Make a long layover bend to your adventurous needs and visit the Great Wall of China.
Do you (like most) dread long layovers? Have you ever scoured over the inter webs for plane tickets. Only to find the most efficient ones are the most expensive?
Or do you filter them by ascending price which will most likely come with a long layover and or a convoluted route with Red Eyes (which is the REAL cause of Night of the Living Dead)? Dread no longer and spend a long layover in Beijing by exploring the Great Wall of China.
If your budget can not bend or a direct flight is not an option, there’s a solution. Turn that dreaded long layover into an adventure that will have you clicking onto the submit to cart button every – single – time.
On our way back to the States for the Christmas holiday, we dominated a long layover by filling it with an adventure. Tim found business tickets for economy prices through Air China. Uhhh, super score! Not only that. The miles counted toward our Kris flyer accounts -double score. AND for the win, the long 9-hour layover in Beijing allowed us enough time to see The Great Wall of China. Travel WIN!
Finding the right Tour Company in Beijing for long layovers.
We booked a tour with Beijing Layover Tour . I found this company via Trip Adviser. Based on the reviews and solid ratings (check it out here). It felt like the right choice. From start to finish, they were absolutely the right choice. Their response time and detailed information could easily calm the most anxious of traveler.
Exiting Beijing (PEK) International Airport on a Visa-free permit
Our flight landed at 6 a.m. With our arrival cards filled out, passports and printed connecting flight tickets in hand. We immediately headed to the 144 hrs visa-free pass window as per instructed. We also had our itinerary which was provided by the tour company. Some have said to provide this at the Visa window, but it was never asked for it.
Navigating the airport was simple as the signs are also in English. Once we received our visa-free stamp we shuffled through immigration and customs. We were ready for adventure during our long layover in Beijing.
We took an in-service airport train to the Arrivals area and met our tour guide, Tony. Instantly his demeanor was so welcoming. He was easy to talk with and very friendly. His English was clear to understand and his sense of humor immediately shined through. He ushered us out of the airport to meet our driver. I can’t remember the make of the car but it was luxurious.
The traffic to and from the Great Wall was nonexistent and the drive was about 1.5 hr. On the way, Tony told us about Beijing and the history of The Great Wall.
When is the best time of year to visit the Great Wall of China?
May to October is the most popular time to visit. During the winter months, there is a possibility of snow. Autumn is the most beautiful time to visit because of the foliage and weather is comfy and dry.
We visited in mid- December and the weather was cold. Fuuh-reeezing. 40F – I know, I’m a wuss. The ice cold air definitely smacked me in the face leaving the airport. Although whilst on the Wall and hiking I was definitely peeling off layers.
The day we arrived we were lucky with the weather. Tony mentioned that the weeks prior to our arrival the visibility was very poor due to smog. The day for us was clear blue skies.
Which part of the Great Wall of China is best to visit?
The Great Wall of China began it’s life over 2,300 years ago. It took 200 years to build and stretches over 13,000 miles. I wanted to see all of it, but we had limited time.
My best advice is to pick a section that fits your needs and situation. Things to consider when planning is time, weather, who you are with and your own and their physical capabilities.
There are 3 sections to choose from. Badaling, Mutianyu, and Juyongguan. Badaling is the most famous of the areas. Mutianyu is a bit farther and less crowded. Juyongguan is the closest to Beijing airport (1 hour). All areas are very reachable for long layovers in Beijing.
We chose Mutianyu – Great Wall of China
It’s over a mile in length and has 23 watchtowers. It was originally built in the mid 6th century and then rebuilt in 1569.
There are 3 methods to arrive at Mutianyu. One can hike, take a 2 rider chair lift up or a 4 rider gondola. The same choices are for the descent with an extra option. A wheeled toboggan on a winding metal track.
At the entrance, Tony organized our tickets and escorted us to the gondolas. The sheer magnitude of the Great Wall started to settle in. The views were getting progressively getting better.
We arrived to an area where Tony encouraged us to venture on our own. We had 2 hours to explore and I had my eye on a far watchtower that was set high on peak of a mountain. I thought. We are here & it would be stupid not to try and make it to that distant peak.
Why I will come back to visit the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is a spectacular experience.
I am in awe of its magnificence. Interesting enough, I recall having a conversation with an acquaintance who found the Wall to be underwhelming. How was this possible? I’m starting to think this person was shown something else and was told some random wall was it. Maybe? Or we’re just not cut from the same cloth.
Now having been there. I would love to revisit the conversation as I have so many questions for this person.
I found this place impressive. With every step, elevation, watchtower, and peak, there’s a vibe that gave me goosebumps. I noticed in the faces of my fellow tourists they felt it too. They all had wide eyes, smiles and amazed looks on their faces.
The more time I spent on the Wall, the more of an intense sense I got of the sheer magnitude of the place.
Over a decade ago, former President Barack Obama ventured to The Great Wall of China and while standing on the Wall said,
“Our time here on Earth is not that long, and we better make the best of it.” – Barack Obama
Can you believe people run marathons here?!
What’s also impressive is the thousands of people that run marathons on The Great Wall, yearly. The steps and the inconsistency of the stones definitely intensifies the challenge.
For me, I would be too distracted with looking around at the views versus looking down trying to prevent myself from missing a step and face planting.
What I love about the Wall are the curves that come with the ascents and descents. Each incline and range of steps is different. Nothing was consistent and I loved it. The steepness of steps definitely keeps you on your toes.
At one point, I was literally using my hands and knees to climb up steep steps. To get down I invoked my inner child and naturally did what toddlers do. I turned around faced the steps and crawled down. No shame in my game.
I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that people run a marathons on the Great Wall. I watched a few YouTube videos of marathoners literally crawling up the steep steps. To their credit, this part was at the 20-mile marker. The incline and length looks absolutely INSANE. Days prior to the race, runners are given access to walk the hill of stairs to either downgrade from a full marathon to a 1/2 marathon or upgrade.
After watching a few videos, it looks like such a positive event full of high fives, tons of mental & physical toughness from all backgrounds across the world and every competitor has a huge smile that came from achieving a huge accomplishment.
Every year, this race sells out. 2,500 runners from 60+ countries migrate to run.
If you are thinking about running and wondering how many hours it would take you. Most runners add 1 -2 hours onto their normal marathon time to complete the course.
I’d rather eat durian for that time period. Hmmm, okay maybe not. Watching vids of Great Wall of China marathoners, almost makes me want to participate. I SAID ALMOST.
People dedicate years to the Great Wall of China
Some get so infatuated with running the marathon, that they do it every year. Check out Henrik Brandt who’s been running it every year for 18 years. AND did his first race after 2 months of training!
It only took a few minutes of me being there to understand why some have a deep draw to The Great Wall.
To some the Great Wall of China is so fascinating that they have spent years dedicated to hiking it. For Ooi Thean Hin it has taken him 8 years to explore it.
Ooi’s intention is to promote the awareness of C.O.U.N.T (Compassion, Optimism, Unity, Nature and Tomorrow) through his hike.
“Every fortunate person to demonstrate the Compassion of one’s heart and donate to the destitute and needy, so that together we can share and partake in the Optimism and hope for the Unity of all peoples to preserve the wonders and beauty of Nature for our children of Tomorrow.”
– Ooi Thean Hin
Would I do another layover in Beijing?
I would absolutely take advantage of a long layover in Beijing (& maybe hike into Mongolia if I had the chance). If and when I have another layover, I would like to see the Forbidden City, Tiananem Square, Jingshan Park and Wangfujing St.
8 Facts about The Great Wall of China
In case you’re prepping for Jeopardy or Trivia Pursuit.
1. The wall is not a long continuous wall but a serious of walls. Some sections the Wall can split or overlap. The intention wasn’t used to keep out intruders, but to funnel them to areas providing an advantage to oversee from watchtowers. Also, technically it’s not a wall. It’s a road (I’ll let this one sink in). It’s a road for better communication – think chariots & horse riding on this wall… I mean road. “Unagi!!” (Ross from Friends).
2. In China the Great Wall is referred to, as cháng chéng which translates to Long City, Long Wall or the plural tense Long Cities, Long Walls.
3. It’s one of the 7 wonders of the medieval world.
4. It’s a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
5. It is the longest structure to be built by man.
6. I was not expecting to see so many cats upon arrival. They were everywhere.
7. Some claim The Great Wall of China is haunted.
8. Are there human bones in the walls?
The Great Wall is also known as the ‘the longest cemetery on earth”. It’s been reported more than a million people died building the wall. Considering the length of time it took to construct (200 years) and when it was built (+2,000 years ago). Yeah, people did die. The laborers were soldiers, commoners, and prisoners.
The rumor is there are human bones in the wall. Some reports from archaeologists have found human remains under sections of the wall. Which is highly like to be the remains of the people who built the wall. Under sections of the wall not in the wall. Not to be confused from the movie 300 when the Spartans put dead Persians in a wall.
8 Tips and Tricks on a Long Layover going to the Great Wall of China
Here’s what to know before you go
- Before making any bookings check here if you are eligible for a Visa-free on arrival.
- Consider the additional airport hours to determine if you have enough time to venture out. You will need to clear through the Visa process, immigration, customs, take the in-airport train. To check back through security to our connecting flight took about 40 minutes. Don’t forget to consider if it’s a holiday (going in February? Factor in Chinese New Year aka THE GREAT HUMAN MIGRATION).
- Always check the weather before you go (duh for any travel plans). Fortunately for us, the skies were clear. The tour that we booked also provided heavy coats if we needed and water. No matter what time of the year it is, walking along the Wall you will need water at some point.
- From your original airport starting point, check your baggage. Let the airline do your heavy lifting. We did have a small carry on, which the driver allowed us to keep in the trunk of the car that was kept secure. We had zero issues with this.
- When going through security. Check your airlines’ policies if you plan to have lithium batteries. Also, be prepared to take out ALL of your electronics and accessories. I was surprised that I had to empty out all the pieces of my camera, lenses, GoPro, all batteries and chargers.
- If your flight lands early. That’s a good thing. You will be lucky to get out early & to venture with less crowds.
- Exchange or get cash BEFORE arriving at the airport also know your conversion rate. It will save on time when you arrive & it’s good to do, just in case your ATM card isn’t accepted in the ATMs available (check with your bank if the airport has your ATM). Plus you will want to tip your tour guide and driver. They are amazing.
- When going through the Visa Free Pass line. Put on your patience pants. We arrived at 6 a.m. and it took us an hour & 1/2 to get through. The line was already very long with only 1 person working the window. My exchanges with the tour company (and my assumption of their experience) they were certain it would take us 2 hours. They were pretty accurate as we had an extra 10 minutes to grab a coffee.