The Great Wall of China: 4 ideas for day trips — and 1 to avoid altogether

In the early 1980s, a three-man team spent two years preparing to walk the length of the Great Wall of China. The team focused on the portion that was built during the Ming Dynasty — the well-preserved part depicted in photographs and travel brochures. The 5,500 mile journey took the trio 508 days.

If the rise of layover tours are any indication, most travelers today give the Great Wall just one day of their time — or less. Here are four ways to make a short trip a memorable one.

1. Take a sidecar tour

This option is as much about the journey as it is the destination. A company called Beijing Sideways offers full-day tours of the Great Wall via sidecars attached to Chang Jiang 750 motorcycles.

If visions of World War II come to mind, there’s a good reason. The Chang Jiang motorbike is based on the Soviet M-72, which was modeled after the earlier German BMW R71 motorcycle produced (with sidecar attachment) as a military vehicle in the 1930s.

A Chang Jiang 750 motorcycle with sidecar parked at a Beijing street.

Fotoholica Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

This wind-in-your-hair ride breezes past tree-lined roads and small villages in the northern Beijing countryside before ascending the mountainous roads leading to the Great Wall. Helmets are available (but not required), as are rain and winter gear for inclement weather.

The tour includes a stop at the Silver Pagodas and a French picnic lunch on the Wall. For those who have a love-at-first-ride experience, the company can help make arrangements to ship a custom-made bike to your home. The full-day tour is priced at 2,500 Chinese yuan ($356) per person.

2. Get Insta-worthy aerial shots via drone

Launched in 2016, Airbnb Experiences are designed to be “one-of-a-kind activities hosted by locals.” It’s the medium of choice for Dong Zhao, a Beijing native who’s passionate about nature and photography. His seven-hour Great Wall tour includes transportation, entrance fees and use of a Mavic Mini drone.

Great Wall of China, from above.

Sino Images | 500px Asia | Getty Images

Facebook friends may have photos of themselves jumping, doing handstands, dramatically leaning on the ramparts or contemplatively gazing from the watchtowers, but few will have memories of the Great Wall snapped from the heavens above. The tour focuses on lesser-known sections of the Great Wall, which Zhao says are more natural and beautiful than some of the popular tourist spots.

“I think the Great Wall is a good location to introduce Chinese history to foreigners,” said Zhao. “That’s the main reason why I created the tour.”

Most of Zhao’s customers are from North America or Europe. His tour includes lessons on taking great selfies and creating vlogs. Rates start at $142 per person, with reduced prices for groups of three or more.

3. Go for a night hike

For an ethereal evening experience, visit the Simatai section of the Wall after sunset. It’s not the only section of the Great Wall lit at night, but it is arguable the nicest. Old fashioned lanterns outfitted with LED lights line a section of Simatai, making for a beautiful twilight stroll.

Located 75 miles from Beijing, Simatai is a minimally-restored section of the Great Wall, known for being a rather perilous climb. At night, travelers can only ascend the mountain via cable car, which takes tourists most, but not all, of the way to the Wall. From there, guests walk a well-paved, subtly-lit path that extends between several watchtowers.

The entire walk — which overlooks picturesque Gubei Water Town — can be completed in less than two hours. Though Simatai is less crowded than Badaling and Mutianyu during the day, the night walk is popular and queues for the cable car are common. Avoid this experience during Chinese festival periods.

Natural hot springs are also a major draw to the area, offering an activity complementary to the strenuous wall hikes.

4. Walk in the footsteps of Michelle Obama

Or perhaps more aptly, follow her toboggan trail. While the now-defunct zipline at Simatai may have been the bigger adrenaline rush, the downhill toboggan ride at Mutianyu is decidedly more tourist-friendly.

US First Lady Michelle Obama (L) walks with her daughter Sasha (R) during a visit to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

WANG ZHAO | AFP | Getty Images

In 2014, the former First Lady famously braved the toboggan ride on a visit to Mutianyu, one of the best-preserved areas of the Great Wall. Situated between towers 5 and 6, the toboggan runs all year round (excepting bad weather) and takes travelers on an exhilarating 5,184-foot, zigzagging ride down the mountain, according to Wild Great Wall Adventure Tours.

Toboggan at sunset.

luza studios | iStock | Getty Images

While it may sound scary, it’s not. Riders have a brake and can control their speeds down the metal track. Parents can ride with kids on larger toboggans. For the uninitiated, Mutianyu also offers a cable car and open-air chairlifts, or you can simply walk the mountain trails to reach the Wall.

And one to avoid: sleeping on the wall itself

There are plenty of overnight tours of the Great Wall, lasting from a single night to a week or more. But it’s the ones that offer the chance to sleep directly on the wall that cause the most controversy.

In August of 2018, Airbnb canceled a contest called “Night at the Great Wall” which offered the chance to win an overnight stay in a watchtower, after public backlash over potential damage to the Wall. Ironically, an aim of the contest was to promote sustainable tourism in China.

Camping on the Great Wall of China.

SERGEI MUGASHEV | iStock | Getty Images

Photos indicated Airbnb planned to erect a four-poster bed on the Wall. But even tents and sleeping bags are met with derision.

Questions of legality persist, with many travelers reporting a lackluster experience due to the absence of camping facilities (including toilets) in the unpatrolled portions of the wall where camping is popular.

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