Day three started with an early wake up. We didn’t get the call with our exact pickup time for our Great Wall tour until 8:45 the evening before, when I was already drifting off to sleep after our busy day of sightseeing in Beijing (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs). The jet lag here the first few days has been brutal in the afternoon and evening. But I still prefer it to the first few days in Europe where you have to drag yourself through the morning.
The kids weren’t thrilled with getting up early, but it is what we had to do. All of us made it downstairs to the restaurant by 6:15, just after the restaurant opened. Normally, we would eat in the lounge. But the lounge doesn’t open until 6:30, making the restaurant our only option. Fortunately, it was still free. We had to be ready in the lobby at 6:55.
Heading off on our tour to the Mutianyu Great Wall
Our bus picked us up about 5 minutes after the scheduled departure time. The kids amused themselves in the interim with the foosball table near the front door. We would be back multiple times to enjoy this.
Our tour bus made a few more stops, picking up some more people for the tour. The bulk of them got on at the final stop. I would find out later that those were the folks who had booked a different version of the tour which requires you to transport yourself to the pick up point. The tour I’d booked included hotel pick up, which was super convenient.
As we started our drive out to the Mutianyu Great Wall, our guide launched in to a brief history of the wall. She asked us to call her “Claire”, which obviously isn’t her real name. She said her real name once and I completely understood why she gave us any easy English name. Half of the patrons were Chinese, however, so it made me wonder what name she gave them. The mixed-group tour also meant that the history of the wall (and everything else) were given in both English and Mandarin.
The bulk of the construction on the Great Wall was completed during three separate dynasties, the . Literally thousands of kilometers of wall were added during each phase on construction. I marveled at how this was possible. Until she explained that the soldiers of the Qin Dynasty drove the workers mercilessly. Many died, and they were subsequently buried and the wall constructed over them. Which also makes the great Wall the longest tomb in the world.
In reality, much of the wall constructed during the period of the Qin Dynasty no loner remains. It would be over 1,500 years old at this point, and it is eroded away. The current sections (mostly refinished themselves) were originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty, a much later period than the Qin. But the idea is the same: keep out all those foreign invaders, whether they were the Huns, the Mongols or the Manchu.
The kids listened during her explanation, but didn’t catch too much. English is their second language, and they have difficulty understanding some foreign accents.
First glimpse of the wall!
We made a pit stop a little over an hour after starting our journey from Beijing. Our guide told us to use the facilities, but don’t wander off. She would be handing out our tickets. The tour price included the entry tickets to the Great Wall, but it did not include either the cable car or the chairlift/toboggan. The Mutianyu Great Wall has these facilities available to transport visitors to and from the wall. The alternative is hiking over 1,000 steps from the valley below, and even I decided that transportation is in order.
It’s not cheap, but also not crazy expensive, at ~$17 per person, although kids are half price. As I’d heard great things about the toboggan run headed down from the eastern side of the wall, we opted for the chairlift/toboggan combo ticket. You unfortunately cannot mix and match the cable car with the toboggan, as the services are operated by two different companies. This would have been the most ideal, and I’m sure many other people desire to buy this exact ticket. I wanted to hike the west side of the wall, up to the highest point, and then head down the toboggan on the more eastern side. But no. Not possible.
Tickets in hand, we headed back toward the bus. That’s when I saw it. In the distance the wall was plainly visible at the top of the ridges in the distance. Even from where we were, at least a couple miles away, it was a marvel. How the Chinese constructed thousands of miles through steep mountains is incredible.
Truly a wonder
The view just got better and better as we drove closer to the wall, eventually parking in a lot downhill of the main terrace where the tourist facilities begin. At this point we were free to head up on our own, although our guide did accompany most of the group up until we reached the stations for the cable car and the chairlift. There is also a great map of this section of the wall, including the transportation facilities.
The wall towered above us at this point. The kids and I headed to the line for the chairlift, which was minimal. Part of the benefit of booking the tour that we did is that they do their best to get you to the wall early. The ride up to the wall was quick, but man did it provide some awesome views.
I wish our ticket gave us day pass privileges. It’d be nice to ride it down again for the view the other way before heading back up.
The chairlift brought us right to the wall. I could hardly believe we were actually here. It was as impressive as I’d imagined.
Built at the ridge-line, the wall snaked up the hill on both sides of us. The views were already impressive, and we hadn’t even climbed that high yet!
Since we’d arrived at the east side, I decided that climbing up to the highest accessible point on the east side made the most sense. It would take too long to head to the west and we probably would not be able to reach the high point on that side before needing to turn around to catch the toboggan ride down. Plus, the kids would enjoy a more leisurely pace. They wanted to take a break about every ten steps. The stairs of the wall were quite steep.
I had a good laugh at the power poles cemented in the middle of the wall. There is essentially zero chance anything like this would fly in the U.S. at such a historic monument. Definitely no National Environmental Policy Act to guide decision making here. I wonder if they even have environmental consultants in China.
But enough musings in regard to my work. The wall was amazing. The changing slope, the solid stone construction, and the insanely steep stairs at times. I loved this section.
The kids weren’t always as thrilled. Sure, it is the Great Wall. But it is a huge hill to climb. And hills are not a welcome sight in their book. I gently coaxed them along, stopping often to enjoy the view and chuckle at their antics. You’d think the hike up the stairs was going to kill them.
Almost every watchtower is worth stopping at. And the Mutianyu section of the wall has many. There are 5, I believe, just in the section between the chairlift station and the top of the east side. The distance really isn’t that far. I recall our guide mentioning that the watchtower concentration is well above average in this section, yet another reason why it is a great pick to visit.
Man, what views. You can see the rest of the restored Mutianyu Great Wall, and un-restored sections beyond on both side. This was such a surreal moment for me. The Great Wall is something I’ve seen in many photos and have hoped to visit for a while. Standing on it with my own two feet, feeling the stones, and taking in its vastness and grandeur was one of those perfect travel moments.
We eventually made it to the very top, with the best view of the wall sweeping down before us and back up in the distance. We met a few fellow Americans at this point who kindly offered to take our photo. It is one of my favorites from the entire trip, if not my top pick.
The kids did enjoy themselves, despite their complaining. They happily scampered down as I carefully plodded along behind on our descent.
We ended up heading up the other side a little ways, but I could tell it would take us far too long to get to the cable car station, let alone start any meaningful ascent on the west side. Plus, the wall was starting to get a bit crowded.
I’d heard of the crowds that you can sometimes experience when visiting the Great Wall, but I’d picked Mutianyu to avoid some of them. We were spoiled during our first ascent, hardly seeing anyone. Now I know why the tour company heads out so early!
Highlight for the kids: toboggan ride down
We returned to the cable car and toboggan station to head back down. We could have easily stayed another hour at the wall, but we’d seen plenty and enjoyed ourselves immensely already. Plus, the kids were itching to ride the toboggan. The Mutianyu toboggan run takes you back down to the station at the base. The track is quite long. I’m not sure exactly how many meters (or kilmoeters), but the descent takes several minutes, unless I am mistaken. It really depends how fast you go. Which depends a whole lot on how cautious the person in front of you is.
Since there were three of us, we’d have to split up for the ride. Since my older son is only 8, he would need to ride with me, while my daughter could ride by herself. We had just made it to the front of the line when the operator abruptly stopped everyone. I wondered if there was an issue with the run, be he didn’t seem worried in the slightest.
It became clear soon enough what the reason was: it was coffee time. I guess everything else would have to wait. After rinsing his cup out and filling it again with some hot coffee from a thermos, he spent a good 10 minutes enjoying his break.
We even had a few moments of fun interaction. Upon filling the cup, the operator offered it to me, in surprisingly good English. I declined, politely. Or so I thought. He insisted, even through another protest. Finally, I decided to take a sip, after which he smiled.
Then he asked how old I was. My answer of “29” shocked him, eliciting a “no way”. He was equally incredulous at my daughter’s age. He has a child who is barely a teenager, but would have had him much later, as he is well into his 40s.
When the coffee was finally consumed, he waved us on. We mounted our toboggans, controlled by a single brake handle. This was gonna be fun!
I gave the lady ahead of me plenty of distance, knowing my son would want to speed down the hill. We had a fantastic time. I wish I had photos, but the advisement against it and the need to control the toboggan definitely made me keep my phone in my pocket. They do take your photo on the way down, and you can buy it for like $7. I cannot remember the exact price, but this isn’t Disneyland. Ours turned out so well that I decided to purchase both.
It was an exhilarating experience, and I was sad it was over. Sure, we could do it again, but it would cost another $17 per person. Instead, a snack and a break were in order before we headed back down to the restaurant for lunch.
Lunch and return to Beijing
We arrived early to lunch, mainly to get out of the cold. It was scheduled for 1:40, a bit late for us, especially after an early breakfast. But it made sense to give people the most time possible at the wall.
The ride back to Beijing was uneventful. There was little explanation. I’m sure the tour guide understood that we’d all had an active morning, had just filled ourselves with Chinese food, and were only looking to nap on the overly warm bus. Which is precisely what I did. The kids started to nod as well. There really isn’t a lot to see between Beijing and the Mutianyu Great Wall anyway.
When we neared Beijing, we had to decide where to get off the bus. Rather than take us all back to our hotels, the tour makes three stops, near three different subway stations. The one closest to the heart of Beijing was actually within walking distance of our hotel, so I chose that one. I thought about getting off earlier with the kids to head over and see the Olympic sites, but given how late it was and how tired we were, it was better to pass.
We wandered a bit along Wangfujing, grabbing some food to take back to the hotel to eat in. If only I’d realized that the lounge serves a full dinner. This was the night I figured this out, heading up there for ~15 minutes after the kids were laid down to sleep. Could have saved us $30 in food. I’ll be much better at figuring out what “happy hour” entails at the next juncture. Never did I assume this term would apply to a full dinner spread.
I think it was better anyway that we ate in the room. I had two rather tired and grumpy kids. We’d get to bed early.
Three days down, two left
Thursday marked the middle of our five days in Beijing. We’d already seen a lot, but there was still a good amount left that I wanted to do. Tuesday and Wednesday were packed full of sightseeing, and Friday would be, too. I’d been considering taking a day trip on Saturday to Tianjin, but after our outing to the wall, I started to waffle on that plan. The kids would need a down day before three more days of adventure in Hong Kong!