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Great Wall of China travel guide
You cannot talk about China without mentioning the Great Wall. Besides being an triumph of engineering, to actually contemplate its sheer size and significance – fortifications constructed from brick, stone, wood and packed earth that snakes its way across 8,850km of mountainside – is to consider over 2,000 years of cultural isolation and political endurance.
The Great Wall of China is perhaps the world’s greatest manmade wonder: it is not just a link with the fabled emperors of the past, but a physical expression of our sense of China as separate from the rest of the world.
You can visit for a day – there are cable cars and a toboggan run for those who fancy more of a saunter than a hike, or revel in a two-week itinerary that combines nights in homestays and guesthouses with daily treks of up to seven hours.
The further you go from Beijing, the more authentic and less crowded it becomes, but when you do reach the Wall, you’ll quickly realise that this incredible run of ramparts, strung out along a twisting, dipping, east-west line, must be seen to be believed. To witness such a feat of human achievement against a landscape of chestnut trees and blooms is to fulfill the trip of a lifetime.
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By far the best way to get explore the Great Wall of China is on two feet and how far you venture along its twisting, turning route is marked out for you in sections that start from about 2.5km in length. The most popular sections – Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshanling and Jiankou – are between 1.5 and 3 hours by road from Beijing and are best reached by private car because public transport to the areas is both infrequent and crowded. At a steady pace on a pretty even surface, a 4km stretch of wall takes around 4 hours to walk, while the wilder sections can take days to explore, and, at sections close to Beijing, weary legs are offered relief in the form of a cable car to ferry you back and forth.
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One of the upsides of the Great Wall’s location so close to Beijing is that you can still visit even if it’s not the main element of your China trip. This is not without downsides though; the most visited section close to Beijing – Badaling – is always besieged by tourist hordes and has the souvenir sellers and fast-food outlets to support this. It’s well worth heading further off-the-beaten-track.
Wild and unaltered, the Gubeikou section of China’s Great Wall stretches for about 20km and is marked by 143 beacon towers; an historical nod to its great military significance. Unlike other, more crowded sections of the Wall, Gubeikou hasn’t been restored and its distinctive blend of irregular rocky surfaces, steep steps, and centuries-old pass gates make it a hotspot for hardy hikers.
Unique for many reasons, not least because parts of it are immersed in water, it’s also possible to camp along sections of the Wall at Huanghuacheng between May and September, and there’s a fascinating 500-year-old chestnut orchard at its foot. You can take a boat ride to appreciate the architecture from an entirely different perspective or hike around the lake and its lush vegetation.
A collection of castles and tall towers built along a mountain ridge, Huangyaguan is a representation of the entire Great Wall, but in miniature. Built against a pretty special backdrop of verdant mountain scenery, it hops up and down between cliffs and crags and is the site of the annual Great Wall Marathon every May. Don’t miss the Eight-Trigram Streets; a zig-zag of lanes and T-junctions.
Apart from danger, what do you get if you cross wild disrepair with a mountain ridge and steep cliffs? Jiankou. Completely wild and perilously steep, it winds its way along mountain ridges in a rebellious ‘W’ shape watched over by a mean looking enemy observation tower and steep steps that ascend heaven bound. Experienced photographers and serious hikers need only apply.
Considered one of the most beautiful parts of the entire Wall, Jinshanling is remote and isolated; it hasn’t undergone a repair since 1570. With jaw-dropping views across the Greater and Lesser Jinshan mountain ranges, it is as popular with budding photographers as it is with hikers looking for an atmospheric walk and is characterised by 31 watchtowers all in different shapes and sizes.
Mutianyu is the biggest, fully-restored section of the Wall that’s open to visitors and, although it’s been repaired sympathetically and is a master class in how to get rebuilding right, like Badaling, it can get very crowded at peak times. That said, with cable cars up and down and 23 different watchtowers to explore, it’s very child-friendly and can be reached within 90 minutes of Beijing.
About 75 miles outside of Beijing, Simatai is steep and inspiring with sections of wall that wind their way up and then plunge dramatically down jagged ridges and cliffs. It’s wonderfully intense, especially in autumn when the surrounding scenery is a sea of deep red leaves, and its three hour distance from the capital means that big crowds are kept at bay too.
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Temperature & rainfall will always play a part in deciding upon the best time to visit the Great Wall of China which is why our monthly weather chart is so highly rated.
Walking the Great Wall of China involves some physical challenge, but it's also about exploring an ancient icon as it winds its way through some of the country’s most beautiful natural landscapes.