It’s pretty hard to explain my experience at The Great Wall, I mean… What do I even say? What does anyone say when they see it?
Let’s just say that “great” doesn’t begin to describe this incredible structure. When you walk on the stones that nearly a million workers placed there during years of hard labor, knowing it’s the world’s longest cemetery, it’s history and purpose, it’s length (over 13,000 miles btw… holy sh*t!) I mean, it’s no wonder it’s a World Wonder.
Really, what does one say when they are climbing an iconic wall that could span half the equator? This is the place that first comes to mind when ANYONE on earth even says the word “China.” This is the FREAKING GREAT WALL OF CHINA, PEOPLE! There’s no explanation or words I can really put together. It’s magnificent, enthralling, mind-blowing, and yet, those words still pale in compassion to what I felt when I was there.
But let’s move on. You’ll understand what that means when you get there, but I need to help you do that first… Trust me. You’ll want as much help as you can get! Unless you want a tour that is. If you’re wanting tours, you can check some of these out. Don’t care for tours? Good, me either, keep reading.
How to See The Great Wall of China Without Crowds or a Tour
First things first, which area do you want to see? Did you catch how long the wall was? OVER 13,000 miles! Yep, there are many sections and they are hours and hours and hours apart. So if you’re like me, and you came here on your 72-hour visa for China, then you’re going to have to make some tough choices. It’s a long story, but I’ll first just tell you that none of these walls were in my plans. I had a completely different itinerary and totally different sections to visit in my mind when I first planned on coming here. But Simatai, Mutianyu, and Jiankou are where I ended up which was fine! They were amazing! I think it’s hard to pick a bad place unless…
You go to Badaling. I haven’t been but you know those awful photos of The Great Wall that have like a bazillion people on it? Yeaahhhhh that’s Badaling. So that was never even a choice for me.
So anyway, my original plans got bumped off and this is what I came up with on the fly which ended up being great because I’ve become resilient when travel plans get moved, crumble, or explode in my face without warning! (This one was an explosion)
Dying to tell you about the story, but that’s literally another entire blog post. So… Here we go! Here’s how to see the Great Wall of China without crowds or tours.
Related: How the kindness of a stranger SAVED our asses in China!
Going to Simatai Great Wall Without a Tour
Simatai is a less visited and only partially restored wall. The restoration was really only to reinforce the structure for safety, otherwise, it’s pretty original! This is what I wanted to see. There’s no point in coming to the Great Wall of China and seeing bricks that were put there yesterday, no thanks! So I was after the most authentic experience I could find. While there are even more wild parts of the wall, this was the most accessible one I could get to for the very limited amount of time we were there for.
Simatai is located in Gubei Water Town. We stayed in the village just outside at a homestay with a family who knew about 2.5 words in English. We communicated via a translator app on their phone. It was pretty interesting!
There are three choices around the Simatai Great Wall. Obviously, there’s the wall itself and the two choices are the day and night tour (apparently the only section that offers night tours) And then you can also walk around Gubei Water Town at the base of the wall.
The town wasn’t something we were interested. It seems like a massive tourist trap to me, but I understand it. This is the stuff many tourists eat up. So if you like walking around a “Qing Dynasty-like” town that was built, like yesterday with resorts and tourist shops, then, by all means, pay the fee to get in. But that’s not for us.
Just one ticket to the wall, please! This ticket includes the bus ride up to the entrance (a few kilometers away). Hand your ticket over and start climbing! The walls are crumbling, the paths are rocky, and at some points, only one person can pass. The wall has crumbled in some spots to the point where there are just two rows of chain links preventing you from sliding off the edge of the cliff.
Your surroundings are hills and mountains, a small river down below, and some greenery. It’s peaceful. Beautiful. Breathtaking, in fact. Mostly because I wasn’t rubbing shoulders with other tourists to see this magnificent feat before my eyes. There was hardly anyone there. Amazing!
Our tiny accident…
We tried to fly our drone. After researching everything we could find, we couldn’t find anything on whether or not drones were OK. All we saw time after time were other videos of people flying drones, people not having any issues, people saying it was ok, and even people saying they flew it with some Chinese cops because they were so interested in it. Nothing official. So we decided this wall wasn’t busy and flew it. Uhm, yeah, they didn’t like that.
A security guy came yelling at Garrett and even took his picture. I immediately packed up everything, and we fled the scene. Luckily, we had hiked 90% of the wall and were fine to go. We took the cable car to get down as quickly as possible and hightailed it out of the area. We didn’t know if we were in trouble. Turns out, we weren’t and everything was fine. But I wouldn’t recommend flying a drone at Simatai, K? 🙂
Here are a few photos, but they are of poor quality as they are just screenshots from the few minute video Garrett was able to capture before we got caught.
Overall Simatai was an awesome choice! There was hardly anyone here and the wall was super authentic. They actually restrict the amount of tourist that come here which certainly plays a hand in keeping it tame even during the high season months. If you’re coming in summer, you might not even get a ticket for the day you want to go. Reserve your tickets prior to coming.
The best tips for seeing Simatai without crowds:
- You may want to stay out here since this spot is further from the airport than other areas of the wall.
- During winter, know that there will be VERY limited resources in the village outside the wall. I’m talking like one restaurant and one shop was open while we were here.
- Our ATM card DIDN’T WORK! This put us in a pickle. Our cards are very traveler friendly too, so just know that before coming! Bring all the money you may need plus some! Read all about that crazy story here.
- Don’t fly a drone here 🙂
- Don’t get talked into seeing Gubei Water Town if it’s not your thing. It’s totally optional.
- RESERVE YOUR TICKET! We didn’t but it was low season, and we also didn’t mean to come here until last minute. So I’d suggest reserving your ticket. You can do that here.
Seeing Mutianyu and Jiankou Without a Tour
Remember, we’re avoiding Badaling section like the plague, right? So if you’ve read anything besides this post up until now, you’d know this is a popular second choice, and for that, in my opinion, it’s still quite touristy. Luckily for us, it was still SO EMPTY when we were here, I’ll tell you why below.
When you walk in, the first thing you have to walk through is a barrage of touts screaming at you to buy some of their shit. “Postcard?! Coffee?! Burger!” There’s even a freaking Burger King and a Subway. Ew. Again, this wall wasn’t my first choice because I kind of knew it would be like this.
BUT this is not to say it’s not a great section to visit at the wall! It’s, in fact, gorgeous, mostly because of it’s restoration and preservation, but it’s surroundings too. Moutain tops and greenery can be seen everywhere and the watchtowers were beautiful and are rare to see in the other sections.
The best tips for seeing Mutianyu without crowds:
- If you’re low on time THIS is the wall to see. It’s closest to the airport and very easy to reach.
- Ride the cable car up and down if you’re short on time. There are two – make sure that you ride the one that goes to the left (west) (not the one that goes towards the luge).
- The part of the wall that’s towards the right seems to be less impressive than the wall on the left. So the cable car takes you to the more scenic areas right away rather than adding another hour of walking time. Your feet will thank you.
- Go early. Duh, like nearly every other attraction in the world, getting their earlier is always better. 1. more time to enjoy and 2. less crowded.
- Cross over to Jiankou Wall!
Related: How to get to China without getting a visa!
Seeing Jiankou after Mutianyu
Everyone says go to the Jiankou side of the wall after Mutianyu. They are connected, well technically. There’s actually a wall that seals it shut making you think you can’t go further. There was a man selling beverages and snacks amongst other weird stuff right there. We said hello and asked him if we could continue to the wall. I read everywhere that you could, but considering he was RIGHT THERE, I felt obligated to ask. He said it was fine as long “you make safety for yourself.” Well, we didn’t think twice about it and hopped on over.
This was another part of the wall that’s not restored, hence the reason he told us to be careful. The paths are worn, the wall is crumbling, the foliage is starting to take over, and it overall looks like it’s hardly been touched!
After hiking around for a bit, we saw a man creepily eyeing us from one of the towers ahead and decided it was time to go back anyway. I’m sure he was harmless, but at the end of the day, we took a taxi here (and he was waiting for us with our bags) and we didn’t leave anything expensive in the car. That means we had literally every piece of equipment on us (thousands of dollars worth) and didn’t really want to make a new creepy friend when there wasn’t another person in sight and we were miles from the entrance. He sucked at hiding, but yeah… why was he hiding and creepily popping up and then quickly hiding again when he saw us look at him? Didn’t want to find out! We had seen enough anyway.
Tips for Seeing The Great Wall of China Without Crowds
- Bring food and water just in case. Nobody wants to pay the exorbitant prices at the Wall for those things. And trust me, prices are laughable. Some lady tried to charge us the equivalent of $8 for two Nescafe coffees (in case you don’t know that’s like the cheapest, nastiest, fake coffee known to man. Soo, yeah… No.)
- Use the cable cars to your advantage. Low on time? Got to get to the airport by the evening? We did when we were at Mutianyu and we didn’t want to take all day and wait last minute in Beijing traffic to get to the airport. So cable car it was! You will be walking A LOT. Ride it. Also, it’s a great way to escape when you get caught droning…oops.
- Wear comfy shoes. For real, though!
- If you go in winter like I did (Feb), layer! You will get warm walking up the stairs and then cold again when you walk down. So you’ll need to peel off layers then easily put them on later.
- Get an early start.
- Get private cars everywhere. Is it more expensive? Of course, it is. Is it more convenient, giving you a better chance to get there early, less stressful, and overall making your life WAY easier? Yep. Public transport outside of Beijing is tricky and getting on buses, trains, and walking from here to there while on a 72-hour visa and trying to enjoy yourself will be more of a nightmare rather than a magical time at The Great Wall if you even make it in the end. Shell out the cash and stop being stingy. This isn’t the right time to save.
My Biggest and Best Tip For Visiting The Great Wall of China without crowds:
Go in off season, dude. I went in winter (February).Like any other place on earth, going on shoulder or off season is literally the best time to go to these popular destinations, especially The Great Wall! Sure there’s a bit of a risk that it may rain or snow, or it will be cold (OK, nvm, it’s going to be cold it’s WINTER!) BUT during the height of the season, you think it won’t by chance rain? Do you think it won’t be hot and you won’t sweat so much that you can practically cure California’s drought problem?
Yeah, Nah. Pick your battles, my friend. I was happy to go when it was cold because when you’re walking up those stairs, you get hot. But I didn’t sweat a drop, my body got to a really nice temperature where I didn’t have to wear my jacket.
Tips for Visiting China
- Download maps.me (which is only OK in China, but better than nothing) or just use your AppleMaps… if you can.
- Just know that these things won’t work in China: Anything Google (I shit you not), Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and pretty much everything else that you use daily.
- You’ll need a VPN if you want to use any of those things and not a free one either because they overall suck. I had a plan from back in the USA so I was able to use Google. Otherwise, if you can live without everything that’s blocked, then just use the wifi and bing.com to search for stuff. ExpressVNP is the most recommended!
- Get your hotel written in Chinese at the airport. Get everything written in Chinese if you can! OK, it’s not that bad, but yeah, we would have never found our homestay if it wasn’t written in Chinese because a screenshot with an English address isn’t going to cut it for your taxi!
- If you have a VPN or a cell plan from back home (which will allow you to use the banned stuff! Hooray!): Use Google Translator App! It’s amazing. You can take a pic and translate or speak into and it will translate. It literally saved our asses a few times. Download another translator app if you can’t use these, you’ll need it!
- If you’re on your 72-hour visa for China, you’ll get free luggage storage at the Beijing airport and its open 24/hours! No need to lug that suitcase around for only three days! Take a day pack and run out the door. Sweeeeet.
More China questions? Go check out my friend Richelle’s blog. She’s pretty much the expert blogger of China. You can find her at AdventuresAroundAsia.
Related: What a one-night layover in Shanghai is like.
What are the prices for seeing The Great Wall Without a Tour?
(Prices in RMB)
800RMB – (This was split between Garrett and I) This was for the taxi to take us to the homestay out in Gubei. Not really the cheapest, but our friend Richelle said we didn’t get shafted too bad. We had been on over 30 hours of transit and literally took the first thing offered. I haggled from 1000 to 800. Gubei is further than the other sections too, so it wasn’t THAT bad plus we had a huge van to ourselves and desperately needed to sprawl out and nap. (About a 2.5-hour drive on a toll road)
40RMB each – Entrance to the wall.
90RMB each – Cable car one way (down to the entrance)
More info on Simatai.
Mutianyu and Jiankou
700RMB -(This was split between Garrett and I) Taxi to come from Beijing to pick us up at Simatai and take us to Mutianyu, wait, then drop us off at the Beijing airport. (Pretty good price for all that! The town in Simatai was so desolate we didn’t bother trying to find a taxi there.)
160RMB each – entrance ticket and round trip cable car together.
(There’s no extra fee for Jiankou)
More info on Mutianyu.
How to get to China for CHEAP
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WARNING: Making itineraries with Skyscanner is totally addicting. I can’t be responsible for any spontaneous flight purchasing!
So there ya have it! The Great Wall of China without a tour and especially without the crowds is definitely the way to go.
Are you interested in seeing these sections of The Great Wall of China?
Would you go see The Great Wall of China in winter?
What to do with a one-night layover in Shanghai?
How to get into China visa-free!
How a stranger helped us when we were in trouble in China!
Pinning is sexy
*We are working with Skyscanner on this One Way to Everywhere journey! They have sponsored our flights for this collab. I've been using them for over six years, so yeah... Do I even need to say all opinions are my own? :)