The Great Wall is on almost every travelers list when they visit China. But since the Great Wall is really long, there is a confusingly large number of different options how and where to visit. I tried two of them and here is how they compare to each other.
Jinshanling Great Wall
My first visit is with a group of colleagues and we want to go for a wild, less visited and not renovated section of the wall. Hiking on the wall seems a great way to spend time away from crowded and smog-filled Beijing. So we rent a small van and a driver for the day and head out to Jinshangling Great Wall.
The driver takes us to a village from where we can start our hike. There is a ticket office and the villagers deny access to the wall unless we hire one of them as a guide. Discussions ensue until we end up accepting the service (and paying for it). Our guide looks harmless enough with her city shoes and dress and her umbrella but she is a hell of a walker. She makes us run up a steep hill only to discover that it is the wrong one: the wall is gently running along the slope of a hill in the distance.
When we are finally on the wall, some things are as we had imagined. Wild and empty, no tourists and no hawkers at all. However, some things are different. The heat and the guide we never wanted are relentless. “Hurry up” are the only words she knows in English. And we are not far enough from Beijing to escape the Beijing smog. It degrades the views and makes the hour-long hike even more exhausting. (I am sure you know what I mean if you ever had a deep breath of Beijing air.)
Mutianyu Great Wall
Two years later, I return to the Great Wall. This time, we want to take it easy and have no inclination to end up with an unwanted guide. So we book a tour organized by our hostel. The tour includes a bus ride to Mutianyu Great Wall and a meal. Mutianyu has much more of a tourist infrastructure than Jinshangling. There is a cable car to take us up to the wall and even a toboggan run for the way back down. The alternative is to walk one or both ways. Given the limited time at the wall that our tour offers (for sure not by coincidence), we decide to buy tickets for both the cable car and the ride back down.
It is a good choice. It is August again and the heat and smog are just as bad as they were two years earlier. Walking on the wall is exhausting enough without the hike up and down. While I often do not like the Chinese way of “improving” old things, I do not mind the renovation work that has been done here.
I really like hiking in general but I think it is not what you should primarily aim for when you visit the Great Wall near Beijing. At least during the summer heat and smog, there are much nicer places for a hike, also in China. I would recommend to focus more on the aspect of seeing the Great Wall itself and do some beautiful hiking elsewhere.
The wall at Mutianyu is surely less wild than Jinshanling but it is not too Disney-like. For me, visiting just that section would have been enough. If you are really after seeing a more wild section of the wall, you can also sneak out of the allowed area at the end of the Mutianyu section.The wall there looks very much the same as at Jinshanling.
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