Avoiding the crush at the Great Wall

Posted: October 30, 2011

Chinese emperors built the Great Wall to keep out rampaging hordes of Mongolian soldiers mounted on horseback streaming down from the north, but no amount of stone and mortar can repel hordes of tourists riding luxury motor coaches. These groups, armed with digital cameras, arrive by the thousands each day. You can avoid them, though, by veering slightly off the beaten path to tour a part of the wall that is less visited. Hiring your own driver will also vastly improve your Great Wall experience.

According to urban legend, the Great Wall is visible from outer space. Like many tales that get passed around from modem to modem, it is wrong. The structure, which follows the undulating contours of the hills and is in some areas no more than an earth-colored pile of dirt and rubble, is barely visible from an airplane flying at 40,000 feet, let alone by an astronaut in low earth orbit.

What may be visible from outer space, though, are the numerous shiny trinkets and tchotchkes sold at the unending souvenir stands at Badaling, the most popular choice for tourists to view the wall. The place should rename itself Bada-bling.

Badaling suffers from its close proximity to Beijing. From the capital it is easy to sign up for a bus tour or hire a taxi that will take you there. Since Badaling is conveniently located right off a multi-lane interstate highway, it is easily accessible to tour buses.

A much less visited section of the wall is 55 miles north of central Beijing at Mutianyu. The last 10 miles are by local roads, which makes it less accessible for tour buses. The ride from Beijing took us about an hour and 10 minutes. Badaling often has more than 100 tour buses in its parking lot; when we went to Mutianyu there were two - and only enough parking spaces for about 10 total.

Visitors do walk through a row of souvenir vendors to get to the entry gate (they can't be avoided wherever tourists congregate), but they are less intrusive here.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall dates from 1368 and was built upon the foundation of an earlier wall from about 550 A.D. Visitors can amble anywhere over a 1.5-mile stretch. The structure is about 14 feet tall and is accessed via a steep hike or a short cable-car ride. Naturally, we opted for the ride.

The view from the peak is superb. During our weekday visit, there were moments when we had entire sections to ourselves. There are 22 watchtowers along the ridgeline, spaced approximately 100 yards apart, dividing a hike into easily manageable portions. As we strolled along the granite walkways from one watchtower to the next, we could imagine what it was like more than 600 years ago to be a solitary guard on the lookout for invaders.

We brought along a few sandwiches from, believe it or not, a Subway shop located near the tram entrance, and enjoyed an impromptu picnic. From our vantage point we took in the view of the wall undulating over the hills in the distance. At this angle it looks like a large gray snake sunning itself in the crisp mountain air.

The day was also perfect for a young couple who were taking pictures before their wedding. We were treated to a modeling session by the bride and groom as the photographer artfully worked them through various poses. That alone demonstrates the solitude here; can you imagine a bride fanning out her wedding gown amid a flock of tourists tromping around?

Instead of signing up for a tour bus, we had hired a driver whom we found by checking recommendations on TripAdvisor. The cost of $150 is not that much more than a bus tour, and the benefits are many. Our guide, Joe, was fluent in English and gave us a personalized history lesson along the way. Joe's greatest value, though, was that we went only to the wall and wherever else that we wanted to go.

A hired driver also offers greater flexibility with timing. Most tour groups leave at first light so they can arrive early and avoid the crowds. Unfortunately, they arrive along with dozens of other tour groups all trying to do the same thing. We asked Joe to pick us up at 10 a.m. We left at a reasonable time and quite often had the place practically to ourselves.

The Great Wall of China is arguably one of the "must see" places in the world. It deserves time for quiet contemplation of its sheer mass and grandeur, as well as the scenic beauty that surrounds it. Unfortunately, the majority of visitors do not get to experience the magical silence of the wall. To do so, go a bit farther afield and travel independently. You'll probably only see the wall once in your life; make it a truly memorable experience.


Information

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is 55 miles north of Beijing.

Hours

Open 365 days a year. April to October, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; November to March, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Admission

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is a Chinese national park. Admission to the park is 40 CNY ($6.25) for adults, 20 CNY ($3.15) for children 12 and under.

The cable car costs 65 CNY ($10.15) for a round-trip for adults, 35 CNY ($5.50) for children 12 and under.

Personal Driver/Guide

www.cometobeijing.com. Ask for Joe.

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