The Great Wall Of China: Which section has public transport?

When we think of the Great Wall of China, we know it’s a long snaking wall that extends for thousands of miles, yet 90% of tourists go and see the same crowded part! This article will cover the main sections from Beijing, how to get to them (including public transport) and which is best.

So there are actually four main areas of the Great Wall of China which are most accessible to tourists from Beijing. The most popular and easiest to reach are Badaling and Mutianyu. There are also Jinshanling and Simatai sections but it is harder to see those because they are further away.

There are other sections as well, but as these are further from Beijing you would need an overnight stay somewhere else to reach them, and this guide only covers sections of the wall you can do in a day trip starting from Beijing.

Overview of the four sections of the Great Wall accessible from Beijing in 1 day:

BadalingMutianyuJinshanlingSimatai
Distance
(from Beijing)
1 hour1.5 hour2.5 hour3 hour
Reconstruction?In 1957In 1569ADIn 1570ADIn 1987
Busy?Very!A bit.A bit.No.
Length of a day trip4-5 hrs5-6 hrs8 hrs8+ hrs
Public transport?YesYesNoYes

Picture this: You are standing on a four metre wide section of wall, elbow-to-shoulder with dozens of other tourists. You try to take a selfie of you on this once-in-a-lifetime experience but someone knocks your arm and when you get back, you have one blurry shot and a couple more pics of the hundreds of tourists surrounding you, all chattering away on Wechat to their families telling them that they have visited the Great Wall.

That’s basically what Badaling section of the Great Wall is like. Most organized tours of the Great Wall will take you here as part of your itinerary and it is so crowded. Every photo I’ve ever seen from any trip to Badaling is the same. It’s just packed with people in every direction. After ten or fifteen minutes, you go back onto a big bus and are whisked to the next sight for more of the same.

It is also a very recent reconstruction from the 20th century, so mostly what you are seeing is a re-visioning of what it originally looked like.

Having said that, if you’re interested in heritage studies, you might like to visit Badaling because it was the first section of the wall to be opened to tourists in 1959.

If you shuddered at the thought of being stuck in such a big crowd, you’ve come to the right place. Now picture this instead:

You climb a hill to some ski lifts which slowly propel you to the base of the Great Wall, where you disembark and climb the steps to the top. There are watchtowers ahead and behind you. Free to move, you look out at the view. You climb to the top of one of the watchtowers and look out from its roof. Although there are plenty of other tourists around, when you take a photo, with a little effort, you can get pictures with no one else in the shot.

That’s better, right? I think so, too. That’s Mutianyu section of the wall. If you get to choose which part of the wall to visit, and it’s your first (or only) trip to China, I absolutely recommend Mutianyu over Badaling.

For our trip, we hired a car, driver and tour guide via our hotel’s travel agency. We were staying at the Marriott hotel in Central Beijing so they offered a range of different day trip itineraries and they organized everything, all we had to do was show up and pay at the end of the day.

Our guide discussed the history with us on the way to the wall, and he came on the wall with us. We spent about an hour up there, and he also took us to the Ming Tombs, which were about an hour’s drive away, and the Sacred Way Dongbeikou.

It was a full day out of Beijing and we started at 8am and returned to the hotel at about 6pm, although there were a lot of road closures and very heavy traffic around the edge of Beijing that day because Donald Trump was doing his presidential visit (we had bad timing).

Getting back to the car from the Great Wall of China, we had another surprise. Remember we got here by ski lift? Well to get back down again, there was a fun slide which you go down on some sort of kart! It would have been a lot more fun if this middle aged Spanish woman in front of us hadn’t got scared and kept hitting the brake on her slide kart.

Getting to the Great Wall of China by public transport:

Badaling has a very easy-to-get tourist bus which will take you there. Currently, it is the bus 877 which leaves from Deshengmen Bus Station. If you miss the last bus back you may have to get a Didi (taxi) back, so be sure to download the Didi app.

The Mutianyu direct bus departs from Dongzhimenwai bus station in the city centre at 8:30am. However this is difficult to find and the 916 from the main Dongzhimen transport hub (easy to spot–subway, buses etc) takes you almost all the way, then you can get a second bus or a Didi to the wall. Overall, getting to Mutianyu by public transport relies on you being able to follow a multi-step process with lots of chance of failure (and apparently, so-called “black” buses wait around near Dongzhimenwai, “black” not being the colour, but named from the black hearted people who tout these fake tourist traps, aka scammers), so personally I would try to book onto an organized trip instead unless you either speak and read good Mandarin or are really broke; if it’s the latter, you would be better going to the Badaling wall in my opinion as it’s easier to get to.

Jinshanling wall is accessible by tourist bus from Beijing during the summer. It is at the same bus stop as the Mutianyu tourist bus so I’m not sure how you would know which bus to take to which section of the wall, except this bus departs at 7:40am. There is technically a train, but it’s a 5 hour ride which is a 10 hours round trip! There’s also a way to get there by public bus but it’s frankly complicated.

I would honestly not recommend taking the public bus to Jinshanling out of season unless you speak and read good Mandarin because there’s too much chance of something going wrong, which would leave you stranded quite a distance from Beijing where you will struggle to even get a Didi home. However, if you are braver than I, and quite competent at Mandarin, the lure of being able to walk this 10km stretch of wall unaccompanied is strong.

Simatai is the same tourist bus as Jinshanling and you just go east instead of west when you get off the bus as these two sections are side-by-side. Next time we go to China, I look forward to hopefully taking my Chinese driving test (foreigners may not use or transfer their driving licence to China) and being able to drive to the Simatai and Jinshanling sections of the wall so we can spend a day there on our own itinerary.

The advantage of the Simatai section of the wall is that most people travelling out there are actually going to see Jinshanling section of the wall, meaning Simatai is almost empty.

Best time to see the Great Wall of China

Beijing is still quite warm in November and I would recommend September-November to see the Great Wall as there’s a lot of walking (and if you take the bus, a lot of waiting around and sitting in a bus) and I can’t imagine it’s comfortable in the height of summer’s heat.

It’s also the time of year when there will be the fewest tourists, although if possible, you should avoid the Mid-Autumn festival as Beijing city is quite busy at this time (Golden Week is fine, though). Other times to avoid are Chinese New Year as all of China is busy that fortnight, and all of July/August, as that’s when most westerners come to China.

Visiting the Terracotta Warriors

The first time we went to Xi’an, we thought it would be easy to organize a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. Unfortunately, a catalogue of bad luck meant we had to return to Xi’an–when I was 7 months pregnant–to see the terracotta warriors.

On our first trip to Xi’an, I didn’t know I was pregnant (I just thought I was… late, y’know?). We’d flown from Nanjing Lukou airport, and stopped by the amazing Hello Kitty store, where I’d bought this beautiful (and VERY expensive, and totally unnecessary at that point as we were embarking on 2 months of wandering around the world and didn’t need more crap to carry) Hello Kitty carry-on suitcase.

When we arrived at Xi’an airport, the driver came to meet us and I took my Hello Kitty case but my husband insisted on carrying it (sweetly). We reached the airport’s underground car park and my husband was struggling to figure out where to put my new case. I tried to explain from inside the car but he couldn’t seem to understand, so in a hurry to stop him damaging this new case, I jumped out of my side of the car, ran around to where he was trying to put it in the car… and on the way, my foot caught on a 4-inch-high metal bar that served no purpose whatsoever and wasn’t marked or really visible in the dim car park. Because of the way my foot caught, I flew up in the air and landed hard on my hips, which were straight across the bar.

At first I thought I’d broken something. My hips were screaming in agony, the impact had reverberated through my spine and my hands, which had hit the concrete at speed, were also making a lot of noise. I have sensory processing issues so I shut down and couldn’t move because everything hurt too much.

When I could take in anything at all, the Chinese driver and my husband were both trying to talk to me and help me up but I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone touching me right then. I dragged myself to my feet and stumbled to the car and on the forty-minute drive to the hotel, I cried all the way because, aside from the pain, it felt like something was really wrong inside me and I couldn’t figure out what.

I couldn’t walk properly for three of our five days in Xi’an. Add to that, the ladies running the hotel didn’t speak any English at all and my Chinese wasn’t enough to ask them if they had any contacts through which to book a trip to the Terracotta Warriors (almost everything in China gets done by someone who knows someone who will introduce you).

I know a lot of people will roll their eyes and wonder why we didn’t take a bus, but I don’t do coach trips because I get very, very bus sick and the amount of travel sickness pills I’d have to take would make me too drowsy to do anything when we arrived, so we only really do things we can walk, train or car to (please don’t email me with “cures”, I’m 33 and I’ve tried them all, thanks, so I won’t respond).

So we spent the whole week in Xi’an just exploring the city itself (which had some great finds in it) and never saw the Terracotta Warriors.

That story ended a week later in Kathmandu when I got rushed to hospital in the early morning because I was losing a lot of blood, and it turned out we had lost the baby. I know that if the fall in Xi’an had been responsible, the baby would have miscarried a week earlier, but I never quite got it out of my mind that this happened in Xi’an.

That made it very, very difficult to contemplate returning to Xi’an, especially now I was heavily pregnant with a baby we’d conceived exactly three months after the one we lost in Kathmandu.

When my husband got an unexpected vacation week in May 2019, about 14 days before I was due to leave China and fly to Ireland (with the intent of giving birth there), I was 27 weeks pregnant and we needed to pick one thing to do.

There were dozens of things I hadn’t done yet in China which I wanted to. But really the choice came down to two main things that were important to me: The Terracotta Warriors, or the pandas at Chengdu. I even looked at how viable it would be to do both in one week (the answer is you can, but not if you’re heavily pregnant because you will have less energy, move slower, and need more breaks).

We decided we couldn’t leave China without seeing the Terracotta Warriors (I’ve wanted to see them ever since we did about the First Emperor of China in school when I was 11), so even though I never wanted to return to Xi’an, I found myself planning this trip.

By this point, we had learned that we enjoyed our travels best when we did luxury travel, so we booked a Marriott (the Sheraton was our other fave). Some people think you miss out on the “real” destination by doing luxury travel but I disagree. I do truly believe you miss out on a lot of what a country has to offer when you don’t sample the haute cuisine or any of the high-end amenities that are on offer.

There’s a balance to be had, but China is a trip of a lifetime. I’ve said before I don’t think people who spend days and days on cheap coaches being zoomed from one place to another with no freedom to roam or explore gain a great perspective on this mysterious country.

When we arrived at the hotel, we asked the Concierge to book us a driver to take us to the Terracotta Warriors. When you’re pregnant, you really appreciate leather seats, air conditioning, extra legroom and someone to open your door for you.

The warriors were left where they’d been found, and someone has built a protective cover over them. There are three main buildings of them. Then there’s a nicely-landscaped area between them. I was very surprised to see few westerners there. I would have thought it was the number one destination in China for western tourists.

Getting around when pregnant was hard because the site is ENORMOUS! It took a full travel day to see everything. We had to keep stopping for me to sit down, and my ankles had done this thing where they wouldn’t do stairs properly so I had to take them very slowly. And there are a LOT of places where you need to go up or down stairs, here.

Throughout my travels while I was pregnant, I never experienced anyone pushing, shoving, or touching me at all until we went to see the Terracotta Warriors. The rest of Xi’an was completely fine, but here, the usual suspects (middle aged women, mostly, but also teenage boys) were pushing and shoving like their lives depended on it. Several times, I had to shout “excuse me!” (sarcastically) or “I am pregnant!” at people in Mandarin who were trying to walk through me, and I was glad I’d learned those phrases.

I will stress that this isn’t normal for China. Everywhere else, people were so lovely about the fact I was pregnant. For example, I never had to ask for a seat on the Xi’an Metro. People in China usually treat pregnant women better than a librarian would treat an original Shakespeare document.

Disabled access to the terracotta army

There is also some disabled access to parts of the Terracotta Warrior museum site, but you won’t be able to get the same views of all the warriors if you can’t do stairs, and you will absolutely need to take a carer with you to do basic things like open doors and get you up and down entry steps.

Seeing the Terracotta Warriors with a baby or toddler

With a baby or toddler, this is definitely a place to take a baby carrier or an umbrella pushchair, rather than a heavy buggy, so you can just carry your little one up and down those stairs.

Honestly, I don’t think this is a great experience for very young children, they won’t know what they’re looking at and there is basically nothing here for them to do and there aren’t any brightly lit or colorful displays.

Taking a newborn would be best, for you to see the Terracotta warriors yourself, or wait until your children are at least five years old so you can explain what’s going on (they will probably still get bored with the indoor areas at this age but you could manage this by doing them in chunks, mixed with time spent outdoors). The barriers around the warrior pits are quite high so anyone under 10 probably would struggle to see into the pits without help from an adult.

Overall, I had a blast in Xi’an aside from getting hurt. But if we returned to China now, with our fourteen-month-old baby, and we had only one week of vacation, I would go to Chengdu to see the pandas, or Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen, where there’s tons on offer for little ones.

Conclusion

I am glad we returned to Xi’an. Our luck was better the second time we went and I was able to get closure on the baby we lost, by safely exploring the city while I was pregnant. I highly recommend seeing the terracotta warriors if you are childless or taking older kids; what happened to me at the airport was just a very unlucky accident. I don’t think it’s a place with a lot to do for very young children but China in general is very kid-friendly so I can foresee this area changing in the future.

Photos