Having been warned that the Mutianyu section of the Wall was a ridge-line walk, we rode uphill in a cable car. (Visitors can take a cable car or chairlift up to the Wall, instead of the hiking path, and slide downhill from the Wall on a wheeled toboggan run, adding a Disney theme-park touch to the experience.) At the top, we walked into the nearest of the 22 watchtowers on the Mutianyu section, for a 360-degree view of the forest-covered countryside. The Wall, itself, which jinked and curved as far as we could see in both directions, also had offshoots leading to yet more watchtowers. The height, width and solidity of these fortifications boggles the mind.
Having arrived at the Wall early in the day, the stone-cobbled walkway bracketed by parapets to protect the solders (and the tourists who now walk where the warriors once strode), was almost deserted. With more than a dozen towers to the right and the remainder to the left, we started walking toward the highest watchtower, # 22. Quickly, we learned that although the 22 watchtowers only stretch 1.4 miles from #1 to #22, it wasn't an easy stroll.
Living in Colorado's Rockies, it was natural for me to equate it with taking a ridgeline walk between several 14ers (a term we use to describe the 14,000-foot-high mountains in our state). The pathway had lots of ups - including a few almost vertical inclines with narrow steps - balanced by sharp downhill grades. When you peered through the small openings warriors used to shoot guns or fire arrows you couldn't see any earth right below where you were standing because the slopes were so steep.
Stopping to take yet another photo, I lagged behind my friends. The rest of the walk, at times jog to catch up, through the moist, 90plus degree heat gave me a mere hint of what soldiers felt standing in the searing sun day after day watching for invading armies. Looking over the parapets at the dense pine forests draping the steep slopes, at the parade of mountains and the wall marching onward as far as my eyes could see, I could only wonder at the temerity of invading forces trying to get past the Great Wall, the barrier here to reaching Beijing.
Sliding Downhill at the End
By mid-day the pathway on the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was wall-to-wall people. Families with young kids, fragile oldsters sporting wisps of white hair and leaning on canes, and teenagers snapping endless photos of each other on their phones, all were out for a stroll. Occasionally backpackers marched by, more intent on getting to the next watchtower than enjoying the views. By the time I walked up to watchtower 22, then back past #14 to #6, where I could take the slide back down the mountain, I was beat. But so were others, according to the Chinese teenagers I chatted with while waiting in line to ride a wheeled toboggan on the slide back down the mountainside. It was their first time walking on the Wall and they felt like they had stepped back in time to better understand their heritage and history.
History of the Great Wall's Mutianyu SectionThe Great Wall snakes through northern China, from the Jiayu pass in Gansu through Inner Mongolia all the way to Shanghai pass. Over a period of several centuries, ruler after ruler added a portion to help defend their empires from enemies.
Reportedly one of the best preserved sections of the Great Wall, the Mutianyu part of the Wall was first constructed in the mid-6th century. In the Ming Dynasty, the present wall was started on the foundation of that original wall. In the 16th century, it was again rebuilt and today the mostly granite walls in the Mutianyu area are about 25 feet high and the pathway averages 16- to 20-feet wide. Battlements on both sides helped protect soldiers from enemies trying to breach the wall.
Several portions have been worked on for safety reasons and are now popular tourist attractions. Tour operators take foreign travelers to the sections closest to Beijng, which tend to be even more crowded. The Mutianyu section isn't the closest section to the city. It's about a 1 1/2 hour ride, but worth the extra time. While it was packed with Chinese visitors - many children were out of school - we heard very few people speaking English or European languages.
Tips for Walking the Great Wall's Mutianyu Section
Go early in the day because by 11am the portion of the Wall around watchtower 14, where the cable car arrives, is jammed with people. Bring water and snacks, although there vendors with small carts were on the wall selling drinks and snacks. Sunscreen is a must in the summer. Many Chinese women had umbrellas for shade. (At times I eyed them enviously, wishing I had one, too.)
Most of the tour operators running trips to China include a visit to a section of the Great Wall. If you want to spend at least a few hours walking along the wall, when choosing a company ask what's planned for the day the group will visit the Wall (some tours include a stop at the Imperial Tombs), the section of the Wall to be visited and roughly how much time the group will be able to spend on the Wall. I was on the Discovery Adventures trip, and we were given several hours, so we could walk to and from most of the watchtowers.About.com's Guide to China Travel, Sara Naumann, has more information about the history and the sections of the Great Wall on her site.