Everyone knows the Great Wall of China right? And no first time trip to China would be complete without it correct? Well in fact whilst most average tourists are perfectly satisfied with simple day trip to the most touristy part of the wall, namely Badaling, we take a look how you can explore far more of the wall, and see it in a whole new light. For example, did you know that it is possible to spend the night by the wall itself in a hotel, even sleeping in a watchtower if you so wish? You can take a helicopter ride over the Great Wall, to take in far more of the view. For the more active types it is possible to run or even cycle sections of the wall, and for families there are cable cars and toboggan rides. Not bad right?
Whilst it is certainly possible to combine your trip to the wall with other Chinese delights such as the Eastern Qing tombs, Ming tombs, Qing era summer palace at Chendge or the Ming era village of Chuandixia, there are certainly plenty of ways to spend time on and around the Great Wall of China.
History of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is simple humungous. I don’t think you can truly explain the full scale of it until you have been and seen it in person. You hear all the stories about it being visible from the moon and after seeing it with your own eyes it is truly believable. The Great Wall approximately follows the edge of Inner Mongolia, which was of course once a part of Ghenghis Khan’s Mongol Empire, and is effectively a series of fortifications, running from Lop Lake in the Gobi Desert right through to the Bohai Sea in Shanhaiguan.
Parts of the Great Wall were actually built as early as the eighth century BC, although building of the Great Wall stopped and started throughout the years. Notably, between 221 and 206 BC in the Qin dynasty. Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s project to unify China as one saw construction of a connected Great Wall with Beacon Towers. Apparently, they had effectively created the world’s first basic telegraphy system by communicating along the wall with smoke, flag and also gunpowder signals. Pretty clever stuff for the times.
It wasn’t until some time later throughout the 14th and 15th centuries that wall building became high on the priorities list again, when the Ming Dynasty felt threatened by tribes from Manchuria and Mongolia and began building 23ft thick and 23ft high sections of the wall, significantly helping to boost the Ming sovereignty.
The Great wall as it is today, encompases parts of both the older and newer constuctions. The Chinese over the years began to call it the ‘Wan Li Changcheng’ which translates to the ‘Long Wall of 10,000 Li’ or as the rest of the world refers to it ‘The Great Wall’. Just for reference, a ‘Li’ is a measurement that the Chinese use that works out at approximately 1,640ft. Fairly recently in 2012, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage for China announced that over the last 5 years it had been carrying out a survey of the Great Wall and found it to measure 13,170.69 miles. That’s quite a long way isn’t it!? Just in case you were getting any silly ideas about walking it!
Parts of the Great Wall to Visit
By far and away the most popular part of the wall with tourists, Badaling sits approximately 37 miles to the northwest of Beijing and is therefore very accessible. This part of the Great Wall opened back in 1958 after some heavy restoration and has become full of the usual tourist stuff including a plentiful supply of souvenir shops, restaurants and even hotels. The health and safety brigade have also fitted this part of the wall with a guard rail too and there is also a cable car that is very popular.
Of course, the upside to all this tourist friendly stuff is that this is without a doubt the most wheelchair friendly part of the wall as it is fitted with lifts and ramps etc and it is also very easy to get here from Beijing too. Infact, the S2 line of Beijing’s rail network actually links Badaling to Beijing in about 90 minutes. There is also a new section of road that make it vastly quicker for buses and taxis too.
Another section of the wall that is also quite popular with tourists (although not quite to the extent of Badaling) is Mutianyu. Indeed, Mutianyu provides photo opportunities everywhere you look with a gorgeous scenic landscape and vast, steep slopes. You can easily leave the crowds behind here too, with a short but not exactly flat walk taking you away from the main bulk of the tourists if you so wish. Mutianyu also features Ming era guard towers and parapets that provide budding photographers with plenty of material, and family attraction here include another cable car, a toboggan ride and a chair lift that the kids are sure to love.
Jiankou is a section of the Great Wall that is a little further afield at 48 miles from Beijing and is currently unrestored so is a great way to see a totally original part of the Great Wall. Supposedly, hiking is not allowed on this section of the wall although a lot of people do still seem to hike here. A local guide if definitely recommended as is the use of hiking poles. The views here are simply stunning of either side of the wall but we wouldn’t walking here in bad weather.
Jinshanling and Simatai
These two sections of the wall often come together to form a popular combo where hikers can enjoy walking from one section of the wall to the other as they are only 6.2 miles apart. Typically, it is then popular to get a bus or taxi to pick you up at the other end. Be aware though, this part of the Great Wall is very steep in some placing making hiking fairly hard work but it’s easy to get your distance from the regular tourists.
Simatai is approximately 86 miles away from Beijing itself and had recently undergone some major repairs and construction. Set in vast sweeping yet empty hill only lightly covered with trees, the setting provides a great backdrop for a hike. A cable car is also provided here, allowing you to take it as far as the eighth watchtower. Speaking of watchtowers, their regular placement here make them an easy way for hikers to track their progress. As this part of the Great Wall was mainly built within the Ming dynasty, period features are commonplace and provide plenty of photo opportunities.
Jinshanling is the slightly further away of the two sections and is approximately 95 miles from Beijing and allows you to see both upgraded and original parts of the wall. This section can be steep for hiking, but with only a few hawkers doing their thing here, it’s a nice section of the wall to walk on.
At a more reasonable 48 miles from Beijing, this part of the wall feels surprisingly isolated if you like that kind of thing. It’s certainly an incredibly beautiful section to visit with blooms in spring and chestnut trees. This section of the Great Wall actually even runs underwater at a reservoir on Haoming Lake, making for some very nice and unusual photographs.
Although this section can be very slippery at times and also steep, it is very popular with hikers. Be aware though, along with being a little slippery there are also no hand rails so it is recommended that you wear the correct footwear. It is even possible to walk to Jiankou or Mutianyu from this part of the wall in two to three days.
Inner Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and Gansu
Much further afield here you will find some of the oldest and most original sections of the Great Wall. From the fourth century BC, you will find such delights as the Zhao Great Wall, near Hohhot. Various trips can be taken to see sights such as the Jilu and also Gaoque fortresses.
Sadly, time and the weather have not been too kind on parts of the wall here with little remaining of some sections. At Silk Road, Gansu province, the fortified wall here is well worth a look. It is in fact one of the most complete surviving military buildings from ancient times with a vast number of tombs and turreted towers it is truly breathtaking.
In the Gobi desert, the Yadan National Geological Park takes up a wide valley littered with various rock formations. You can actually see the Great Wall at the Yumenguan Pass which actually marked the western border of China at the time of the Tang dynasty. This is also the case at the Yangguan pass further south. Many years ago, these passes would have allowed an entry and exit point for traders looking to do business with central Asia.
When is best to go?
Probably the best time would be spring, as temperatures are a little more manageable for hiking (unlike the summer) and the surrounding look lovely and green at this time of year. Early to mid autumn is also a good choice with similar weather. Winter can be difficult as temperatures can plummet to below freezing. As far as time of day is concerned, most times are fine but if you are looking to avoid the bulk of the crowds then early morning or even late afternoon will be your best choice. Also, with regards to the crowds, we would recommend avoiding Chinese holidays as well as weekends, especially during the height of summer.
As with some other Chinese attractions, avoid the cheapest tours if you can as they will quite often encompass trips to various jade factories, medicine centres and so on. Effectively, an excuse for them to try and sell you something. Check this will not happen when booking. Also be aware that some tour companies will only allow you a couple of hours at the wall. Great for having a quick look around but not so good if you want to explore the Great Wall a little further.