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China 9: The Great Wall

A really, really long time ago a myriad of wall fortifications began to appear in the north of China, partly to protect against invaders from Inner Asia. Over time some of these were joined up to form one massive Great Wall. We couldn’t go to Beijing and not get up close and personal with one of the most incredible man-made structures ever built.

On the recommendation of a friend, we booked a tour guide called Joe to take us out to the wall and visit a cloisonné factory afterwards. He proved to be excellent.

Thanks to the early start it was a freeflowing journey initially on the highway then off it as we wound toward the hills. It was an interesting drive. Joe pointed out one of China’s many ghost cities where huge investment is being sunk into new infrastructure for which there is currently no demand. I saw high voltage towers and briefly thought of work.

Incredibly, given the previous few days, it was bluebird. No smog! We couldn’t believe it and Joe was rapt as well.

Today there are a few restored sections along the Great Wall. The most famous is Badaling, described as a full-scale (and China’s no.1) tourist attraction. The result can be this kind of thing during China’s peak national holiday season. Horrors.

Badaling’s popularity made us want to choose elsewhere, though anywhere was going to be busy. Because China. And we would be visiting on a public holiday. We studied some excellent resources and decided on Mutianyu, further to the east.


Call me blonde, but I didn’t truly appreciate the mountainous terrain on which the wall is built until we drove up to the Mutianyu base and saw it perched on steep inclines high above us. Joe parked and took us to buy our tickets. Faced with the choices of gondola or chairlift to get up to the wall we chose the open air option of the latter. Actually there was another choice, but hiking seemed ridiculous.

We dismounted without catastrophe and then we were on the Great Wall. Joe had come up with us to take a couple of photos which was nice, then left us to it – “take as long as you want”. Would we conquer the wall or would it conquer us?


The Mutianyu wall was first built in the 6th century and was one of the first sections to be renovated. The restored stretch is 2.25km long with 22 watchtowers. We were relatively close to the eastern end and watchtower no.1 so off we trotted. As Joe promised, it got very steep. With my squeamishness about heights I was a little anxious but by staying close to the side, eyes down, one step at a time (aka walking like a nana), I managed.

We made it to the end, lungs and legs burning. A tout was inside the watchtower selling cold drinks – we had to respect the guy, hauling his heavy stash of water up there presumably every day.

The views were incredible.

Beyond the watchtower the wall continued in an unrestored state. Guards can be stationed here but there were none at this time and we clambered through an old door opening for a short explore. Joe had warned us against this for safety reasons but we were super keen to see the wild wall up close. It was fascinating, and the contrast to the restored wall amazing. Out here it was massively overgrown and crumbling.

I was intrigued that the wall here branches off in two directions: the main wall continues east while another section, a spur, heads south for a kilometre before stopping. It’s estimated that all of the walls and branches together measure over 20,000km. Astounding really. However, it’s also estimated that while 20% of the wall is in reasonable condition and 30% is in ruins, 50% has already gone.

We started walking back west toward the far end.

It was clear enough to see to Beijing

It was clear enough to see to Beijing

I couldn't believe it when I saw a squirrel!

I couldn’t believe it when I saw a squirrel!

It was starting to get reasonably crowded in places. The going was slow anyway – in the hot sun with all the uphill and downhill on legs that were hardly fresh to begin with it was knackering. Still, we were on the Great Wall!

The restored wall may be fancier than when the original wall was new but its key characteristics have been maintained. One of the unique features of Mutianyu is that the parapets have ‘teeth’ on both sides which enabled defenders to engage enemies from either side of the wall.

The only enemy today was the terrain and in the distance we could see a killer hill which we’d need to tackle if we were fixated on making it to the final tower. We began to have serious doubts, even fuelled with what had become our daily Snickers bar habit.

We made it to the base of the hill and part way up before pulling the pin. I guess we could have taken our time and kicked our by then fairly sorry butts up there, but time was getting on and lunch back down the bottom was starting to have a lot of pulling power.

It’s a bit hard to tell but I think we may have reached 19 or 20 of the 22 watchtowers. We trudged back to the chairlift terminal with only a fleeting feeling of not having fully conquered Mutianyu. This had been an amazing experience.

We found Joe and proceeded to one of the local eateries. While it was fantastic to sit down in the shade for a while, lunch itself was forgettable. Except for this guy.


(Just to be clear, that guy was not lunch! 🙂 )

We left to find the cloisonné factory.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hayley!! I am green with envy, and in total awe of the pair of you. What a stunning account of your trip to the Great Wall and what fabulous photos – seriously jaw-dropping. What a fantastic experience. It’s somewhere that I’ve always longed to visit, since a young girl this place has fuelled my imagination. I’m so pleased that you made it there and thank you for your great account of the visit – loads of facts and interesting things that I had no idea about. WOW WOW WOW! 😀

    7 December 2014
    • Your comment made my day Lottie, thank you! 🙂

      8 December 2014
  2. The photos are just great and I love how you include all the wonderful information. Looks as if you two had a marvelous time on the China wall. What a place indeed. I like the pic of the monks. So colorful.

    8 December 2014
    • Thank you Yvonne, sincerely appreciated. We’ll remember that day forever. You can probably imagine the number of photos that got taken!

      8 December 2014
  3. Fascinating! I had no idea that the wall had branches, nor that so much of it is unrestored. I love the way the wall undulates over the hills. And that is an amazing squirrel photo.

    1 January 2015
    • Thank you! It was so interesting – both the visit and the extra research for the blog. I couldn’t believe that the squirrel a) was there, b) jumped, c) was carrying a nut!

      2 January 2015

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