Standing on the Great Wall of China landed on my bucket list at a very young age. (Although at age eight or whatever, I definitely didn't call it a bucket list.) So when we went on a family trip to China OF COURSE we made an excursion to the Great Wall, and it was cool! But, you know, in some ways it was like any other tourist attraction anywhere. We went to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is the most accessible from Beijing and which, if you read the interwebs, is so touristy and tacky that no self-respecting white person with any taste would go there. I am here to tell you: it is totally fine and it was absolutely the right decision.
So here's the deal. There are reasons why Badaling is considered a touristy nightmare. It is the most visited section of the wall - the internet tells me that combined, Badaling and Mutianyu (another section not too far from Beijing) see over 10 million visitors per year. You can reach the wall via gondola -- which we totally did, also totally worth avoiding a dusty uphill walk from the parking lot. What's more, you can come down from the wall in one section on some sort of toboggan track -- this one we skipped. Lastly, there is a very sad bear park with bears in cages at one of the exits. None of these are attractive characteristics to me, and honestly, had I been on my own or with just Hannes, I probably would've insisted on going to another section of the wall. But for our family group of eight people, this was definitely the way to go.
So what were the positives? You can get to Badaling on a two-hour bus ride from Beijing for the cost of something like $2 per person. Any other option would have meant hiring a private driver for the day for more like $50 per person, or some serious adventures in public transit which we weren't quite up for. Also, the Badaling section is the best-restored section of the Great Wall, with hand rails in many places. I wouldn't have thought that this would count as a plus for me, but let me tell you, some of the sections were steep. For a multi-generational outing, I was really happy to have handrails and not to have rocks crumbling under our feet.
I will let you in on a secret. Visiting Badaling is just like visiting Yosemite -- if you are willing to walk a little bit, you can escape the crowds. We took the gondola from the parking lot up to the wall, and right where the gondola drops off it is madness. Like, seriously crowded. Everyone seems to want to go up to the highest tower in this section, and up until there, it was packed. But we just had to keep walking for about 20 minutes, and the crowds almost completely thinned out and were no longer a bother. Sure, we weren't alone, but China is a country of 1.3+ billion people, you don't come here for the solitude, right?? (Okay, there are plenty of places in Western China where I'm sure you could find solitude, but not on the more typical tourist route in the eastern part of the country.)
I have a hunch that the wall itself is going to look pretty similar no matter where you go if you are choosing someplace accessible as a day trip from Beijing. Elsewhere in its 5000-mile stretch, I bet it could look very different. And speaking of day trips from Beijing -- I wouldn't pin your hopes on getting out of the city and into the fresh air -- that certainly wasn't the case for us. It felt exactly as smoggy at the Great Wall as it did in the city itself. I didn't feel like it was affecting my breathing, but I missed seeing blue sky -- the sky was generally white and hazy. I will say however, the haze did make for some romantic pictures in the end. If you want to plan a trip to Beijing and avoid poor air quality, my advice to you is to wait 10 years, or plan your trip around a sporting event for which the government will temporarily shut down the coal-fired power plants (it's not just for the Olympics, a colleague of mine happened to be there during another track and field event and had great air quality). Even though the trend is towards improvement, poor air quality is going to remain a reality in eastern China for a while.