The Great Wall of China lives up to its name (not to be confused with the Great Firewall of China!), stretching thousands of miles across China from northeast to far west (you can dig up wildly varying statistics, depending how the measurement is taken). There are many points from which you can visit sections of the wall, but the vast majority of visits are made from Beijing; this is eminently practical, as the closest sections of the wall to Beijing are only 50 miles or so from the city proper, and chances are that Beijing is on your itinerary anyway.
To visit the Great Wall from Beijing, you can either make a DIY visit on public transportation, or join one of the bus tours sold at every guesthouse, hotel, and travel agent in the city. I’ve done both and both were good, though there are better and worse ways to go about it.
Great Wall Sections Near Beijing
This site has a handy list of the sections you can visit near Beijing. In a nutshell, Mutianyu and Badaling are the closest and the most heavily-visited; Simatai, Jinshanling, and Gubeikou require a bit more time to reach and so are less visited and offer good hiking opportunities; and Jiankou is a pretty rough and wild section which looks well worth the extra effort involved, if you have time.
Bus Tours to the Great Wall
With regards the bus tours, I’m not a big fan of tours generally but they’re a convenient way to do it; your transportation is all sorted and you just have to show up at the pickup spot on time in the morning. Also if you’re keen to get out to one of the more remote sections of the wall, a bus tour is the easiest way to do so; one thing I would suggest avoiding though is a bus stour to Badaling or Mutianyu; being the closest parts they’re also the most popular, and armies of touts lie in wait for the tour buses every morning, ready to bombard you with offers of insanely overpriced bottles of water and cans of Red Bull, packs of low quality postcards, and all manner of tatty tourist shite. I haven’t been to Badaling by bus tour, but I’ve heard the horror stories so I have no intention of ever doing so – Badaling is best DIY visited by train in the afternoon (see below). The same tourist shit show occurs at the other sections too if you take a bus tour, but on a much lesser scale than at Badaling and Mutianyu (I refer here to bus tours visiting Mutianyu only; those which involve hiking from Jiankou to Mutianyu (see below) should avoid the worst of it).
In our case, on my first visit to Mainland China with my mates Ross & Mike we took a hiking tour to the Jinshanling & Simatai sections; this involved a 10km walk along the wall, with the bus dropping us at the start and picking us up at the end point (which was a restaurant, with a buffet meal factored in to the tour price). It was a really awesome hike actually, in cool November weather, along a crumbling and atmospheric section of the wall:
A few touts did latch onto us at the start, but I just ignored them and marched at a fast pace which did the trick. At the end there was the option to zip line down over a reservoir, which Mike decided to go for; it was the slowest zip line I’ve ever seen and looked totally lame, so I walked down with Ross.
I would definitely recommend hiking from Jinshanling to Simatai, but unfortunately Simatai was bought and redeveloped a few years ago and access to Simatai is no longer possible from Jinshanling (they’re separate areas with separate ticketing). After being closed for a few years, Simatai is now open again as part of the new Gubei Water Town tourist development; the water town basically looks like tourism industry imitation bullshit, but 10 Simatai watchtowers remain open for a 90-minute hike (advance reservation required – see here) and it’s possible to get there by direct public bus (2 hours) from Dongzhimen Station (as described here). For a longer hike (5 hours or so), you should go for Gubeikou – Jinshanling or Jiankou – Mutianyu.
Again, the two bus tours that I’d avoid like the plague are Badaling and Mutianyu; if you’re short on time and just want to make a half-day trip to one of the closest sections without doing a 5-hour hike, it’s far better to visit Badaling by train and it’s a nice section of the wall as long as you avoid the tour bus shit show.
Visiting Badaling Great Wall by Train (or bus)
You can easily reach Badaling in an hour by train from Beijing North Station (located next to Xizhimen Station on Beijing Subway line 2). It’s a regular commuter train requiring no advanced reservations (which can be such a headache to get for the intercity trains), so you can just rock up at Beijing North and get a ticket for the next train. Disembarking at Badaling station, it’s a 15-minute walk along the road (turn left out of the station and head uphill) to the Badaling Great Wall entrance gate, where they charge a 40 yuan entry fee (you pass a bunch of souvenir stalls and restaurants on the way, so you can grab some lunch if needs be).
(You can also reach the Badaling Great Wall by public bus from the Deshengmen bus station near Jishuitan Station (subway line 2); tourist bus 877 goes directly to the Great Wall in the morning, while the other buses run throughout the day. I once took one of those other buses, but this isn’t really recommended unless you can read the Chinese characters for Badaling well enough to pick them out from the list of stops on the side of a bus while a lying bastard taxi driver distracts you and insists that there are no more buses today and you have to take a taxi. Fuck those guys; they are without shame! Furthermore, other than bus 877 which goes direct to the Wall in the morning (which I would avoid anyway for reasons given above), the rest of the buses leave you with a longer walk than the train so I really do recommend the train – unless you’re being adventurous and catching the bus to Badaling from the Ming Tombs as per here (the Ming Tombs can be reached on the Beijing Subway’s new Changping line). If you’ve done that, I’d love to hear how it went!). The train’s also way more comfortable, and from the windows you catch glimpses of the Juyongguan Great Wall section shortly before reaching Badaling.
The Badaling section was fully restored a long time ago and is the most well-maintained section of the Great Wall; it therefore doesn’t quite have the ancient atmosphere we felt at Simatai (possibly now lost there too since the redevelopment), but it’s still really impressive and stunningly located in the mountains.
Summary: Which Great Wall Section Should You Visit, and How?
To sum the above up; if you don’t like bus tours and want to DIY it, go to Badaling by train at lunchtime for an afternoon visit, avoiding the heavier morning bus tour crowds. If you don’t have much time so just want to go to one of the sections nearest Beijing rather than doing anything more involved, again, go to Badaling by train in the afternoon. Otherwise, you should go for a bus tour out to hike Gubeikou – Jinshanling or Jiankou – Mutianyu, or perhaps the redeveloped Simatai. I haven’t been, but I reckon Jiankou looks particularly cool; I’m dubious as to whether Simatai is worth visiting since the redevelopment, but it might fit the bill if you want to do a decent hike without walking for 5 hours (and it’s still a beautiful area). I would personally completely avoid the tour buses to Badaling, and those visiting Mutianyu only (as opposed to the Jiankou – Mutianyu hike).
Have you been to the Great Wall? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below!