A Guest Post by Rose Trafford from The Compass Rose
When you hear the word “China”, what is the first thing you think of? Chopsticks? Mulan?
Maybe. But I’m guessing that most people immediately think of one thing-
The Great Wall of China
A wall is a basic structure, but where in the world has one been assigned such infamy? At 13,171 miles, The Great Wall of China is easily the longest wall in the world. And of course, on my first trip to China, I HAD to see it during my 3 days in Beijing.
If you’ve heard people talking about the Great Wall, you may notice an interesting choice of verb usage. They will usually say they “hiked” the Great Wall. When I heard this my first thought was “Hike? Don’t you just walk along the top of it? It’s practically like a paved road, right?”
So, so wrong.
There are different sections of the Great Wall built across a span of 1,800 years. The ‘newest’ sections are from the 17th century, so none of it is really new at all. Some sections have been repaired and new, straight blocks have been brought in. Other sections are old and crumbly, steep and scary, and really not fit for anyone but marathon runners and Navy Seals to tread on.
I may be exaggerating a bit, but the point is that ‘hike’ is a very accurate verb to use, and if you really want to have a great experience on the wall, mentally prepare yourself for a hike.
Speaking of hiking if you have a layover in Hong Kong on your way to Beijing, consider hiking the iconic Lion Rock.
For my first visit to the Great Wall I visited the Jinshanling section. I have since visited the Mutianyu section of the wall, but Jinshanling was my favorite. See a short summary of different sections close to Beijing at the end of this post.
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Practical Great Wall information and why you should take a tour
I know that many travelers scoff at organized tours and want to do everything for themselves. Let me tell you now: unless you speak Chinese, China is NOT the place to do this. China is the place to do your research and hop on a tour.
Trust me, I have been there four times. Do not be afraid to take a tour. Yes, you can visit some sections of the Great Wall via public transit, and many people have done it. However, I don’t think it’s worth the hassle. What if you fall? What if you drop your wallet somewhere on the wall and you can’t pay for the bus back? What if you can’t find the bus that goes back? I have no partnerships with tour companies and no ulterior motive, but I believe that for most people it makes sense to go on a Great Wall tour. Keep in mind that if you go in the summer, the heat is debilitating and you are going to be exhausted when you are done. Save yourself the trouble and have an air-conditioned bus bring you back to your hostel/hotel. Most tours are around $60, which I believe is a very good price to visit such an amazing place.
Read More: How to spend 5 days in Beijing
Visiting the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall
Now I can talk about different parts of the wall, but when I first visited I had no idea what was going on. It was one of those experiences where you leave all the planning to your more responsible, logistically savvy friends and just cough up the cash. However, I’m pleased to say that it all worked out, and visiting the Great Wall in Jinshanling was just as magical as I hoped that it would be.
My friend booked us a tour that picked us up straight from our hostel in Beijing. Riding an air-conditioned bus (this is key in the summer, seriously) with lots of other travelers, we headed out of the city. The buildings, smog, and endless stream of bicycles and cars slowly faded to a highway with actual greenery on either side. Our guide seized the microphone on the bus to tell us about where we would be dropped off, how long the hike was (11km/6.8mi), and what time to be at the parking lot at the other end.
We started walking along the top of the wall and my eyes soaked in everything around me. As a child (growing up in the Midwest), China seemed so far away. The language, the architecture, and the images of emperors and empresses of dynasties past might as well have been on a different planet back then. But now it all came down to this man-made feat in front of me. The rocky wall was almost empty – after the occupants of our bus self-paced according to speed and ability, it was just me, my friend, and the stones. This is why I highly recommend the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China, solidarity.
The stones in the wall at Jinshanling are crumbly and steep. Some steps are easier, reminiscent of walking across a rocky brook as a child. Other parts required all of my concentration. I was toting a drawstring bag with a water bottle, my wallet, sunscreen, and a melty Snickers bar for sustenance. I carried a DSLR camera in another bag across my shoulder. Anything more would have been too much- after 20 minutes my back was drenched in sweat, and my friend and I stopped frequently for a short break and some water (honestly though, this was more because of me than her).
Occasionally we passed other hikers, but mostly they passed us. There are also vendors on the wall; a smart business move that relies on a captive audience who may not be prepared. I absolutely recommend bringing your own water and snacks, but they will likely be available (at inflated prices) somewhere along your route.
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The Jinshanling wall goes up and down, winding around the top of the mountains. Every now and then we reached a watchtower- a welcoming area of shade and a home to cheeky initials of past visitors. Etched, penned, or even white-outed letters and characters proudly marked the presence of tourists over the course of years. Please don’t be one of these people. It’s disrespectful and defaces this historical landmark.
Aside from their markings, being in the watchtowers summoned images of armies and war to my mind: fit Chinese soldiers running from watchtower to watchtower, sending messages to the rest of the army. Flags flown, fires lit, the constant vigilance required to protect an empire. Ultimately the wall was overtaken many times, but the sheer endurance and countless man-hours required to create it is something to marvel at.
After a few hours of walking, photography, staring at the scenery, jumping pictures, thinking about history, and marveling at how much energy you can get from a Snickers bar, our journey along the Wall came to an end. We walked back down to the parking lot, welcomed the air conditioning, and sped off back to Beijing.
I mentally checked off a childhood dream, and was pleased to note it was just as spectacular as I hoped it would be.
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Sections of the Great Wall
The Badaling section of the Great Wall of China is the closest to Beijing and, as a result, the busiest. It is also the most popular with Chinese tourists. I wouldn’t recommend this route unless you have limited mobility, as it is the most wheelchair friendly.
This section is a bit farther out from Beijing but is the most restored. Parts of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China have been redone with new flat stones to make it “easier” – although it is still steep – to walk on. This route does have a cable car to bring you to the wall (DEFINITELY take this, or you will use all of your energy just getting to the wall) and also a luge to slide back down (a bit extra but fun).
The Simatai section of the Great wall is even father from Beijing- around 120km. It was closed from 2010 to 2014, so some outdated information may say that it is still closed. It is more difficult to hike, and repairs to this part of the wall have been limited to maintaining structural integrity, not actually making it easier to climb.
Near Mutianyu, the Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China is yet not restored. It is the most wild, steep, and dangerous part of the wall that is accessible to tourists. Visit and hike with caution.
To me Jinshanling is the happy medium of all parts of the wall that are accessible from Beijing. It is still ‘wild’ and definitely steep, but it is not as dangerous as Simatai or Jiankou. It is the most popular for hiking yet still is not as busy as Badaling or Mutianyu. The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China has beautiful views of the mountains and it is far enough away from Beijing that you could actually see blue sky. Jinshanling, in my opinion, is the best section of the Great Wall of China.
Specialty sections of the Great Wall of China (More than just hiking)
The Gubeikou Great Wall section has not been restored. It is in it’s original state since it was built in 1567. It is the site of many battles. And if you know where to look, you may even find some bullet holes in the stones.
The Huangyaguan section of the Great Wall is where you can run the Great Wall Marathon. Considered to be one of the most challenging Marathons in the world, the Great Wall Marathon hosts over 2,000 runners from 60 countries. Don’t want to run a marathon? They have a half marathon and 8.5km fun run as well.
The Shanhai Pass section of the Great Wall of China is one of the best preserved passes on the Great Wall. It links the Yan Mountains and the Bohai Sea. Engraved on one of the gates are the words, “First Pass Under Heaven,” so it has become known by that name as well.
What to look for in a Great Wall of China tour
When choosing a Great Wall tour, there are a few things I would look for specifically:
- Air-conditioned bus: This is only really needed in the summertime.
- Pick up and drop off from your hotel/hostel: Usually available within the inner three ring roads of Beijing
- NO SHOPPING: Some tour operators will take you to markets where they get a cut and pressure you to buy things
- Note if there is a meal or water provided and plan accordingly
- It’s possible to combine Great Wall tours with the Ming Tombs, Chinese Opera, or other excursions: Keep in mind how much you can realistically do in one day and how much time you have. If you really want to hike the Great Wall of China you might want to skip tours with additional add-ons.
- Look for good reviews but also take them with a grain of salt: Some people just don’t know what they are getting into and leave bad reviews.
- Note that some Chinese tour websites have outdated designs and aren’t user friendly: This does not mean they don’t have good tours.
- Go by word of mouth or ask your hostel team which tours they recommend
- Less than $80 USD
Hiking on the Great Wall is a must see do activity when visiting China. With a little prep work, you can enjoy this amazing structural feat and beautiful mountains hassle and crowd-free.