Thursday, March 6, 2014

Great Wall of China Toboggan Ride

Whenever my kids go to one of those upscale ice cream shoppes, their eyes grow wide, and they start asking for everything. What starts out as a simple outing to get a scoop of ice cream turns into a Bambi-eyes request for the ice cream and the mix-in and some hot fudge sauce on top.

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. 

Mutianyu, slide system, luge
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.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu, gondola
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 Section

We 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.) 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Souvenir stalls

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 Top

We 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.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
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. 

Great Wall of China
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. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
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. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
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. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
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.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
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.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
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.

Related Posts:

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.


  1. The toboggan ride looks such fun! But I think I'd probably stick around the lovely market stalls :)

  2. This is also on my bucket list! I never envisioned toboggan rides down though. That sounds like fun!

  3. It's on my list too but I didn't expect a toboggan ride. I'd prefer to walk though a ride does look like fun. I like the idea of leaving a section for graffiti.

  4. Gondolas to the top and a toboggan to the bottom. . .suppose those laborers who built that wall centuries ago would marvel at how it appears today? Your great post tempts me to put the Great Wall on the bucket list!!

  5. Hi Michelle, I think its awesome that your kids get travel ideas from their peers. What a great family trip. I visited the Muitanyu section of the wall 8 years ago. I liked it because it was not crowded and always recommend it to anyone visiting the wall. Your view though was much clearer. I went in the summer. Althugh it wasn't too hot the view was a bit hazy. I don't think there was a toboggan ride then. It's great to know.. I' plan to take my niece and nephews to the wall and it will be an extra treat for them.

  6. I just love the photo of your husband next to your son showing the height of the doorways. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that now there toboggan rides added. I've got to admit, riding the toboggan sounds easier than all those steps, so it does make sense after all. I'm glad you went in fall, the trees are gave you great colors for your photos.

  7. Interesting story nicely illustrated with photos. I did a similar "fake luge" ride near Saltzburg, Austria, a more likely location for that sort of thing than the Great Wall of China!

  8. This is one place I would love to visit someday. Thanks for the tips and the photos. Hubby and I took chair lifts in Utah and I was holding so tight to the rail because we were so high but this looks even higher....Christine

  9. Love your Malaysian Meanders "on" the wall. The wall looks enticing in such good weather and I never dreamed that it would be a chairlift up and a toboggan down. :) What fun.

  10. This looks like a fabulous family adventure! I would never have guessed about the toboggan ride son would love that! Me? Not so much! I really enjoyed your photos and narrative.

  11. Well that was a fun experience and i didn't even huff and puff, although I would have loved to also go down that toboggan run...what a cool experience for the whole family!

  12. This brings back happy memories! We visited the Mutianyu section too, and my girls loved the toboggan ride down! Such a great experience.

  13. I've heard lots of Great Wall stories, but this is the first of the toboggan ride. Fun!

  14. Emma has wanted to visit China and see the Great Wall since she was 3 - and I can't wait to take her there! I have to admit though that I had no idea that there was any method of getting to the top other than climbing and this is the first that I have ever heard of the toboggan ride down as well. It sounds like quite a bit of fun but I think that I would prefer to walk - although I know full well that I'm likely to get overruled on that! ;)

  15. I still remember how excited I was to stand on the wall, and how devastated I was a week or two later to discover that I had lost the memory card with all my photos! I wasn't in this area, and can't exactly remember which part I went to. It was about 2 hours outside of Beijing. I do remember coming down in the same cable car that President Bill Clinton rode in during his visit :) Great tour, and you had fab weather. Now I need to go back and get my photo taken again!

  16. Wow, I had no idea it was possible to toboggan down! Sounds like a great way to end a beautiful day :)

  17. It's such a magnificent construction. It's hard to imagine the work that went into creating it so long ago without all of the tools we have now.

  18. Somehow, when I pictured visiting the Great Wall, a toboggan ride never entered into it - but this actually sounds kind of amazing. Way to make visiting historic sites extra fun!

  19. Your posts are always so informative. I had no idea that there are other options than just climbing up the stairs. I really like all your pictures showing the view from the wall.

  20. Wow, I would love to visit the Great Wall some day. I did not know that there was a toboggan ride. Thanks for sharing your visit and wonderful photos.

  21. A great adventure for the family! A toboggan ride sounds interesting. I've only done a bobsled ride in Lake Placid.

  22. We loved the toboggan ride! Great photos!

  23. Hi Michele,

    Thank you for this fun and informative post on the Great Wall! Your commentary is full of detail, interesting facts and surprising escapades! Lovely photos; I especially like the ones from the watch tower and the shot of the Wall from above. You and your family must surely have fond memories of this most exciting and educational trip.

    Have a lovely day!


  24. Well, I'll be darned as I've been a Subscriber and didn't get this post! I just clicked enter the Subscribe info again. So, that's why I'm so late getting here.

    You had me distracted with the chocolate covered ice cream cone! And you're getting cones what's wrong with all the fun stuff on top too, mom?? ha, ha

    This is so awesome in how you planned the trip especially with staying away from crowds of which I don't care for. I would absolutely go on the tram and the chair lift. Was that the toboggan in the picture with the chair lift?? I would most definitely go and let 'er rip at full throttle - woo hoo!

    Very sad on the grafitti :( But, loved this post, our friend! :)

  25. How times have changed! I sound ancient saying that, but when I visited the wall 20 years ago there was nothing to help you get up or down other than your own 2 feet. (Certainly where I went anyway). It was a huge physical effort but so worthwhile as it's such an awe-inspiring place. I must say I started reading your post thinking how sad it is that there's all this extra "stuff" there now but by the end I could certainly see the advantages. I know 2 young boys (mine!) who'd definitely love to go up and down like you did, the luge looks so much fun. Lovely photos too.

  26. The toboggan ride down looks like a lot of fun although it would be great if it moved at a faster speed. And it's a shame that people are marking the wall with graffiti - there's a time and place for inscribing your name and street art, but not on the Great Wall! In any case, glad your kids enjoyed the experience.

  27. What a great experience for the whole family! I'm glad the kids were able to do all of his and you fulfilled this bucket list item. I always see the happy tourist photos from everyone but never really thought of the logistics of how everyone got there or the sections of it. Great advice all around and love all the details you provided. I have heard of the toboggan ride and it looks fun. Your photos are beautiful.

  28. We LOVED the great wall! It was incredible. We visited the same section, but had to skip the ride down. Dek was only 14 months old at the time. This just means we have to go back though!

  29. Your photos are lovely, but the aerial photo of the wall is breathtaking! It looks like you had a wonderful trip; yes definitely for the bucket list!

  30. And this is why I read travel blogs -- family members who have visited The Great Wall several times have never mentioned this slide or cable car (chair lift would just freak me out -- I have a fear of heights) and only talk about walking.

    The photos are beautiful

  31. This looks like awesome family trips. Pictures are really very eye-catching. During college time, I visited there. I still remember how excited I was to see on the wall. I just say one thing my Great Wall Beijing Tours was superb at that time.

  32. I like visit any place are if visit to chin that will be great for me because there has traditional the Great Wall so you can visit and see this..
    Great Wall of China

  33. I was wondering if you guys had made it to the Great Wall!!!! So glad you did... it's high up on our list to get there soon! :) Looks amazing!

    Great Wall of China tours


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