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Exploring the Great Wall of China

By Chittal Shah

Last Updated: 14 Aug 2021

As a frequent traveler, I am always looking for ways to optimize my trips. Staying in touch with friends who share my passion has been beneficial in more ways than one. During one such interaction, I was acquainted with Air China. The fact that Air China offers great deals on tickets for travel across the world with a long layover in one of the cities of China was a revelation. This is a great strategy that benefits both the traveler and country. It prompts travelers to patronize the airline and also explore the country for free during the layover. At just $399 for a roundtrip to India from the US, I was definitely interested in exploring this option. It was irresistible, so I jumped at the opportunity and booked my tickets in a jiffy. Here was a chance to visit my family in India at a very reasonable cost and what’s more, visit China for free.

I was lucky to get a stopover of 12 hours in Beijing, which was perfect as I was craving to visit the Great Wall. This got me planning on how I would use the time optimally. First things first, I needed a tourist visa to get out of the airport and explore the city of Beijing. It was a simple process and I got my visa in a day for $60 from the Chinese Consulate in Houston. Let me add here that you do not need a visa if you are not stepping out of the airport, but then what's the point of choosing this flight option if you don't want to get out? The next step was to plan how to use the 12 hours optimally.

The epic Great Wall of China, the longest structure ever built by humans

The epic Great Wall of China, the longest structure ever built by humans

Surprisingly, the airline does not offer any package to visit the country. I later understood that this was a conscious decision in order to create opportunities for local businesses, which was rather impressive. Research led me to many options for day trip packages and with some guidance from friends who had already done these trips, I zeroed in with one agency. Soon, I was all set with an 8-hour individual & customized day trip to explore the intriguing land of China which came at a cost of $120. Group packages are also available and there are also 8, 10, and 12 hour trips to choose from. I wanted to be in complete control of my time and hence chose the individual trip option, which is a tad expensive.

Skyscraper of China Central Television HQ in Beijing

51-storey skyscraper of China Central Television HQ in Beijing

Once I exited from the Beijing Airport, I was bombarded with local service companies offering day trips. This trend seems to be what most travelers follow hence the numerous guides outside the airport offering a variety of packages. My trip was pre-booked and the agency I booked with was very well organized. They provided detailed information on my itinerary and also provided a detailed roadmap on how to navigate from the airport and meet the guide. I headed to the section that said "Day trip taxi pick up". My guide was in touch with me on Whatsapp and soon he arrived to pick me up. I had a luxurious ride with food and water as well, which was a pleasant surprise. My guide knew a little English and also used the translation app to ensure I had most of the information I needed. That was impressive.

A map of the Mutianyu Section of the Great wall

My resourceful and thoughtful guide, Edison Xing who accompanied me during my day trip in Beijing

We drove through the city of Beijing and I was fascinated by the magnificent sights and sounds of the capital city. Did you know it is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites? I was going to see two of them and was super elated and excited. We drove an hour and 15 minutes before reaching my first stopover, The Great Wall, the longest man-made structure in the world. We visited the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This incredible structure has a history of more than 2,000 years spanning across many dynasties. It is built across 15 provincial areas in China and measures a total length of 21,196.18 kms! At an average height of 16-26 feet with the highest part reaching 46 feet, the Great Wall was built to prevent invasion and protect the silk route trade.

A map of the Mutianyu Section of the Great wall

A map of the Mutianyu Section of the Great wall that details the entire layout

So much for the history of the place (there's tons of information on the details of this spectacular structure for those more interested). The view of the wall from the base is mind boggling. We went to the ticket counter and realized there were a couple of options to explore this place. There are two ways to get up to the Wall, a gondola or chairlift. The way down has three options, which are gondola, chairlift and toboggan. There are three gates, 6, 14 and 23 where you can be dropped with gate 23 being the most elevated point. Depending on your interest and energy, you can choose the ideal mode of transport and gate to be dropped off.

The walk along the historic Great Wall leading to watch towers at regular intervals

The walk along the historic Great Wall leading to watch towers at regular intervals

I chose to take a gondola to the 6th gate (the first and lower most option) and from there take a steep walk up to the 23rd gate and back to the 6th gate and then take the toboggan back to the base. This costed me 120 RMB ($20). The one-mile stretch to the gondola station was lined with stores selling warm clothes and Chinese souvenirs. There were also eateries serving authentic Chinese and other cuisine. While it is hot at the base of the wall, as you go higher, it gets cold so make sure you are carrying a medium jacket.

The exhilarating gondola ride to the Great wall

The exhilarating gondola ride to the Great wall with spectacular views below

The 10-minute gondola ride above the beautiful landscape covered with a carpet of white flowers was spectacular. Hopping off the gondola at gate 6, I walked upwards for 1.5 kilometers enjoying the view and stopping at watch towers enroute. It is believed that glutinous rice flour was used to bind the Great Wall bricks. The walk along this historical structure was overwhelming and humbling. I then decided to return to the base because the view ahead was similar and there was nothing much to explore further up. Also, I could possibly visit one more place before returning to the airport.

A selfie moment at the Great Wall of China

A selfie moment at the Great Wall capturing my dream come true

After spending an hour and a half here, I was ready for the exciting and adventurous part of my visit to the Great Wall; the Toboggan ride! A little nervous but more excited, I sat on the half circle metal tube that was fitted with breaks and slided down with the force of gravity. There are guards along the length of the toboggan route to keep an eye and flag down passengers overstepping the speed limit. The 10-minute ride on the Toboggan was one of the most exhilarating rides I have experienced and is safe.

The Toboggan ride from the top to the base of the Great Wall of China

The Toboggan ride from the top to the base of the Great Wall, an adventurous and fun ride!

Once back at the base, I got myself some "Buddhist noodles'' the best option for vegetarians. I strolled back towards the car and stopped on the way to check out the stores along the path. Interestingly. While the stores had similar goods the pricing varied with products costing more near the gondola stations and being cheaper as you move farther away. I reached my ride and since there was adequate time left, my guide drove me to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Forbidden City.

Stores at the great wall of China

In case you forgot your jacket, these stores have you covered. One of the many shops along the path to the gondola station

An hour's drive brought us to the Forbidden City, one of the largest and best-preserved imperial palace complexes in the world. Home to the imperial families, commoners were prohibited to enter without permission, hence the name. This 600-year-old UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site was home to 24 emperors. Covering an area of 178 acres, this palace complex has magnificent palaces, splendid halls, grand towers, wonderful pavilions and beautiful belvederes. It showcases the grandeur with which the emperors of yore lived. It later became a museum open to the public in 1925 but is still guarded with high security. Of note is that only 80,000 visitors are allowed on a daily basis so ensure you book your ticket in advance. When I reached there at around 11 AM, tickets were already sold out for the day. Fortunately, I was pre-booked.

A panoramic view of The Forbidden City from the entrance in Beijing

A panoramic view of The Forbidden City from the entrance

A fee of 60 RMB ($10) gives you access to this big walled city that has several villages with different themes and flavors. I entered from the Meridian Gate (Wumen) in the south. I was given a hearing tool that had commentaries about the various areas of this splendid city. An architectural masterpiece and a treasury housing a unique collection of 1.8 million pieces of art, including ancient calligraphy and painting, imperial artifacts, ancient books and archives, it is a world of its own.

One of the architectural masterpieces inside the Forbidden City

One of the architectural masterpieces inside the Forbidden City, regal and exquisite

I wandered around immersing myself in the magnificent architecture and other unique decorations that created a regal ambience. The palaces are closed but you are allowed to peer through the windows to get a peek into the grandeur inside. My favorite places were the Palace of Earthly Tranquility and the Imperial Garden. Exiting from this perfectly symmetric structure through the East Prosperity Gate (Donghuamen), I went to Jingshan Park. Covering 57 acres, it is immediately north of the Forbidden City. The view of the Forbidden City from the Jingshan mountain gives you a feel of the truly massive scale of the palace complex.

The detailing and intricacies of these structures inside the Forbidden City

The detailing and intricacies of these structures inside the Forbidden City is mind boggling

Still taking in the splendor and enormity of this beautiful place, I realized that it was time to head back to the airport. I called my friendly guide who promptly picked me up and we headed for the airport. On my drive back to the airport I noticed some unique things on the streets of Beijing. There were plenty of three-wheeled cars on the streets. I have not seen these anywhere else so far and they were rather cute. Another fascinating thing I noticed were these colorful scooters equipped with jackets at the handle. Riders would slip their arms into these jackets and ride the scooters. Seemed to be an innovative way of keeping themselves warm!

Scooters in Beijing are fitted with jackets

These unique scooters in Beijing are fitted with jackets that riders can use to keep themselves warm, innovative and efficient

What an epic day it had been! I never imagined that I would be able to have such a fabulous experience in a city during a stopover. It was the best discovery of my travel experiences and I would recommend it to everyone who is looking to make the most of every journey. What's the best thing about this one day trip? The fact that it was a free visit to a city which would have otherwise been a considerable cost. So, the next time you are traveling, do not forget to check for long stopovers, it just might be your chance to visit a city, free of cost.

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Things To Consider

The best time to visit is in April - May which is springtime and September - November which is Autumn. Summers are extremely hot and winters are cold and even icy.
Beijing is a city with seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is a treasure trove of culture and heritage. Each of these treasures are unique and bear huge significance.
While there is a variety to choose from for non-vegetarians, it could be quite challenging for vegetarians. To the rescue though is “Buddhist Noodles” which vegetarians can indulge in and enjoy.
Beijing is by large a safe place for tourists. Of course there is the risk of petty thefts and pickpocketing in crowded areas, so do exercise caution to avoid any untoward incidents
The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is one of the sections that has fewer tourists. A hike to the Great Wall is an offbeat activity for the adventurous. A ride back down from the Great Wall on a Toboggan is a MUST do when visiting the Great Wall.
While planning a day trip, ensure you choose the right package to ensure you are optimizing your time. Make advance bookings wherever possible so that your itinerary is confirmed and again, you do not lose time.

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