the cost of our driver was 1000 CNY. The benefit of getting a driver is that they will drive you to The Great Wall, wait 3-4 hours while you explore and then drive you back. We didn't want to take a taxi or bus and risk getting stuck there when we had a flight to catch!
How to hire a driver: If you're staying overnight in Beijing, ask your hotel concierge to arrange a taxi transfer. If you're on a layover, you can either arrange for a private driver ahead of time or try your luck at negotiating with one when you clear customs at the airport, like I did. (There's always a few private taxi drivers hanging out at the airport, eagerly awaiting the arrival of tourists!)
Choosing a Section of The Great Wall to Visit
While Badaling is most popular part of The Great Wall, it is also the busiest section. This area of the wall is the closest and most accessible from Beijing International Airport. It is highly restored, making it perfect for traveling with families since it is mobile-friendly. Here you'll find gorgeous views and stretches of wall that seem as though they'll never end! A moderate hike, with some steep climbs.
Still quite accessible from Beijing International Airport, the Mutianyu section of the wall is less-travelled. A little farther from the airport, you'll find less people here than Badaling. When you purchase your tickets (see 'Selecting Your Ticket Option' below), you'll have the option of purchasing a cable car ticket along with your entrance fee. The cable car takes you near tower 14, at which point you can choose to go left (towards Jiankou) or right (towards the toboggans). If you decide to forgo the lift, you'll have earned yourself an extra 2 hour hike. I highly recommend taking the cable car so you can spend the additional time exploring further up the mountains! The first part of the Mutianyu section of the wall is still pretty well restored. The farther you go, you'll notice that some parts are crumbling, though still feasible to walk on. There are rolling hills and beautiful scenery to accompany you along the way.
I chose this part of the wall to hike, as I wanted to avoid the crowds, and continued on to Jiankou
If you choose to visit the Mutianyu section of the wall, you can hike from Mutianyu to Jiankou in about 3-4 hours. Take the cable car, which will stop near tower 14. When you reach the top, walk west from tower 14 to tower 23 until you reach a steep journey of stairs (it's not as bad as it looks -- you can do it!). If you keep going, towards the largely unrestored tower, you'll reach the Jiankou section of the wall. It's not exactly legal to hike this part of the wall, but nobody's exactly enforcing it either. When you reach this tower, it will appear to be sealed shut indicating a "dead end". But if you look to the right of the tower, you can climb over the shortest part of the wall, slowly make your way along the edge and hop onto the other side. You'll have made it to some of the original, crumbling parts of the wall, which IMO was the best part!
Disclaimer: Climb at your own risk!
Selecting Your Ticket Option Once You Arrive
Tickets can be purchased at any of the entrances. Since I chose to visit the Mutianyu section, I've listed those prices here. But from what I've read online, it appears that the entrance costs are pretty standard across the Badaling section as well. I did not have to pay any additional fees to cross over into the Jiankou section.
Ticket Options & Cost at Mutianyu
- Entrance fee (includes shuttle transfer to the foot of the wall): 60 CNY ($9 USD)
- Cable Car (ascent and descent from the foot of the wall) 100 CNY / person ($15 USD)
- Toboggan (descent): 60 CNY ($9 USD)
Note: Our driver had the hook up and was able to snag us entrance tickets for 45 CNY/ person!
Tips to Know Before You Go
- Bring cash. I was running short on time and cash, as this was the last leg before heading home. Avoid the extra ATM fees and get your cash exchanged for CNY at any Currency Exchange counter at the airport.
- Check the weather. When I visited mid-December, it was really cold, so I stashed my jacket, boots and scarf in my suitcase amidst my bathing suits and sandals on the way to Thailand. Dress in layers because to my surprise, the sun came out a couple hours later and it was just beautiful!
- Wear comfortable shoes. If you plan to cover a great part of the wall, make sure you wear sturdy shoes. There will be uphill climbs, many stairs and some unrestored sections of the wall. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself along the way.
- Carry water & snacks. If you choose to hike a great deal of the wall, like I did, don't forget to stay hydrated. I didn't plan ahead and ended up purchasing overpriced water from one of the vendors along the way. I was also starving by the time I got back to the entrance!
- Use the restroom at the entrance. There are limited (read: zero) restrooms along the way once you begin your ascent up the wall.
- Arrive as early as possible. To beat all the tour groups, arrive at the gates minutes before opening and you'll have sections of the wall all to yourself! This is also a great way to get those lovely photos without anyone in them!
- Use the buddy system. I completely lost cell signal the moment I entered The Great Wall territory. If you're traveling with friends, make sure you communicate with one another and choose a place to meet if you get separated.
- Stay safe. Some parts farther along the wall are unrestored and may not be monitored, so proceed at your own risk.
How To Get A Crowd-Free Photo
- Avoid peak times. Although the weather was miserably cold for my liking, it was totally worth getting those empty shots and being able to enjoy the beauty of the wall without crowds and crowds of people. The peak busy season is from May to August (think summer vacation) and major holidays. Try traveling during low season and, if possible, choose weekdays over weekends.
- Do not book a group tour. If you join a group tour, chances are, there will be other tour groups arriving at or around the same time. More tour groups = more people in your photos.
- Select a less-touristy section of the wall. Choose Mutianyu and/or Jiankou over Badaling.