|On the Great Wall|
That's kind of what our visit to the Great Wall of China turned out like. For many folks, visiting the Great Wall is a bucket list travel aspiration. Just getting to the Great Wall is enough. But thanks to my kids' circle of well-traveled classmates, they knew that the Great Wall had more to offer. There was no need for me to go online to figure out ways to make the excursion exciting for children. Asking around on the playground was enough. One activity kept coming up over and over again.
Slide down from the top of the wall on the toboggan run.
|Oh yeah, a visit to a Wonder of the World and a toboggan ride|
What's up next? Water slides down the Pyramids of Giza?
How about getting up to the top? In all my Great Wall daydreams, I am already standing on the wall. I never considered how I would actually arrive there. Should we walk up? Goodness sakes, no way!
Ride up on the cable car or chair lift.
|Enclosed Cable Cars from the parking lot to the top|
So, this little bucket list item turned out to be visit the Great Wall and go up on a chair lift and ride a toboggan down. Can you see why the kids were excited? It's as if we went into that ice cream shoppe and said triple scoops, mix-ins, fudge sauce, and chocolate-dipped waffle cones for everyone.
Visiting the Mutianyu SectionWe drive about 1.5 hours from Beijing to reach the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This 2.3 km stretch is the longest restored section of the wall, and everything I read indicates that it's less crowded than the other sections closer to Beijing that are open to tourists. A tamped earth wall was built here in the sixth century, but it was upgraded during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) to a granite fortification with 22 watch towers spread out approximately every 100 meters.
As we pull into the car park, I gaze upwards at the wall snaking its way across the mountain pass about 100 meters above us. To get to the ticket office, we walk through souvenir stalls selling all sorts of Chinese memorabilia including the "I climbed the Great Wall of China" T-shirt that I buy my daughter at the end of our visit. (A week later, I regret not washing this black shirt separately from the rest of the laundry as I pull out a load of now-grey clothes from my washing machine.)
At the bottom, we have three choices for getting up to the wall.
- Walk up the footpath with 4000+ steps for 30-40 minutes
- Ride the enclosed cable car up to Tower 14 with option for return ticket down
- Ride the chair lift up to Tower 6 which includes toboggan ride down
Tip: The cable car and the chair lift are operated by different companies. If you plan on going up on one and returning to the bottom on another, buy both tickets before heading up to the wall.
Going to the TopWe decide on the chair lift and hop on. During the 10 minute ride upwards, I look around taking in the view. The surrounding mountains cloaked with autumn colors on this late-October afternoon are a sight to behold. After the bustling crowds of congested Beijing, Mutianyu is relaxing and literally a breath of fresh air.
|Riding on the Chair Lift|
Finally, we are on top of the wall. Jump for joy! This Great Wall moment is one of the reasons why I desperately wanted to visit China and was willing to go through all the hassle of applying for a visa... and getting rejected, reapplying, and paying the ridiculous rush fee despite having turned in the paperwork weeks beforehand.
Walking on the Wall
While the restored Mutianyu section of the Great Wall has a mostly smooth walking surface, there are still stair steps as it follows the ridgeline up and down. Lots and lots of steps. Merely getting from Tower 19 to Tower 20 involves 450 steps. In other words, don't bother bringing a stroller for your little one.
|The Great Wall stretches far into the distance|
Here, the Great Wall stands 7-8 meters tall and is 4-5 meters wide. This width supposedly enabled a large number of troops and messengers to pass through the route, but I'm thinking that the steps and the narrow doorways of the towers probably served as bottlenecks. This section is unusual in that it has crenelations on both the inner and outer walls, allowing soldiers to fire on the enemy who were approaching as well as those who had breached the wall.
The end of October turns out to be a beautiful time of year to visit. The crowds from Golden Week earlier in the month are gone, and the trees are changing colors. Perhaps being a soldier stationed on the wall was not so bad if you got to stare at this all day.
|The view looking north east from the wall|
The summertime is reputedly hot and more crowded with foreign tourist. My son's friend walked the wall one winter and declared it "the coldest he's ever been." One of my mama friends visited in late March and was surprised to encounter snow. While her older kids enjoyed the sight of their first snowfall (and the younger one cried about freezing toes), they were disappointed to discover that the toboggan run closes when it's snowing, raining, or for other bad weather conditions.
|Mountains start to fade away|
I rein in my teen boy while we are up there. Faced with all this expansive scenery and the top of the Great Wall stretching out before him, all he wants to do is run. He longs to go up and down steps from tower to tower as fast as he can. Instead, he has to make do with going no more than one tower ahead and waiting while the rest of us caught up. Poor guy, because this mama is quite slow, stopping to take photos every few steps.
Exploring Watch Towers
|Tower 5 of the Mutianyu section has a covered 2nd story|
Most of the watchtowers are a single story with stairs leading up to the open rooftop. Tower 5 is unusual in that the 2nd floor is also covered. Back when the Great Wall was still in use as a defense system, lookout guards were stationed on the towers. If they spotted attackers approaching, they lit a signal fire on the roof to warn the surrounding towers. Since the towers were built on hilltops, it was easy to see the smoke during the day or firelight at night. Any guard who saw a signal fire built his own fire in order to pass along the message to alert the troops to ready for battle. Lanterns on poles and flags were other ways to communicate between towers.
|Looking out from a watch tower|
The average Chinese man is shorter than his Western counterpart. Plus, people who lived four centuries ago when the towers were built were shorter than modern folk. Put these two together, and you get granite doorways that were much too low for hubby to walk through upright.
|Watch your Head!|
Tower 1 has not been restored, and its derelict state shows how much work has gone into improving the wall for today's tourists. Visitors are not permitted on the section eastward from Tower 2 to Tower 1, but some explorers and photographers ignore this as the wall's rustic ruins makes for wonderful photo ops.
|Visitors climbing on top of the ruins of a watch tower|
The Graffiti Problem
Unfortunately, many people decide to commemorate their time at the Great Wall by scribbling or carving their name into the granite bricks. Have a little respect, folks.
|Almost every brick on this watch tower had graffiti. Most of it is not Chinese.|
In order to help protect the wall, Chinese authorities announced this week that they have set aside specific areas near Tower 14 where graffiti is permitted. This move will hopefully limit the area of damage. A proposed plan also involves touch-screen electronic graffiti walls for tourists to go crazy leaving their mark where it can presumably then be erased with the touch of a button.
Finally, the Toboggan Ride Down
The end of our walk culminates with the much anticipated 1580 meter (almost 1 mile) toboggan ride down. The carts accommodate both single or double riders, and my girl decides to ride with her dad. Pushing the lever between your knees forward releases the brake to let the toboggan start sliding down the track, and pulling it towards you makes it stop. Adjust your speed by how far you push it. Before we arrived, I pictured Olympic luge-worthy downhill speeds. Following my girl, it turned out to be a rather slow-paced ride since it took a bit of strength to push the lever forward enough to go fast. Luckily, her oldest brother was ahead of her and could shoot downhill as fast as he liked. Overall, it's a safe ride for kids, although two L.A. Lakers managed to injure themselves in separate accidents while visiting a few weeks before us.
|Getting ready to ride the toboggan down|
The Great Wall of China did not disappoint. In fact, it turned out to be much more exciting than what I would have expected when it went on the bucket list decades ago. If you're looking to check the Great Wall off your own list, I highly recommend doing it at Mutianyu. The only thing that could have made it better would be a deluxe ice cream parlor at the bottom.
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper, and Friday Postcards on Walking On Travels. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.