It is the longest wall in the world and one of the most awe-inspiring – a remarkable feat of ancient architecture winding its way over rugged country and steep mountains. Easily accessible from China’s capital, it’s a must-visit for anyone holidaying in the country. But to ensure you get the most out of your visit, some savvy planning is essential. Here is some expert advice to help you out.
1. Choose the right section of the Wall to visit
The Great Wall of China spans more than 8,000km from east to west across the north of China, so which section to visit is the first thing to decide on. For families with children and the elderly – or for those who just want to take it a little easier – the Mutianyu section is ideal. Just a two-hour drive from downtown Beijing, it is the closest section to the capital and very tourist-friendly. Thanks to extensive restoration work, this stretch, featuring 23 original-style watchtowers, is probably the best-preserved example of what the Great Wall once was (and the easiest on the body!). If you’d like to keep the walking to a minimum, you can take a cable car up to Watchtower 15, and even ride a toboggan down from the highest point. Visitors usually spend two to three hours exploring this section of the wall.
For those who love trekking, head to the Gubeikou section of the Great Wall and gear up for a trek to the Great Wall at Jinshanling. The journey, which covers roughly 18km, will take about six hours and will require the guidance of a local guide, as there is a restricted military zone you wouldn’t want to enter by mistake. For the Jinshanling section alone, you’ll need about three to four hours.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling, affording magnificent views of the Wall winding along the surrounding mountain ridges and brilliant sunsets, is also a popular stretch for avid photographers. And fret not, you don’t have to trek there – it’s roughly a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Beijing. This section of the wall is less restored than the Mutianyu stretch, so you’ll be able to experience the Wall in its more authentic form. (The Jinshanling section is closed for maintenance and renovation at the moment, and will open again later in the year.)
If you’re keen to venture further afield and perhaps spend a night or two near the Wall, travel to the eastern end near Shanhaiguan, a four-hour drive from the capital. The Shanhaiguan section is quite touristy and the trekking is not as extensive as the Jinshanling section. You can also spend a night in the local farmers’ guesthouses and enjoy the area when most of the crowd has left. While you’re here, be sure to check out the Dongjiakou section, known as one of the best-preserved sections of the Wall.
SEE ALSO: A local’s guide to Beijing, China
2, Visit at the right time
The view of the Great Wall varies from season to season. In spring and summer, you’ll see the mountains covered with spring flowers, green foliage and fruit trees such as peach, pear and apricot. Autumn offers a great view of the yellow and red leaves from the Wall, and in winter, the landscape is transformed into a blanket of white as it becomes covered in snow.
During the day, the best time to visit is first thing in the morning, when it’s quiet, before the majority of tourists arrive. You’ll likely spend two or three hours on the Wall – or longer if you are planning to do some trekking. If you can stay at one of the guesthouses nearby, don’t miss the opportunity to go up the Wall for a breathtaking sunrise or sunset.
3. Be well prepared
Visiting the Great Wall is usually at least a day trip. Prep for that by checking the weather before you set off. You’ll also definitely need sunglasses and sunscreen if you visit in summer, as there is no shelter on the Wall, except in the watchtowers. Take some water and snacks with you too (you can buy refreshments near the Wall, but they are usually more expensive). Make sure you wear comfortable clothes and good shoes, as there are lots of steps on the Wall and some parts are very steep.
4. Choose your tour package carefully
It’s hard to reach the Great Wall by public buses or taxis; the easiest options are hiring a private car, which can cost 300 yuan to 700 yuan (US$44 to US$103) for a return journey, or booking a tour. There are lots of tour operators offering day tours to the Great Wall. Before deciding, check how large the group is, the section(s) you’ll visit, the amount of time you can spend there, if there are any stops at local craft factories or shops (best avoided) and what else the package covers.
5. Experience the Wall in a different way
Every year in May, several hundred people lace up for the Great Wall Marathon. Held at the Wall’s Huangyaguan Pass in Tianjin, it is considered one of the world’s most challenging adventure marathons due to the extreme course conditions: participants have to negotiate their way up and down more than 20,000 stone steps of varying heights, and across uneven sections that are little more than rubble. Keen? It’ll cost you US$200 (and a good pair of running shoes!). For more information, go to great-wall-marathon.com.
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.