Escaping to the Great Wall is Easy Even When in the Bustling City of Beijing
When in China, you must see the Great Wall. Beijing is an urban cacophony of progress, history, pollution and culture, but after a few days you may hunger for a reprieve. You can still easily escape the hubbub of the city by hiring a driver to take you to the Great Wall. Mutianyu, located just a mere 56 miles from Beijing, is one of the more popular places to access the Great Wall, which means you can expect a fare share of commercialism and tourists. If you hire a driver, leave early in the morning and try to visit mid-week. Keep in mind there is 4,000 miles of wall to explore, so it’s not something you do only once. You should plan on exploring the Great Wall from many different access points.
The history of the wall is mind boggling and even though it failed its original purpose of keeping China’s enemies out (the Mongols, Manchus, Huns, Khitans, or Jurchens); it continues to be an icon of unbelievable achievement. Sections of the wall were built by different emperors and dynasties, but it was when Emperor Qin Shihuang (approx. 210 B.C. — the same emperor of terra cotta soldier fame) connected the dots between each of the previously built sections of artifice that the wall truly became great.
Much of the wall has been restored and large sections are in pristine shape, but Mutianyu also hosts many of the tourist trappings including a Subway franchise, a merchant market selling souvenirs, a chair lift and cable car, and even a toboggan ride down from the wall. If you choose to ascend the wall by foot, the climb to the wall requires scaling a series of stone stairs and pathways that eventually lead to the top. Numbered fortresses punctuate the wall (pay attention where you start so you can find your way back). Even though you are an hour away from Beijing, the air quality can make visibility a challenge. Rest assured if you find yourself in mist and cloud cover, the mystique of the Great Wall still endures.
If you are traveling in the spring or early summer, the countryside will be dotted with lush vegetation and timeless family farms amidst the craggy terrain. The path atop the wall is not smooth but features steps of irregular rise and run that require your careful attention to avoid tripping. Yet, after you adjust your stride based on the changing pattern you fall into a marching cadence following the historic footsteps of the Imperial army. You might meet a few food and drink merchants along the way or you can bring your own picnic and dine either under cover of a sentry lookout or along an adjacent stairway. Save enough energy to make your way back to your driver, or plan on taking the cable car or toboggan ride back to your starting destination.