While most people cringe at the thought of long layovers, I find them great opportunities to explore a city I might not have visited otherwise. So when I had the chance to select a flight with a 17 hour layover in Beijing on my way to Thailand, I jumped at it and took the opportunity to visit the one and only Great Wall of China.
After an overnight flight, I arrived in Beijing around 7 am and was greeted by so much smog I could hardly see the other planes lining up at the airport gates. I disembarked and headed straight for immigration, where I waited impatiently to be stamped into the country. Typically, Americans need a visa to enter China. However, in Beijing and a few other Chinese cities, Americans can enter the country without a visa for up to 72 hours if they are transiting (Obviously double check this. It’s correct as of writing, but visa information changes all the time). It took two hours, but I finally got a cool passport stamp and was on my way.
I should probably note that it is possible to take a paid tour to the Great Wall from either central Beijing or even the airport. I looked into this option because it’s definitely the easiest way to go and they are reasonably priced. However, none of these tours worked with the timing of my flight. So, instead, I opted to take the hard route and go to the Wall on my own.
After going through immigration and customs I made my way to the Airport Express train. This was pretty straightforward since the Beijing airport is clearly marked with signs in multiple languages, including English. I grabbed some coffee, boarded the train and sat back for the 45 minute ride to Dongzhimen Station in central Beijing, enjoying views of smog along the way.
Once I got to central Beijing, things started getting more complicated. With no WiFi, the only guidance I had was screen shots of a vague blog post I found online that described how to get from the airport to the Great Wall. Fortunately, most signs on the metro were in English so I eventually found my way to Line #13 and hoped I was going in the right direction.
After about 40 minutes on the metro, I got off at Huoying. I had to find my way to Exit G4 and then walk to Huangtudian Railway Station, which was BY FAR the hardest part of the whole trip. Who knew finding an exit would be so damn hard. And even when I finally did find it, I was convinced I was in the wrong place because the area was desolate and had a really sketchy vibe.
Eventually though, I stumbled upon a railway station that looked like it was crumbling into pieces. The only thing that reassured me was another foreign couple that looked just as confused as I was. We realized we were, in fact, in the correct place and managed to buy tickets for the next train that would take us to the Wall. I had about an hour to kill so I sat on the floor of this sketchy train station and tried not to fall asleep from jet-lag.
The train was late to arrive, but eventually I was on my way to Badaling, the most popular section of the Great Wall to visit. As we passed through the mountains, the smog began to clear and you could see the Wall in a distance. After about an hour we arrived at Badaling Station where I disembarked and hopped on a shuttle bus that took us to the main entrance. Fortunately, things were a breeze at this point because Badaling is a major tourist attraction, meaning signs are in English and it’s easy to just follow the crowd.
After buying my ticket, I took the gondola to the top of mountain and started exploring from there. Typically, I’m very against gondolas. I believe if you’re too lazy to put in the effort, then you don’t deserve the view at the top. However, in this case it was necessary. Because I only had a few hours to spend at the Wall, I decided to take the Gondola to the top and then make my way down to the other entrance at the bottom of the mountain.
Overall, I was really impressed by the Great Wall. I was kind of expecting it to be like other tourist attractions where you show up and are like “that’s it?”. But the Great Wall really was quite amazing, stretching into the horizon as far as you can see, climbing up mountains like a snake. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised by how beautiful the surrounding mountains were and how steep the wall was (seriously, some portions were a real workout!). I enjoyed wandering around for a few hours, taking in the views and occasionally stopping to take photos with Chinese people who acted like they had never seen a Westerner before (maybe they really hadn’t, I don’t know). I would love to know how many Chinese family vacation photos I am in.
The only downside to visiting the Great Wall during a long layover was not having much time to explore. Because I had a flight to catch that night, I had to be really careful about the time and make sure I had plenty of time to get back to the airport, factoring in that I would likely get lost on the way back. Additionally, because I was short on time, I was limited to only visiting the Badaling section of the Wall. There are many amazing and less touristy sections you can visit if you have more time and it’s even possible to do a multi-day hike! Overall though, it’s safe to say this was the best layover I’ve ever had and I hope to find my way back to Beijing one day to explore the Wall more.