Tag Archives: Great Wall of China

Hangzhou west lake with Banyan tree and boat

What Travel in China is Like Right Now

Until the end of China’s zero-Covid policy last spring, it was difficult for travelers to enter the country. As soon as China opened back up, Trusted Travel Expert Mei Zhang booked flights to spend six weeks there, visiting her staff, family, and friends. We called Mei, now back home in California, to hear how her summer trip went. Here’s what travelers should know about China right now:

Prices are lower than you’d expect. Rates at luxury-brand hotels in China have long been cheaper than comparable properties elsewhere. Add to that the strong dollar and the absence of inflation in China, and the result is far less sticker shock than travelers are finding these days in Europe. For instance, rooms at the Mandarin Oriental Beijing are going for about $600 this fall, while rates at the brand’s sister hotel in Paris are usually more than $2,000 during the same period.

More flights are coming. Nonstops between the U.S. and China have been slow to resume, which has significantly increased fares. More flights are coming this fall, which will lower prices. We’ll update this article as airlines announce new routes.

The country’s high-speed train network is vast. With so many cities now connected by high-speed rail, travelers seldom have to endure domestic flights or long drives. Mei reports that the new trains are clean, spacious, and keep to the schedule; you can even order take-out food from a restaurant near the next station and it will be delivered right to your seat.

Dragonback Rice Terraces, Guangxi, China

Li-An Lodge sits atop the “Dragon’s Backbone” rice terraces in Guangxi Province, China. Photo: Li-An Lodge.

Many UNESCO World Heritage sites are becoming more accessible. Four new spots in China have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in the last five years, bringing the country’s total to 56. A lot of these natural and cultural wonders are in remote locations, but an increasing number are accessible from the 4-star hotels that are expanding deeper into China’s countryside.

The Great Wall of China.

A savvy trip planner will send you to a quieter section of the Great Wall than the spots that most tourists visit. Photo: Shutterstock

Covid is an afterthought for most locals. Mei was surprised to find that masking was less prevalent in China than it was at home. Also gone are the widespread quarantines that made news when China was enforcing its zero-Covid policy. (These days, China and most other countries do not have specific isolation requirements for travelers with Covid.)

Most financial transactions now happen digitally. It’s hard to pay for anything in China these days with cash or even a credit card. Travelers must be comfortable adding their credit-card information to a mobile-payment app like WeChat or AliPay.

U.S. travelers are warmly welcomed by locals. Relations at the top levels of government may be frosty, but the geopolitical tension isn’t reflected in person-to-person interactions. Indeed, Mei believes travel is the best way to bridge the divide between the two countries. Her English-speaking guides—who have waited for more than three years now in hopes that travel would pick back up—are quick to go above and beyond for the first wave of travelers who are eager to visit China.

Trusted Travel Expert Mei Zhang in China's Yunnan Province in summer 2023.

Trusted Travel Expert Mei Zhang sussing out the situation in China’s Yunnan Province this summer. Photo: Marina Zhang

Mei will be back in China next spring, doing field-study work for the PhD she’s pursuing through Berkeley. She will be inviting a small group of travelers to meet her for three days of hiking in Yunnan Province (where Mei grew up), to hear how development in the region has affected the culture and environment. If you’re curious to see China right now with your own eyes—or even join Mei there next year—click on the button below.



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Visiting The Great Wall

The Great Wall of China: Secrets to Seeing It Right

Great Wall, China
The view of the Wall one way.
Great Wall, China.
The view the other. Note that there aren’t a lot of other people here with me.
Mutianyu shuttle bus
Most tourists arrive at the Mutianyu welcome area and have to take an official shuttle bus up to the Wall entrance. Traveling with WildChina meant I didn’t have to.
Mutianyu, Great Wall
As you can see from this map, you can hike among 23 watchtowers on the Mutianyu section of the Wall.
Cable car at the Great Wall
Bill Clinton rode this exact cable car up to the Great Wall in 1998. Billie Cohen rode it in 2016.
Mutianyu Great Wall of China chairlift
I visited Beijing in late March, which meant the trees had only just started to wake up from winter. In a few weeks, the view out the back of the cable car will be greener but it will also be more obscured. Also, notice the lack of haze. This is a great time of year to visit Beijing for clear skies.
Great Wall of China part that juts out
See how the Wall curves to the right? Legend has it the foreman was a little tipsy when he gave the construction order.
8 lotus shaped arrow hole Great Wall of China
Lotus-shaped arrow holes were added to the Wall in the 1580s.
9 The Brickyard Mutianyu courtyard
The Brickyard resort and restaurant is a repurposed glazed-tile factory. In a few weeks, these bare trees will be full and the onsite culinary garden will be blooming.
10 Chairman Suite at The Brickyard Mutianyu China
The Chairman Suite at The Brickyard at Mutianyu maintains the feel of the original factory, and also has some retro 1960s touches.


Everyone’s seen pictures of the Great Wall of China. And it’s been around for nearly 3,000 years. But if you’ve only seen the photos or only remember the basics from your school lessons, you’ve hardly scratched the stone surface.

I walked the famous stretch of barricade in Mutianyu, with my history-buff guide Chris from WildChina (the company run by Mei Zhang, one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for China), and he worked three bits of magic. First, without WildChina’s special access, I would not have been able to roll right up to the entrance. I would’ve had to ride the crowded shuttle bus with everyone else from the gift shop mall at the bottom of the hill. Instead, we drove nearly all the way up to the ticket booth and didn’t have to wait for anything or anyone.

Second, he timed our visit so that we were not surrounded by massive crowds. Granted, the Great Wall is China’s biggest tourist attraction, so it’s never going to be completely empty—but by scheduling my visit on a Monday around 11am, we missed the morning tour-bus crowds and were able to stroll the Wall freely, rather than crammed in among swarms of other people. Third, the history and context that Chris knew made the Wall come alive. I almost felt bad for others at the Wall—for them it was just a spot for a bucket-list selfie.

Here are nine secrets about the Great Wall of China and how best to experience it.

1. It doesn’t all look the way it does in the photos you see online.
Various tribes contributed to its growth, building different parts out of clay, earth, stone, and wood at different times as far back as 700 B.C. The Han tribe’s Wall (as in the predecessors of Atilla) was the longest, at about 11,000 miles, but it’s almost all gone.

2. But a lot of it does.
It was Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty (the first of unified China, around 220 B.C.) who effectively stitched together the tribal sections into the more familiar stone barrier we still see today. Subsequent dynasties added to it and reinforced it, and China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) extended them. There are more than 9,000 miles of the Wall left, and about 4,000 of them look the way we imagine it: built out of stone bricks. These sections were constructed during the Ming dynasty.

3. It extended beyond modern-day China and Mongolia.
There was even a stretch of the old Wall in North Korea, but Kim Jong-Il tore it down out of national pride.

4. Construction didn’t always go as planned.
If you look downhill from where the cable car lets you off in Mutianyu, you’ll see a stretch of Wall that oddly loops out from the main path. Legend has it that, in the 1500s, the guy in charge of construction got a little drunk and gave the wrong order. To this day, the Wall still juts out unexpectedly.

5. War and peace really do go together.
In the 1580s a general added lotus-shaped arrow holes to the Wall, in a reference to the Buddhist blessing for peace. In Mutianyu, look for them near your feet, where the steps meet the Wall.

6. History is still living…nearby.
The residents of the village of Mutianyu are the descendants of those who built the Wall. And during the Cultural Revolution, farmers stole stones from the Great Wall to build their houses. Even today, some of the village homes still have Walls made of appropriated bricks.

7. The Mutianyu section of the Wall has its own Hollywood sign.
In the 1960s, a giant stone sign was laid on the side of the mountain in honor of Chairman Mao; it says “Loyal to Chairman Mao.” Over the years, the brush overtook it and it was lost to sight. Seeking a way to bring attention to his village, the Mutianyu mayor in 2008 had the sign cleaned and fixed up. Look for it to the left side of the Wall as you gaze uphill.

8. You can stay overnight near the Wall and not feel like a tourist trapped in a low-budget motel.
American Jim Spears and his Chinese wife Liang Tang have long roots in Mutianyu, and are partners in The Brickyard hotel and restaurant. Built in a repurposed factory that used to make glazed tiles for palaces and temples, the whole spread was redesigned by Jim about ten years ago as a way to showcase the beauty of the area and to give back to the community he and his wife had become a part of. All 25 rooms have views of the Wall, 80 percent of the staff is local (and most are women), and 80 percent of the food is local too (with about a quarter grown onsite). Chef Ranhir Singh let me know that the tofu in my vegetable dish was crafted by a nearby villager.

9. When it comes to visiting the Wall, distance makes all the difference.
If you’re staying in Beijing, you have a few options for which part of the Wall you visit:

• The sections closest to central city are Badaling and Juyongguan. They’re also the most crowded and commercialized.

• The next step up is Mutianyu: This section is about 1.5 hours from central Beijing by car. It winds across low mountains at roughly 2,000 feet and you can climb stairs, take a cable car (as Bill Clinton did), or ride a chairlift up to it. From there, you can hike a stretch that connects 23 watchtowers. For those brave enough, you can ride a toboggan back down. This makes Mutianyu sound like an amusement park, but I found it to be not that crowded and, therefore, decently serene.

• The “advanced” option is Jinshanling. This piece of the Wall, a combination of restored and wild stretches, is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Beijing. Because of the distance, it’s usually the least crowded, and because of its elevation, the views can be stunning. But if the air quality isn’t great (therefore limiting vistas), and you don’t have time for more than a day trip, it’s not necessarily worth the effort.

• Remember that it’s illegal to hike wild sections not regulated by the Chinese museum system—and they can be dangerous if you try. Visitors have fallen from rougher areas to their deaths.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Disclosure: Wild China and their partners provided most elements of the writer’s trip (hotels, guides, ground transportation, and sightseeing entry fees) free of charge. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for coverage on Wild China’s part, nor was anything promised on ours. We agreed to this arrangement so that we could test out the services of one our Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts and report back to you on it personally.

forbidden city, china

Is 2015 the Year to Travel to China?

Is this the year to finally take that trip to China? One of the big findings from TripAdvisor’s 2015 TripBarometer study, the world’s largest traveler and accommodation survey, is that China will see the greatest reductions in hotel prices this year—a year when most countries will be hiking their prices. Half of all properties worldwide—and 59% of U.S. hotels—plan to up their room rates this year (with the biggest increases expected in South Africa, Austria, and Brazil).

There’s value for your dollar in China, for sure, but only if you’re careful. As someone who has spent six weeks of her life road-testing China every which way, I am here to tell you that China is one of those countries where, if you want to avoid unexpected hassles that eat up significant time and money, you’re better off having a China travel specialist orchestrate and book your itinerary. Factors that can foil the best-laid plans include:

* Places that were charming a year or two ago have been overbuilt and overrun with domestic Chinese tourists.

* Things in China change overnight, which means it’s tough to get reliable logistical information or accurate opinions as to which places are still worth seeing and which have been spoiled.

* The ingrained tourism infrastructure inflicts a mass-market agenda that will turn off sophisticated travelers. Without help from the right sources, you can easily get trapped at mediocre sights, with detours for forced shopping, tasteless meals at tourist restaurants, and layers of middlemen extracting cash from you at every turn.

The solution is a stellar China travel specialist with up-to-date intel, reliable taste, special access, and well-trained, flexible English-speaking guides who can get you past the lines and crowds and who understand the difference between authentic, photogenic experiences and tourist traps. My Trusted Travel Experts for China fit the bill. They know this year’s must-dos and must-skips, and they’ve shared that intelligence in their Insider’s Guides (for example, Mei Zhang’s Insider’s Guide to Beijing or Yunnan Province). So, if you’re thinking about China, reach out to me, via Ask Wendy, to find the one who best suits your needs. 

Hong Kong Via Helicopter

Hong Kong viewed from a helicopter. Photo courtesy David Allardice.

I’d love to know: Do you want to travel to China this year? Why or why not?