Whether you're looking for a private luxury view, a theme park atmosphere, or a rugged hike off the beaten track, the Great Wall has it all. With portions of the Wall disappearing almost entirely, placed under state protection, or renovated and outfitted with amusement park trappings, China travelers are faced with a question similar to the one that confronted northern barbarians eager to penetrate the imposing defenses all those years ago: Where in the Great Wall's 6,400 km length is the best place to stage your assault?
As most visitors make Beijing their starting point, this article will focus on the pros and cons of sections of the Great Wall accessible as day trips from the capital. Click here for a more comprehensive run-down of the whole Wall from its eastern extreme at seaside Shanhaiguan all the way to its desert-bound terminus at Jiayuguan in Gansu.
The Great Wall at Badaling: Join the Crowd
Pros: Easiest to reach and climb; some wheelchair access.
Cons: Your photos (and experience) will be ruined by flocks of tourists.
Best for: Travelers with disabilities & people who love Disneyworld.
Located just 44 miles (70 km) from Beijing, the Great Wall at Badaling is by far the most popular destination for foreign tourists. Its convenient proximity to the capital and relatively easy-to-manage, restored steps make Badaling a prime choice for visitors with minimal time, older tourists, or people with medical conditions. That said, it's still a lot of work to walk the Wall at Badaling as it snakes up and down rugged mountainsides. It's just that you've got the option of a cable car (RMB 80 round trip) and frequent stops for refreshing drinks peddled by vendors at nearly every battlement and tower.
If this stretch of reconstructed Ming Dynasty-era Wall itself isn't enough for you (or proves too much), there's always the movie version: The Great Wall Circle Vision Theater presents short films on the Wall's history to complement the exhibits on view in the China Great Wall Museum, which is located at the end of the pedestrian street by the cable car ticket office.
The major, and some would say damning, drawback of Badaling is the crowds. During the summer high season, you won't be the only barbarian storming the battlements, far from it. A hot and sticky human gridlock awaits those who hit the Wall on summer weekends, though weekdays and off-season (Novemer to March) visits can be considerably less packed. If you've got a crowd phobia, don't do Badaling. Ever-present hawkers, selling everything from t-shirts and cans of beer, to sausages and postcards are also unavoidable.
If hordes of tour groups don't phase you, then either join them, do it alone by catching the No. 919 bus from Deshengmen on the Second Ring Road (RMB 12), or arrange a driver from your hotel.
The Great Wall at Juyongguan: A Cloud Platform with a View
Pros: Closest to Beijing but not crowded.
Cons: Lacks the classic Great Wall look.
Best for: History buffs.
Less overdone (read: tacky) than Badaling and even closer to downtown Beijing is the Juyongguan (Juyong Pass) section of the Wall. Badaling is actually the northern mouth of this valley pass that has historically been a strategic key to Beijing's defenses, with Nan Guan (Southern Pass) forming the other point of access to the valley. In between, there's a stretch of Wall perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) and the famed Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) Cloud Platform, a 9.5 meter-tall white marble base with an enormous archway running through it that in past years served as the foundation for three white watch towers.
The site is dramatic, with the mountains sweeping up out of the valley on both sides, and though it is not as lush as it was in years gone by when the site was particularly famous for the annual blooms of wildflowers on the surrounding slopes, it is still a place of great beauty and power. The perfect Great Wall site for those pressed for time and not in the mood for the crowds at Badaling, a circuit walk of the fortifications takes about two hours. Alternatively, if you've got the time to spare, why not spend the night at the foot of the Great Wall.
The Great Wall at Mutianyu: Restored Glory
Pros: Accessible without being overrun with other tourists.
Cons: Extensive restoration has left a slightly sterile atmosphere.
Best for: Seniors & tourists with a packed schedule.
Built to divert attacks from Badaling, Mutianyu now benefits from the massive popularity of its neighboring section of Wall, at least from the point of view of those who would prefer more Wall and fewer tourists and vendors. East of Juyongguan, and approximately 70 km from Beijing, Mutianyu is one of the better-preserved sections of the Great Wall. Comprised of 22 towers and roughly 2,250 meters in length, this granite Ming-era stretch runs up and down rolling hills. A great alternative to crowded Badaling and boasting more of a classic "Great Wall" look than Juyongguan, Mutianyu is particularly beautiful in the fall when the surrounding wooded hills flare with autumn colors.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling: Get Rugged
Pros: Stunning vistas and authentic looking ruins.
Cons: A solid 2-to-3-hour drive from downtown Beijing.
Best for: Photographers & hikers.
While the aforementioned portions of the Great Wall are close to Beijing and are relatively hazard free, more adventurous travelers should consider heading northeast to rugged, partially restored Jinshanling. Although significantly farther from town than both Badaling and Juyongguan (it takes about three hours, with traffic, to get there), Jinshanling’s steep ridges and crumbling steps keep climbers alert, while breathtaking views out over the mountains of Hebei Province make the exertion worthwhile.
Of course, there's the almost ubiquitous cable car (RMB 50 roundtrip, RMB 35 one way) that will drop you off on top, but the point to Jinshanling is to hike, climb and clamber over stretches of Wall that haven't yet received an extreme makeover.
Though there are hawkers holed up in many of the towers, gone is the congestion of site closer to Beijing, and you’ll likely be glad to purchase a seriously marked-up bottle of water after doing time in the scorching sun.
The Great Wall at Jiankou: Get Even More Rugged
Pros: You’ll feel like you discovered the Wall yourself.
Cons: A challenging hike which can be dangerous.
Best for: Adventurers & rock climbers.
The final stop on this tour of Great Wall sites within striking distance of Beijing (76 km) is Jiankou. Like Jinshanling, Jiankou requires a full day to get to, explore and return from, but it's worth it.
With trees and shrubbery bursting forth from crumbling bricks, Jiankou is one of the Great Wall sections sometimes dubbed the Wild Wall. Indeed, Jiankou is not for the faint of heart, but is highly recommended for the intrepid and physically fit. Steep, difficult and sometimes dangerous climbs are rewarded with dramatic views of the unrestored Wall as it winds its way through the surrounding hillsides.
Be warned, due to its state of semi-neglect and disrepair, Jiankou should not be attempted solo or in inclement weather. Hikers have gotten lost, injured and some have even plummeted to their deaths. Don’t let that put you off, however. A good pair of hiking shoes, plenty of water and a cautious approach will see you through one of the Wall’s most thrilling hikes. For a study in contrasts, head west from Jiankou past the vertiginous Zhengbeilou tower to reach the well-restored section of Mutianyu, where shaky legs will be grateful for a cable-car or toboggan ride down and it will be easier to find a ride back to the city.