If you are like me, your earliest memory of the Great Wall of China is Big Bird climbing up the steps to the top of the wall, being awestruck in his big-eyed Muppet way, and wandering down the tan-stone walkway amidst a few sparse visitors, all of who smile and wave. While Big Bird might have been right about the letter ‘A’, this Great Wall of China story is not totally accurate.

In real life, the experience of visiting the Great Wall of China at Badaling or Mutianyu is more like a ball game. You and your fellow travelers clutch your admission tickets in your hands climbing the entrance stairs to join the crowd of fans, all buzzing with earnest joy, atop the wall. There is a tinge of sweat and soda dappling the air and the atmosphere is a hum of foreign voices overarched by the clear English of the vendors hocking cold water, hats, and books on Mao.

As if it’s a chant, you and your friends keep reciting ‘It’s the Great Wall of China’ in pure wonder, which lives undeterred even as you take a look at the pictures you are taking and notice a flat similarity to them and the thousands of Great Wall pictures already online.

If you’re like me, this is amazing and amazingly not the generationally unifying or soul soothing refuge for which you had set out to commune (I’ll be it – with a camera), but it can still be something special and unique if you create a trip that allows it to be. Like most popular attractions, for a more personal experience, it’s best to arrive early and avoid holidays. Aside from the usual tips, here are some suggestions to make your Great Wall of China experience truly memorable.

Get Out – The absolutely easiest option for creating a trip and memories unique to you is to visit the wall at either Shixiagan Great Wall or Jinshanling Great Wall. These more remote sections of the wall have significantly less tourist and offer vistas rarely seen. However, even after reading this, most people are still going to end up traveling to Badaling or Mutianyu because they are the most accessible. Don’t think though that this means that you can’t have a special, unique trip.

Make it an Adventure – While there are dozens of tour providers bending over backwards to take you to the wall, skip them and find your own path, one way to do this is by public bus. This can be a challenging experience (especially if you don’t speak the language), but persevering and getting to the wall on your own terms will make some lifetime memories and feel like a personal victory. For me, I tell the story of how I got to the Wall via bus more than I share my impression of the site itself. If you choose this option, keep in mind that you are on the public transit’s timetable – don’t miss the last bus out.

Take in the other Attractions – This is the hardest suggestion to follow because most people are literally racing to get up on the Wall. However, at Mutianyu, there are several attractions to see along the path leading up the mountain, including a cave and a small museum. Investing in these moments as well as the Great Wall will make the entire trip richer and will round out an average ‘I went to the Wall’ story because no one expects to hear about a trek through a red-lit cavern along the way. Also, if you want to do the cable car, you can see these attractions going either up to or down from the wall.

Go The Distance – To get away from the crowds and see sections of the wall that are almost never visited, arrive early, point yourself in a direction, and go. Bring a bag lunch or buy a sandwich before you head out, and time your hike so you’ll have plenty of time to get back before the last bus out.

The through line of all of these tips is to simply spend time on the Wall and make it important. What’s easy and typical is to race up to the Wall, wander around for a bit and head back to the city – the ‘Big Bird tour’ if you will. You can choose to make your trip a unique and special experience simply by investing a little bit more time and wanting to make it special.

This story is brought to you by the letter ‘C’.