The Great Wall is 5,500 miles long so unless you are planning a rather long vacation than you are going to have to narrow down where you want to go. I did extensive research before traveling to this “wonder of the world” and found that visiting Mutianyu was the best spot for getting the most out of a trip to The Great Wall.
Reasons for visiting Mutianyu over the other sites
Restored: This section has been restored to the way that it would have originally looked in 550 AD.
Location: It is located 40 miles north of Beijing making it very accessible.
Crowd Size: While it is close to Beijing, it isn’t the closest. Badaling is closer and so most tourists end up there making the place unbearably crowded. Mutianyu is crowded as well, but bearable.
Accessible: It is easily accessed. They have put in a cableway and a luge. These things make it feel more like a theme park then a historical Wonder of the World, but they do make it easier to access for those with disabilities or young children.
Geography: Mutianyu is in a gorgeous location. Most of the Great Wall is along the highest parts of the hills and mountains, but this area is truly stunning, especially if you can catch it on a day when the wind is blowing the right direction (see #1 on “know before you go” below). The mountains are covered with lush trees making the wall look as if it snakes through the treetops.
Unrestored Option: If you are adventurous you can explore the unrestored section of Jiankou, which is regarded as one of the wildest and most dangerous sections of The Great Wall. We did portions of this section and you can read about that here.
How to get to Mutianyu from Beijing
Take the extremely efficient Beijing subway system to Dongzhimen Station. The subway is by far the most cost-efficient way to navigate Beijing, but at first, it will seem a bit overwhelming for some. Use the automated machines to get tickets for where you want to go. Make sure you check the signs on the platforms and stand on the side going the direction you want to go. Check the maps above the doors once on the train to see your stop in relation to the train’s current location.
Navigating Dongzhimen Station
Once at Dongzhimen Station make your way to the bus terminal (aka Public Transport Hub) located inside the same massive complex (take the B-station exit). It is a large complex, but signs are clear and in multiple languages. The Bus Station is underground in what amounts to a massive parking garage type structure. The bus cue lines are clearly labeled and the buses themselves have the numbers displayed on a digital placard.
Finding the Right Stop in Huairou
Take the 916 Express (12 RMB/person) to Huairou and get off on the Huairou Beidajie stop. Tell the bus driver that you want to visit Mutianyu and he will let you know when to get off and switch buses. It takes about an hour to get to Huairou. Huairou Beidajie is about the 6th stop in Huairou. Don’t worry people are nice and if you get off at the wrong location you can always find a minibus to Mutianyu, it will just cost slightly more (50-60 RMB from Huairou).
Once at Huairou Beidajie wait for the H23 or H24 local bus (5 RMB/person). It will go about 18km and Mutianyu will be about the 8th stop.
Rejoice, because you have made it. Make note of where the bus drops you off as this will be where the bus will pick you up and how you make your way back. You will not be able to see the Wall from the bus stop. You will enter the park here, but you will have to take a park bus the rest of the way up to where you can start your journey to the Wall on foot or take the cableway up.
Alternate Option for Visiting Mutianyu
If all of that sounded just a bit too complicated you could always hire a taxi to take you, it will just cost you substantially more. Keep in mind that most taxis in China don’t have meters on them so always negotiate the fare before you get in.
Know Before You Go
Pollution! Unfortunately, like most of the areas in and around China’s major cities, this area can be shrouded in dense pollution. I would suggest wearing a mask while visiting Mutianyu (you’ll fit right in with the locals). If the wind is blowing the right way you might get lucky and have a clear day. It is also surprising when there is an important meeting happening in town how the air quality can be changed from barely being able to see your hand in front of your face to being able to see miles. This can happen overnight. It is kind of impressive albeit rather disgusting (this is not an exaggeration, it happened while we were in Beijing).
The Mutianyu section like most of The Great Wall is very steep in areas. There is one area near the west side of the wall that gets very steep. The views from the top are amazing, but if you aren’t in the best shape take it slow and plan for more time.
For smaller crowd sizes visit in the shoulder seasons (April, May, Sept., & Oct.). Just be careful to avoid Chinese holidays during these periods.
China’s delayed travel policy. Everything I read before we went said that the bus and trains ran on schedule and for the most part that was true for us and may be true in general, but when it isn’t, it still is. What I mean is that if they are running late they will not announce it and they will not tell you. We took an overnight train that was more than 2 hours late, causing us to miss a connection. They never announced it, they didn’t apologize, and while they did help us make another connection they charged me for it and I had to wait in a long line for the privilege. I also noticed that they would announce that trains were running on time when the time they were to arrive had passed and the train still hadn’t arrived. My suggestion is to leave yourself some time for delays whenever you are taking public transit of any kind.
The Google Maps app doesn’t work in China, but Apple Maps does.
If you can find the Mandarin name for a place, print that out on a card and put the English translation on the back of the card. This will allow you to show people on the street where you want to go and only show them in Mandarin. We printed both on the same side and people seemed to get confused by having the English on the same side. It was like they tried to read both, which confused them. When we just gave them the Mandarin, people seemed to be able to point us in the right direction. I would also suggest checking the Mandarin translations with someone fluent as Google’s translations don’t always get the sentence structure correct. I would see if the person at the front desk in your Beijing hotel can help you with this.
While you are at the front desk grab the hotel’s business card. If all else fails you can hand a taxi driver the card and they will be able to get you back.
Try to learn some Mandarin. Words like, yes, no, thank you, where, when, and how much help to communicate intent. These small words can go a long way to help you traverse the culture when visiting Mutianyu.
Don’t use ATMs in China as fraud is reported to be rampant. We traveled with all our money dispersed through all our bags and on our persons. Exchanging the money a little at a time at the hotels or local banks as we went. Be careful as smaller village hotels will not exchange money and you will have to go looking for a bank.
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