Legless at Mutianyu Great Wall of China

After Badaling, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China is the most famous and visited section. Mutianyu is also the longest restored section of the wall, much more enjoyable to walk and most half decent Great Wall tours go to Mutianyu instead of Badaling. I had never been to Mutianyu so during a recent trip to Beijing I decided to visit Mutianyu and see if it lived up to its reputation as being less crowded and more enjoyable than the Badaling.

Mutianyu is definitely much less crowd and a lot more rewarding and fun to visit than Badaling.

Getting There

The two main ways to get to Mutianyu are with a tour company or by bus. Tours tend to be over priced and stop at shops and factories which is a big waste of time so I decided to get there by bus.

Mutianyu is in Huairou County 70 kilometers north of Beijing and all buses to Mutianyu stop in Huairou. Most buses will terminate in Huairou and you then need to change to a private minibus or catch a taxi to the wall. After a recent unpleasant experience with a Huairou taxi that left me stranded in the middle of no where at night, I decided to catch a bus that went all the way to Mutianyu.

I heard that the 936 bus from Beijing’s Dongzhimen Wai bus station went directly to Mutianyu. There were 7:00am and 9:00am buses to Mutianyu and the 2:00pm and 4:00pm buses back to Beijing. I had an appointment that night to go shopping and eat Sushi so the plan was to catch the 7:00am bus to Mutianyu and the 2:00pm bus back.

The Dongzhimen Wai bus station is right next to Dongzhimen subway station on the subway line 2. Most of the bus bays at Dongzhimen Wai are inside the main part of the station in a massive building. The 936 bus bay was on the outside and a little tricky to find. The easiest way to find it is to go to the main entrance then walk anticlock wise around the block until you get to the 936 bus bay. The walk from the main entrance to the 936 bus bay should take around 5 minutes.

I arrived at the 936 bus bay 20 minutes early and asked the other people in the queue if the 936 went to Mutianyu. No one knew so I asked the driver who told me 936 did not go to Mutianyu and to take the 867. Luckily the 867 stop was right next to the 936 stop and also left at 7am. I raced across to that bus, confirmed that it did go to Mutianyu and jumped on. I found out later that day that the 936 bus to Mutianyu had been replaced several months ago by the 876.

The 867 bus to Mutianyu cost 16rmb, took two and a half hours and was trouble free. The bus dropped us of at the Mutianyu stop which is the last stop and just a few minutes walk from the Mutianyu Great Wall ticket office. Getting to Mutianyu is very easy and extremely cheap so I strongly recommend you catch a bus and not join a tour.

The Wall

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is approximately 2.5 kilometers long and has 23 watch towers. The west end of Mutianyu connects to the unrestored Jiankou section of the Great Wall after tower 23 and the east section of Mutianyu connects to the unrestored Lianhuachi section at tower 1. My goal was to walk from one end to the other and I had about 4 hours.

There are several paths from the ticket office to the wall so I chose the most eastern path that reached the wall at tower 6. That way I could go from tower 6 to the eastern end, double back and head all the way to the western end, turn around and head east and leave the wall at most western path that reaches the wall at tower 10. That route would cover all of the wall and minimize the parts of the wall I’d walk twice. Around 5 kilometers in total.

Chairlifts and Gondolas – The gondola goes from the ticket office to tower 14 and the chairlift also goes from the ticket office to tower 6. The actual walk from the ticket office to the wall takes around 15 to 20 minutes with breaks so the chairlift/gondola does not save you much time. I’d only recommend taking the chairlift or gondola if you have walking difficulties. Walking up the paths to the wall is fun and a part of the Mutianyu experience.

Hawkers – Some parts of the Great Wall have a reputation of very obnoxious hawkers that are like flies and follow you everywhere harassing you until you buy something from them. The hawkers on the wall at Mutianyu were very vocal but siuck to their little stalls, were very well behaved and did not harass anyone.

Ends of the wall – The western end of Mutianyu officially ends at tower 23 where there is the typical no admittance warning sign to tourists. The restored wall continues past this point for at least 300-400 meters and definitely worth having a look at. The real end of Mutianyu is at a tower on a hill that is one of the highest points of the wall in that area. Once you pass that watch tower, you can see the start of the overgrown Jiankou section of the wall. Even if you don’t plan on walking the Jiankou section, it is good to see the contrast between the restored Mutianyu and the original Jiankou.

Once pass tower 14 heading west, the crowds thin out and the walk is much more enjoyable. There is even fewer people after the no admittance sign and walking that part of the wall feels like walking one of the more remote sections like Jiankou or Gubeikou.

The eastern finishes at a watch tower where the wall splits into two branches. One branch is through the watch tower entrance past the no admittance sign to Lianhuachi. The other branch is accessible through the watch tower window and the wall can be seen winding off through the hills for a fair distance.

Difficulty – Mutianyu is much harder to climb than Badaling because there are many steep sections, steep stairs and several areas where you need to use your hands to climb. Most areas do not have hand rails so you have to be careful and take your time. If you have any difficulties walking, I suggest you just walk the wall between tower 6 and tower 14. This still gives you an excellent Great Wall experience, awesome views and avoids the more difficult areas.

Quality of restoration – The most recent restoration of Mutianyu finished and the wall was opened to tourism on the 1st of May 1986. This makes the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall 25 years old. Walking along the entire section of Mutianyu, I noticed a number of areas that were damaged and very worn and looked much older than 25 years. Comparing the condition of some parts of the wall that are hundreds of years old and in excellent condition to some parts of Mutianyu that are in poor condition, it is easy to see that the quality and craftsmanship of the original wall is superior.

The Views – Mutianyu has great scenery so the views were magnificent. Even if there was no wall at all, hiking the hills and ridges the wall is built on would still be awesome. Mutianyu does not have the cliffs, steep ridges, cliffs or sharp mountain tops of Jiankou but it does have fantastic sweeping vistas.

Big Brother – There are two parts of Mutianyu that are covered by CCTV cameras. Of all the sections of the wall I’ve been to, this is the only section I’ve seen with cameras. Not even the crowded Badaling has cameras. I’m not sure what they are there for and I’d like to think they are to protect the wall from vandalism but this is unlikely. More likely big brother wants to keep tabs on Great Wall activity. Big Brother aught to fix the camera that is pointing up at the sky. Most likely the work of peeved tourist.

Mutianyu Pass – The original construction of Mutianyu was completed during the 5th century. The wall was later rebuilt in the 13th century on the foundation of the original wall. The actual Mutianyu pass is a strategic pass that has been the site of many battles so during the 13th century rebuilding, a complex of three interlocked watch towers was built on the pass. That complex is called Mutianyu Pass and is one of the highlights of the eastern section of Mutianyu.

Legless – Racing up and down the wall is not good because you cannot fully appreciate the experience of just being on the wall. My plan was not to race but to keep moving at a decent pace, take plenty of photos, admire the views, have the occasional rest when I was about to collapse and comfortably catch the 2:00pm bus.

The first half of the walk from tower 6 to the eastern end of the wall and back to around tower 10 was easy and I barely worked up a sweat. Going from tower 10 to the official end of the wall at tower 23 took a bit of effort. Reaching the beginning of the Jiankou section was hard work and I was knackered by the time I got there. A quick 5 minute break in the watch tower, half a liter of water and a handful of dried banana worked wonders.

Luckily most of the way from then western end of the wall to the path at tower 10 was down hill and I managed to stagger all the way back to tower 10. The trip from the wall down the path back to the village and bus stop was challenging and the temptation to sit down and pass out for a few minutes was hard to resist. By the time I reached the bus stop I was legless with no energy and legs feeling like rubber. Managed to make it back to the bus stop with 30 minutes to spare, enjoy all of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall with a bonus bit of the Jiankou section and get a decent work out.


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