The best way to enjoy the Great Wall of China? Eschew the group tours

The wall is best enjoyed independently, separate from group tours. Pic: Insider Journeys

THE Great Wall of China. If any place is an absolute must-see during a trip to Beijing, it’s this.

While not as ornate as the Forbidden City or as colorful as a stroll through the city’s hutongs, the Great Wall is in many ways symbolic of China’s history. It is the image most foreigners associate with China since early childhood, a symbol that transcends the many eras of the country’s history.

Hopping on an all-inclusive tour may seem like the most hassle-free way of going about seeing the Great Wall, but take a minute to consider other options before forking over RMB200 (US$30) for a seat on a tour bus.

A number of companies advertise trips to various parts of the Great Wall, touting their great service, round-trip transportation and plenty of time to sight-see.

What they usually don’t tell you, however, is that your itinerary will also include pit stops at places like jade museums and silk factories, where store clerks and guides will try to strong-arm you into purchasing overpriced goods.

It's common to come across vendors pushing overpriced goods. Pic: jesabele/flickr

Tour operators also make deals with these other companies to include their museum or factory on the tour. This is common practice in many Asian countries, but never much fun for the tourist.

Most Beijing hotels and hostels offer assistance in booking trips to the Great Wall, whether that’s being part of a tour or hiring a private driver so you can avoid the hassle of dealing with tour companies directly.

They can also offer recommendations for which parts of the Wall to see, where to eat and where to stay if you choose to spend the night outside the city.

But going it alone is also an option, and a much easier one than most people realize. This allows you to spend as much, or as little, time on the Great Wall as you’d like, without having to worry about a tour group’s timetable.

It takes a little extra planning than simply tagging along with a tour, but it’s usually well worth the extra 30 minutes of coordination.

Tours will take you the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Pic: eatswords/flickr

Buses run from the Dongzhimen transportation hub, at the center of the city, to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Mutianyu is less crowded and commercialized than sections like Badaling, the most famous stop along the Wall.

This trip involves about a two-hour bus ride out to the Mutianyu area, and, depending on which bus you take, a cab ride to the base of the structure. Bring a book or your iPod, and the journey is quite pleasant. But be prepared for the ride back to Beijing.

If you depart late in the afternoon, the bus may have standing room only, so the best bet is to head out early and head back before 3pm.

Taking a public bus, or a private car, to the Great Wall affords you the luxury of exploring at your own leisure, whether that means walking the ancient structure for hours, snapping photos or perusing the myriad goods offered at the shops around the area.

Trekking the wall independently means you get to enjoy the surrounding tranquility for as long as you like. Pic: Elena G/flickr

Vendors near the Great Wall will overcharge for cheap T-shirts and souvenirs, so be sure to bargain and don’t be afraid to walk away, no matter how good a price may sound. They will usually call you back and agree to negotiate a better one.

The Beijing Couchsurfing forum has frequent posts from travelers looking to round up a group to visit interesting parts of the Great Wall that tend to be less overrun by tourists, so if you eschew the set tour but would also like some Wall-climbing companions, be sure to check the CS site before you plan your own excursion.

The exception to the tours-are-not-your-best-option rule is if you have the time and inclination to camp at the Great Wall. In that case, going through an organized tour actually is your best bet, and companies such as Great Wall Adventure offer several packages for overnight stays.

SEE ALSO: Tourists walk along terrifying glass bridge on the side of China’s Tianmen Mountain