Bucketlist Travels logo

Travel bucket list idea:

Great Wall of China [hiking & helicopter flights]

  • Beijing, China

  • Bucket List Experience

Last updated: 18 March, 2024

The monumental Great Wall of China is a defense work stretching from ocean to desert across the vast expanse of China’s northern regions. In the strategic uplands around Beijing, the Wall was built from bricks and stone, with crenelated battlements and watchtowers. Elsewhere it was more simply fashioned from tamped earth.

The Great Wall is actually a series of walls built during different eras of Chinese history, but the first unifying wall was constructed by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, from around 220 BC. Much of the wall that remains standing today was reconstructed using stronger materials during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Later sections of the Great Wall – including Badaling, the first section to be opened to tourists – stand on average 8m tall and just under 6m wide, designed to allow five horses to ride abreast or ten soldiers to walk shoulder to shoulder.

The nearest stretches to Beijing have been restored and are now among the world’s most visited tourist spots. Unrestored sections, sometimes called the ‘wild wall’, remain in a precarious state of ruin, with an estimated thirty percent already lost to the vagaries of weather, earthquakes and human activity. Around Beijing, the undulating mountain landscapes are as inspiring as the defensive ramparts themselves.

 

See it from helicopter

Seeing the Great Wall by helicopter is an unmissable way to take in the sheer scale and scope of China’s ‘stone dragon’. Operators lift off from tiny Badaling Airport, with flights typically lasting 15 minutes and usually including city transfers and lunch. Book through agents like CITS and Travel China Guide.

Escape to the 'Wild Wall'

Much of the Great Wall is remote and inaccessible, but certain, unrestored stretches of the ‘Wild Wall’ can be accessed with special guided excursions. William Lindsay OBE, author of several Great Wall books, organises ‘Wild Wall Weekends’ from his family courtyard in a rural village close to the Jiankou section of Great Wall. Full-board stays include guided hikes and the chance to see the sunrise from the battlements.

For one-day Wild Wall hikes that depart from and return to the city, check out the long-established Beijing Hikers, who post a regularly updated calendar of group excursions on their website.

Who to go with: tour operators

1

Toboggan run at Mutianyu

  • Beijing, China

Person going down a silver slide on a toboggan at Mutianyu

Experience

What better way to dismount the Great Wall of China than by riding a luge down the mountainside? Toboggans whizz along a snaking metal track for 1.5 kilometres, with speed controlled via a hand-brake. Hop on at the No. 6 Watchtower for a 15-minute thrill ride.

Adult price: 15

Good for age: 8+

Duration: 15 minutes

Logistics

Price: Free
Minimum age: Any
Age suitable: 8+
When: All year around
Duration: -

Getting there & doing it

The closest sections of the Wall are at Badaling and Mutianyu, 40/60 miles from Beijing respectively; it’s best to arrange transport through a tour operator or your hotel.

Most visitors head for the closest and best-preserved section at Badaling, which gets very crowded in the peak autumn season and on weekends. However, the steep gradient of the wall at Badaling is a blessing in disguise: if you make it beyond the first few watchtowers, the crowds will have thinned considerably. Mutianyu (also popular but less crowded and very scenic) is a better choice during this time.

Note – even restored sections of the wall require some walking on steeply undulating cobbled stone. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes to cope with the cobbles.

When to do it

Restored sections of the wall are accessible all year round, seven days a week. If possible avoid late-morning to mid-afternoon, and weekends, when the crowds descend.

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit. Autumn colours are particularly spectacular. Being at higher elevations, temperatures will be a bit cooler than in downtown Beijing. Winters are bitter but in the snow the scene can be magical.