When I decided to visit China to discover the legend of Mulan, the Great Wall was at the top of my list. In the opening scene of Mulan, Shan Yu and his army of Huns attack the Wall, taking Chinese sentinels by surprise. Ever since I watched the film, whenever I though of the Great Wall I imagined myself pacing up and down, burning torch in hand. I would peek at the vast expanse of the empire through the Wall’s battlements, only to catch the glimpse of a group of Huns on horseback, with fiery-eyed falcons perched atop their shoulders. There would be just enough time to throw my torch into the brazier in my watchtower, rallying the Chinese Army against the invaders.
Construction of the Great Wall of China began in the 7th century BC, when Rome was just a village. The Wall was built to defend the Chinese Empire from the frequent incursions of Central Asian nomadic tribes, such as Mongols and Shen Yu’s Huns. Dynasties continued building, restoring, manning and expanding the Wall for over two thousand years, first with rammed earth and then with bricks and mortar. From one end to another, it measures over 13,000 miles, stretching from the Tibetan plateau to the Pacific Ocean.
Some of the best-preserved stretches of the Great Wall are near Beijing, making the Wall a great day trip from the Chinese capital. Badaling is the closest section, but it is also very touristy. My friend Mei Zhu recommended I visited the Great Wall at Mutianyu; I had a wonderful day out. Mutianyu is one of the most dramatic sections; the Wall snakes across the hills, climbing and descending abruptly. I highly recommend visiting independently, as organized tours only allow one hour or so on the Wall. I spent the whole day in Mutianyu. I loved walking back and forth, climbing atop the watchtowers and finding spots to appreciate the magic of the Wall in solitude.
The most crowded section is the one nearest to the entrance. Walk away from it, and the further you’ll go, the fewer people there will be. I almost felt as if I really was a sentinel.
My friend Mei Zhu told me the legend of Meng Jiangnu, one of the most popular in Great Wall lore. Meng’s husband, a village farmer, was sent to build the Great Wall. Meng had no news of her husband for years, and decided to travel to the Great Wall to look for him. By the time she reached the Wall, she discovered her husband had died. She started crying in sorrow, and her wails caused the collapse of a part of the wall. Meng Jiangnu’s legend is very popular in China; its meaning is that the Great Wall exists thanks to the work of millions of common people.
How to get there
To get to Mutianyu from Beijing, catch bus 867 from Dongzhimen bus station (about 2.5 hours each way). For a quicker alternative, choose bus 916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou (1 hour 40) then hop on a taxi for the remaining 15 min journey. Taxis should cost about RMB 30 per person. If you prefer the easy way, hotels and guesthouses in Beijing organize day trips to Mutianyu.
Entrance tickets cost RMB 45 for adults and RMB 25 for children and students.
If you don’t fancy climbing over 400 steps to the Wall from the entrance, it’s possible to get a chairlift up and a toboggan down (great fun!) for an extra RMB 60.
What to bring
A visit to the Great Wall is a tough day out. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes and pack sunscreen in summer and warm clothing in winter. Food and snacks are available from sellers near the entrance, make sure you stock up before making for the Wall.
Where to sleep
There are no hotels near Mutianyu and the closest town, Huairou, is a dreary affair. Most tourists stay in Beijing; but if you fancy spending a night on the Wall make for Commune by the Great Wall, a collection of 40 villas designed by 12 Asian architects near the Badaling section of the Wall. A private path from the villas accesses an unrestored section of the Great Wall.