How to Visit the Great Wall of China on a Beijing Layover
When it comes to world wonders, it's easy to see why the Great Wall of China is one of the most epic creations ever to grace this earth. Obviously, it was a must-see on my bucket list, but I wasn't sure when that reality would happen. Thankfully, due to a carefully plotted out layover in Beijing, I was able to take that day trip to the Wall and fulfill a life goal. It's so easy and simple to do and makes for a great use of time if you're flying and need to break up a 10-15 hour flight with something to stretch your legs.
Check out this video of the highlights of our layover.
On our way to Japan from New York City, the cheapest flights ended up being $520 through Air China with a layover in Beijing each way. The layover on the way back was only 1.5 hours, but on the way to Japan, the shortest layover for the cheapest price was 7 hours, which wasn't a good amount of time to leave the airport and an awkward amount of time for trying to entertain yourself in the terminal.
So I searched for a longer layover time for the same price and found a 22-hour one that would be the ideal time for popping out to Beijing and the great wall. When planning this, check out your options for a lengthy layover and/or use the multi-flight tools on search engines like Google Flights or Momondo to try and get a stay in Beijing for 72 hours or less.
The reason for 72 hours or less is because you are able to get a free short-term Chinese visa for stays that are less than 3 days (otherwise it's $140 for US citizens and you need to get it in advance before you arrive). The free visa is the perfect way to get into China for a short time and not spend a lot to do so.
When you arrive from your flight, don't go to customs. Before the customs and immigration area, there is a desk for short-term transit visas that you must go to before you try and leave the airport. The line may be long and take a while, so anticipate a 2-hour wait after landing to get this done. There are multiple forms to fill out, and you can go up to the desk and ask for them to fill out as you wait in line to save some time. Once you get stamped and approved, you can head out of the airport.
China is fairly cheap, so it's not really a burden to use taxis and I would suggest this after you land rather than trying to use public transportation to find your accommodation (unless you've heavily researched before how to get there). I think it was only about $10 for our 30-minute taxi ride. We stayed at the Happy Dragon Backpackers Hostel, which wasn't too far from the airport. It was only $21 for one night and included a private shower and toilet. Because of our jetlag, we practically fell into bed so we could wake up early the next morning for the tour.
We reserved this tour through Viator with a driver named Jack who was very sweet and picked us up at 6:45 am to head to the Mutianyu section of the Wall. It was good to arrive early as the Wall can get incredibly busy during the day. We got there around 8:30 a.m. and Jack helped us purchase our tickets for the attraction and told us he'd be waiting for us and we could come back whenever we liked.
You arrive into a sort of town with food and shops before you head to a bus shuttle which takes you up the hill to the entrance. From there you have two options for getting up the hill. There's a tram that can take you up or a cable seat. We took the cable seat, but I admit I am not a fan of heights so I was a bit stressed out the entire ride up the mountain.
Once up at the Wall, just walking around as much as possible is so lovely. As we were there in the autumn, the leaves were starting to change and the foliage was colorful and perfect. We spent about 2 hours exploring the lanes and turrets of this world wonder and taking in as much of this historical monument as possible. Our timing was good because around 11 am, hoards of people started to roll in, so we took that as our cue to go.
Getting down from the Wall was so much fun. You can take the tram down, but the best way is to take the toboggan ride. It's a little car you slide down on and it's exhilarating. You can control the speed and it can get a little scary at times, but it's safe and there are signs along the way to warn you about turns and your speed level.
After making back down, we met our driver, who took us straight to the airport and ended our short, but fantastic run in Beijing. If I could go back and do anything differently, it would be to have a slightly longer layover so we could've gone to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square as well since we didn't have enough time on this round. Now enjoy the pretty pictures I took on our Beijing layover.