The Great Wall is one of those attractions that is entirely worthy of all its hype. While it can’t actually be seen from space, it’s most definitely a great man-made wonder best seen in person.
But there’s just one little problem facing those wanting to see this epic site. With a national population of 1.357 billion people and millions of khaki-pant-laden tourists coming through China each year, how can you see the Great Wall crowd-free?
A few simple factors affect the busyness of the Great Wall. Seasons, weekends, and holidays play some part, but above all which section you choose to visit is single-handedly the most important aspect affecting crowding. But before I launch into that, here’s a quick Great Wall run-down.
Great Wall 101: An Overview
The Great Wall is a whopping 21,196 kilometres long, spanning East to West across China. The winding stone walls are connected by watchtowers that rise and dip over the country’s hilly mountainside. It was constructed 2,000 years ago to deter outside invasions, though today it’s invaded by millions of tourists trampling its paths 365 days a year.
Many wall sections can be visited as a feasible day-trip from Beijing. It is also possible to stay in basic accommodations in villages near certain sections (recommended if visiting remote sections). Otherwise, just stay in Beijing. CTrip is best for finding cheap accommodation throughout China, often including listings not found on foreign search engines. It also provides a money-back program with each booking – bonus!
In terms of crowding: weekends are the WORST time for crowds, period. The peak busy season in China is generally from May to August, though Chinese New Year in February sets the entire country into a traffic frenzy (as we learnt firsthand). That doesn’t mean a visit during these periods will be frantic though, as our trip to Jinshanling in June was practically empty. Ultimately where you hike is more important than when you go.
Choosing A Great Wall Section To Visit
When researching our own trip, I found the information overwhelming. I’ve tried to cram all the quick details that would be useful when choosing a section. Take note, entrance fees are often waived if taking a tour.
No matter where you hike, bring lots of water, snacks, a hat, sunscreen and good shoes. There are farmers who will try to sell you overpriced water & souvenirs along your hike, but you’ll save a lot buying those beforehand elsewhere. Be sure to give a firm no to indicate your lack of interest, or expect to be followed on your entire hike!
Busy, accessible, easy, family/mobile friendly sections
The Badaling and Mutianyu sections are well restored, easy to access, and offer straightforward hiking. These options are quite mobile/family friendly. Because of this, they are the busiest sections of the wall. Still, if you’re short on time, Badaling is quickly reached (by train) from downtown Beijing.
- Accessibility: Closest/most accessible from Beijing
- Busyness: Busiest section (75% of visitors go here)
- Entrance Fee: 45 CNY (Apr 1 – Oct 31), 40 CNY (Nov 1 – Mar 31)
- Wall restoration: Well restored, highly commercialized
- Hike: 3-4 hours from Badaling North to Watchtower 1. Quite easy hike.
- Scenery: vast views, stretches of wall, hilly landscapes
- Other: family/mobility friendly, has cable car (40 CNY 1-way, 60 CNY return)
- Accessibility: Quite accessible from Beijing
- Busyness: fairly touristy (much less busy than Badaling)
- Entrance fee: 45 CNY
- Wall restoration: Well restored
- Hike: 3-4 hours from Mutianyu to Jiankou, fairly easy
- Scenery: impressive rolling hills, famed for its Ming-era guard towers
- Other: Has cable car, chair lift & toboggan ride
Less busy but accessible sections with moderate hikes & great views
Jinshanling and Huanghua Cheng are a lot less crowded, though you’ll still see souvenir shops & farmers trying to sell you bottled water along the way. These sections are only partly restored, so some parts are crumbling but still feasible to hike (wear sturdy shoes).
- Accessibility: Further but fairly accessible
- Busyness: Much less visited by tourists
- Entrance fee: 65 CNY
- Wall restoration: Semi-restored (not very crumbling)
- Hike: 3-4 hours for Jinshanling to Simatai route, moderate (steep at times)
- Scenery: hilly, mountainous landscapes with walls winding for miles
- Other: Recommended tour makes it easy to get here (details below)
- Accessibility: Trickier to get to from Beijing
- Busyness: Very few visitors
- Entrance fee: 45 CNY
- Wall restoration: Fairly unrestored “wild” wall
- Hike: 3-5 hours to Zhuangdaokou
- Scenery: Lake views & hilly landscapes
- Other: Can be a fairly challenging hike
Remote, unrestored, highly under-visited sections with epic views
Jiankou and Zhuangdaokou are ideal for those who like to be REALLY off the beaten track. They are quite challenging and dangerous in sections. Parts of Jiankou have sketchy ladders, steep vertical wall climbs, crumbling stones, and are hugely claimed by bush (seriously, how do you walk through that?). Be adequately prepared (for Jiankou especially) and aware of what it entails. If anything, you will certainly enjoy serenity!
- Accessibility: Trickier to get to from Beijing
- Busyness: Few visitors
- Entrance fee: 20 CNY
- Wall restoration: Largely unrestored “wild” wall, crumbling & overgrown
- Hike: 2 hours for Jiankou to Mitianyu route, very challenging & dangerous at times
- Scenery: Vast stretches of wall in both directions, remote mountainous views
- Other: Due to its unkempt state, this part is quite dangerous. It is technically illegal to climb but this is really not enforced
- Accessibility: Trickier to get to
- Busyness: Rarely visited by tourists
- Entrance fee: Unsure (if on tour, likely included)
- Wall restoration: Partially unrestored
- Hike: 2 hours to Shui Changcheng, or 1 hour to Huanghua Cheng (steep)
- Scenery: Lake views & hilly landscapes
- Other: Camping tours are run here
Note: With the exception of Jinshanling, this info is based on extensive research. If you have firsthand experiences and more input to add to a certain part of the wall, please let us know so we can provide as accurate, useful info as possible! 🙂
Choosing A Crowd-Free Section: Factors to Consider
If dodging crowds is a key component in your visit to the Great Wall, then avoid Badaling like the plague. If you’re pressed for time though, it’s the simplest option from Beijing. Mutianyu is less busy by comparison, but is still highly touristy given its ease of access, cable car, toboggan ride, and chair lift.
Jinshanling, Jiankou, Huanghua Cheng, Zhuangdaokou are far less visited, and will generally offer crowd-free experiences. From my own research I felt that Jinshanling was the easiest “uncrowded” section to reach, and offered a challenging but not dangerous hike. Which leads me to the next factor that will affect your decision: transport.
Getting To the Great Wall
This has to be the biggest headache in researching a trip to the Great Wall. Your options for getting to any of the sections include public bus, tour, taxi/private driver, or rental car.
Cost: Ranges depending on trip. 335-500 CNY ($55-$80 USD) for basic day tours, 1000CNY+ ($160) for overnight trips, 1800 CNY ($290 USD) for day biking tours, 2400 CNY+ ($386 USD) for motorbike tours.
A tour can be a great way to get a simple drop off and pick-up from the wall hassle-free. Alternatively, it can also be a day filled with stops at jade “museums” (stores), shopping, the lacklustre Ming Tombs, and plenty more add-ons. Put simply: choose your tours wisely and don’t book a tour just for its cheap price. If trekking and adequate time at the wall are your priorities, you’re probably best seeking a tour led by hostels or specialized tour companies.
We did a Great Wall Tour to Jinshanling with Beijing Downtown Backpackers ($55 USD per person). It was a no-nonsense tour involving a pick-up and drop-off in downtown Beijing and no stops except for one bathroom break. There is no accompanying guide on this tour trek outside of the bus ride, so if pick up and drop off is what you’re after so you can hike the wall “yourself”, this is a good option.
Other recommended companies (if you have one to add to this list, please let us know!):
Beijing Sideways (runs trips in a motorcycle sidecar)
- Bespoke Beijing
- Bike Beijing (cycling trips)
- Dandelion Hiking (does Great Wall camping trips)
Taxi or Private Driver
Cost: Ranges from 500–1000 CNY round trip ($80-$160 USD)
A taxi, shared minivan, or car hire can be less troublesome and more cost-efficient if you’re 2+ travellers. You can book a driver in advance who can drop you off at one end of the section and pick you up at the other. Note that approaching a taxi on the street may get you some pretty exhorbitant quotes. It is recommended to book ahead or at least research a reasonable price ahead of time.
Lonely Planet recommends the following drivers:
- Miles Meng Car Service
- Mr Sun: only speaks Chinese but reliable, does round trips for 600 CNY. Phone: 136 5109 3753
- Xin Lucheng: a local taxi company in Beijing, does round trips for 500 CNY. Phone: 6235 5003
Cost: Ranges by route, anywhere from 20-200 CNY ($4-$32 USD) for one way
With the exception of Badaling and Mutianyu, a bus trip to any of the Great Wall sections takes at least 2+ hours one way, and involves transfers. Put simply, it’s not simple. On routes with transfers, bloggers have reported drivers dropping them off prematurely, forcing them to take a cab (others have argued & then the driver kept going). Often though, bus trips involve an additional taxi regardless. This involves frivolous negotiation, so be sure to research average prices beforehand. Finally, it’s recommend to have your destination names written in Chinese.
If you’re still keen on bussing, here are links to bus directions for each route:
- Badaling bus or train directions
- Mutianyu bus directions
- Jinshanling bus directions
- Huanghua Cheng bus directions
- Jiankou bus directions
- Zhuangdaokou bus directions (As per Lonely Planet, the directions are the same as Huanghua Cheng, except once you arrive at a bus stop in Huairou called Nanhuayan, board a bus to Shui Changcheng which stops at Zhuangdaokou).
In order to drive in China, you need a temporary Chinese licence. An international driver’s licence is not sufficient. You can obtain a temporary licence at the Vehicle Administration Office at the Beijing Airport (Open Mon-Sun 9AM-6PM, Phone: 010-6453 0010). You’ll need to show your driver’s licence and have an eye exam done.
If you do decide to drive to any section of the Great Wall, highways and routes in this region have standard English signage. I recommend reading the WikiTravel for more details. Take note, driving in China is quite chaotic, especially in the city where erratic driving is quite the norm.
Booking a car rental
Few car rental booking sites will give results, due to the licencing issue. From preliminary research, RentalCars.com is the only one that seems to allow foreign booking.
Staying overnight near the Great Wall can be a good option if you wish to do multiple hikes, catch the sunrise, or you simply don’t want a lengthy day trip (which will happen if you are DIY-bussing). Hotels can range from 50 CNY to 100 CNY ($8-$16 USD) per night, though most are very basic and aren’t listed online. You can research names & reviews in advance so you know what to look for on arrival. CTrip is ideal for searching, but again in the remote areas you may get no results.
The real challenge in visiting the Great Wall crowd-free is not which day or month to go, but rather choosing which section suits your needs and how you’ll get to it. At the end of the day no matter which way you get there or what section you decide on, one thing is for certain: it will most definitely be worth the trip.
Have you been to the Great Wall? What section did you visit, and how did you avoid the crowds?