Hiking China’s Great Wall

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At Mutianyu, about 56 miles north of Beijing, the Yan Mountains appear as a series of dramatic crests and the Great Wall’s ancient stones snake their way up and down the green ridge tops. The ramparts, dotted with watch towers in this section, form a path between the peaks.

At times for brief stretches it’s just us–my husband, two children and I– hiking.

For the first time in days of exploring Beijing, we hear the wind in the trees as well as chirping birds.

Andy, our guide, is right. It’s worth the nearly two-hour drive to explore here instead of at Badaling, the most visited section. However, there’s a gauntlet of vendors to get by before entering the cable car that lifts us to the wall. As we walk by the merchants wave us over, yelling “good price for you.” They’re hawking cherries, hats, tablecloths and T-shirts. Even the faux Mongol warrior and his camel posing for photos try to snare us.

But by the time we climb the steps to the ramparts and walk through the lookout tower, we see only a few other hikers. This is a good place to start on a day outing along the Great Wall. From here in about a third of a mile, the path climbs steeply uphill to the next ridge.

A Chinese sentry pacing out his watch hundreds of years ago savored much the same view as we enjoy–except for the haze, of course,—a result of Beijing’s pollution. Blue sky images of the Great Wall, we learn, are either rare or Photo Shopped. Beijing, gearing up for the summer Olympics, is a fascinating if frustrating city. Traffic swarms, main avenues stretch ten lanes wide, hordes of bicyclists, many with children propped on the handlebars, dart around parked trucks, and the air tastes acrid, a result of the ever-present pollution.

With 11 million people and an urban sprawl covering 10,450-square miles, Beijing initially overwhelms us. Think Manhattan (about 23 square miles) multiplied 400 times—taller skyscrapers, denser crowds, a constant stream of buses spewing exhaust, few tree-shaded sidewalks plus an-ever present, eye-burning grit. Connecting to Beijing requires work.

That’s why we’re glad we chose a guide, private car and driver for our 12-day family trip arranged by Asia Transpacific Journeys. Not only do we gain freedom from getting lost in Beijing’s endless traffic, but we find out about the culture from a local. The favorable exchange rate of 7.3 Yuan to the U.S. dollar makes the splurge more affordable.

A good place to stay in Beijing is the Raffles Hotel. Well-located a block away from the pedestrian shopping street Wangfujing and not far from the Forbidden City, the hotel includes the façade and marble lobby of the former 1900s Peking Hotel plus a newer wing.

The property, on Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold list, offers over-sized rooms, an indoor pool and work-out facility, plus exceptional service. The business center provides laptops as well as snacks and in-room massages are available. After a long day of walking, treat yourself to the 45-minute foot massage for about $30.