Friday, June 17, 2011

Must-See Destinations: The Great Wall

Remember when I started a series on Must-See Destinations vs. Photo-Only Attractions?  And then I only covered mediocre attractions and never got around to the good stuff?

This week, fresh off a recent visit to Beijing, I'm going to cover the Big Daddy of China destinations: the Great Wall of China.  There aren't many places in the world that have given me such a giddy feeling of "I can't believe I'm here.  Oh my gosh.  This is so much cooler than even I could have imagined."

Now I'm a five-time veteran of the Great Wall, having visited five different sites in four different seasons (chilly winter, gorgeous green spring, sunny summer, and rainy fall).  I have adopted a theory that it's almost impossible to have a bad time at the Great Wall of China.  This theory probably doesn't hold up if you're a Mongol invader from the Middle Ages.

The Great Wall stretches east to west across much of northern China.  It ranges from a clay mound in the west to impressive, tourist-filled restored sections within driving distance of Beijing.  More information about the different Beijing sections is here.

Click any picture to enlarge

In order of their distance from Beijing, I have been to Badaling (closest, first-opened), Juyongguan, Mutianyu, Jinshanling, and Simatai (least restored).  Below, I will rank them in order of least favorite to favorite.

June 2011, with a friend's tour


Crowded, smelly, has a large tourist complex and parking lot that appear in many views

Not far from Beijing, has shopping and food at the base, some nice views across the valley

Why I ranked it #5:
I think this site actually has nicer views than Badaling, and about equally as crowded as Badaling.  I ranked it last because people really aren't taking care of it.  There's graffiti everywhere, the guard towers smelled strongly of urine, and my friend's shoes got puked on.

October 2009, with a friend's tour


Crowded, has a large tourist complex and parking lot that appear in many views, has a high ratio of Chinese tourists to foreign tourists, which is fine but only if you like having your picture taken by strangers.

Closest and most convenient from Beijing, has shopping and food at the base (including Starbucks!)

Why I ranked it #4:
Badaling is good if you only have a short time to see the Wall, but it's crowded and touristy.  In my opinion, Juyongguan and Badaling are the most convenient but really don't compare to the next few sites.

January 2006, on a short-term trip with my college church


August 2009, as part of my teaching organization's training



Takes a couple hours to get there.  Possibly over-restored.

Good views, not too crowded, has lots of options.  (For example, you can climb the stairs up to the wall or just take a cable car.  You can climb down, or take the Alpine slide.)  Pretty smooth hiking.

Why I ranked it #3:
I think Mutianyu is the best all-around option for most people.  It's close enough that you can do it in a day and easily be back for supper.  It accommodates almost all skill levels for hiking.  The views are great, the crowds are manageable, and it's fun without being too commercialized.

Jinshanling to Simatai
May 2010 with my family
10K hike from Jinshanling to Simatai


At least 3 hours away from Beijing, expensive (both transportation and having to pay entrance fees at both locations).  The 10K hike would be tough for someone with knee problems or poor conditioning, but you don't have to do the hike; you can visit each location separately and do a normal up-and-down.

Spectacular views, no crowds (we hardly saw anyone), minimal restoration, minimal development, and a fun, long hike.

Why I ranked it #1/2:
This was my most beautiful and most enjoyable Great Wall experience.  For much of the day, it was just us and the wall and the beautiful mountains.  If you have a whole day and don't mind paying a driver about 1000RMB to get there and back, this is definitely the way to go.

I've enjoyed all of my Great Wall experiences, but the most magical were my first time (Mutianyu 2006) and the beautiful hike between less-restored sections (Jinshanling to Simatai 2010).  If you want convenience or shopping, stick close to Beijing.  If you want a more beautiful, less crowded, less developed experience, go to the farther sites.  And now I'll leave it to you to determine where I took the Great Wall photo from my blog banner.

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