Walking the Great Wall of China

Nowhere is the potential of Chinese ambition and solidarity better demonstrated than the Great Wall. Astonishingly, this immense feat of engineering was begun as long ago as the 7th century BC, and remains a formidable architectural triumph. The Great Wall is actually a series of structures measuring some 21,000km in total that have been rebuilt and maintained over centuries, with most of the existing wall dating from the Ming Dynasty. Designed to protect the northern border from invading Mongols, and control and impose duties on Silk Road trade, it is without doubt one of mankind’s greatest architectural achievements – and the best way to explore it is on two feet.

The Great Wall coils from the east coast to the Gobi Desert over rural countryside and steep mountain passes. Dilapidated and unstable in places, it has been eroded by the elements, graffitied and torn apart so its stone can be used for construction work, yet it remains among the world’s most iconic structures (and no, it can’t be seen from space). The sections closest to Beijing are in the best condition, often sensitively restored. In other more far-flung areas the wall has either been carelessly patched up or allowed to fall into disrepair, but it is these stretches that you can have almost entirely to yourself, far from the day-tripping crowds.

Many China highlights tours include a few hours hike on the Great Wall, but for anyone keen to really understand it, strenuous point-to-point itineraries that last a week or more are the way to go.

All along the watchtower:
which section should I walk?

A Great Wall hiking holiday will take you over several different stretches of the wall. The rule of thumb is: the further you get from Beijing, the smaller the crowds. Below we take you through a few of the best known sections.

Badaling

The most popular section of the Great Wall for its proximity to Beijing, Badaling is in excellent condition for walking, and millions of people traverse it every year. In the summer and during Chinese Golden Weeks the wall is very crowded and best avoided. However, like Mutianyu, it is one of the few sections that have a degree of wheelchair access.

Gubeikou

Bulletholes pockmark the Gubeikou section, remnants of the conflict between China and Japan in the 1930s. Many battles were fought over Gubeikou, and guards in watchtowers would light beacons using wolf dung to warn of attacks. This is the most intact section of the wall, beautifully unrestored since the Tang dynasty. It’s not especially tough-going, though it has its moments.

Huanghuacheng

The only section of the wall running through a lake, the gently undulating Huanghuacheng tract is appealingly weatherbeaten. Its name translates as ‘Yellow Flower City’, as in summer the surrounding mountains are blanketed in yellow wild flowers. Steps can be steep in places, but it’s generally quite an easygoing section.

Jiankou

Not many people tackle the Jiankou section; those that do will be glad they brought a camera. The most photogenic part of the Great Wall is all about hawks and eagles perching on towers that cling precariously to plunging cliffs. It’s very atmospheric, but the walking can be hazardous in places so you’ll need to watch your step.

Jinshanling

Incorporating five mountain passes (not too steep), 67 tall watchtowers and two beacon towers, some of the most interesting original architecture is to be found on the Jinshanling section, including weapon stores and soldiers’ bedrooms. Note the engraved bricks with symbols that denote when they were laid and by which troop.

Mutianyu

Among the best preserved sections of the wall, Mutianyu is another well loved section as it’s both child-friendly and suitable for people with limited mobility to visit (there’s a cable car, chairlift and a fun toboggan slide trail down). The Mutianyu section is about 5km long, lined with watchtowers and the walls here are almost eight metres high, and five metres thick –guards on this bit must have felt pretty cocky.

Simatai

The Simatai section of the Great Wall passes the water town of Gubei with its lake and river channels. Steps here aren’t too steep, but not all of Simatai is in good condition and it can be pretty narrow in places too. Sunsets here are sublime though, and because it’s a three-hour drive from Beijing you shouldn’t encounter too many other walkers either.

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Great Wall of China walking holiday

Great Wall of China walking holiday

Trek along various contrasting sections of the wall

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How fit do I need to be?

Well maintained sections such as Badaling won’t prove too challenging for most people, and a reasonable level of fitness should suffice. You will want to be a fairly experienced walker though to tackle the Jiankou stretch, where the wall can be crumbly underfoot and you will have to scramble in places. Most sections involve a lot of steps: Heaven’s Ladder at Huangyaguan has a particularly steep climb with over 200.

On restored sections of the wall you should get on fine with a pair of trainers, but as you may be hiking for up to seven hours a day on a Great Wall walking holiday, proper walking footwear is your best bet and poles can also be useful.

In the summer, carrying plenty of water with you is a good idea, though popular sections are lined with hawkers that will also sell you an umbrella for shade – check it works first before you pay!

“Be prepared for some scrambling, and a little rock climbing in parts, but for the most be ready for lots of steps of varying heights. You will need plenty of energy, but it well worth the experience! There are a lot of local people who benefit from this holiday, as they run the homestays, and I must say the food is REALLY good.” – Phyllis Ryan reviews a Great Wall of China walking holiday

Practicalities

“One of the great things was the amount of contact we had with local farmers and their families. Despite the obvious language restrictions, using our guide we were able to communicate with them and felt using the homestays for overnight stays and for additional meals did benefit the local people.” – Lynne Oakerbee reviews a Great Wall of China walking holiday

Many people choose to venture further away from Beijing for their wall walking in an effort to escape the crowds. Rural accommodation is often fairly basic, but the guesthouses and homestays run by local families that you’ll stay in are always very welcoming. On a point-to-point walking holiday, you will be driven to and from the different sections of wall every day, and your luggage will be transferred between accommodations so you only need to carry a daypack.

You can join a small group tour, where the average numbers are around 12. These are accompanied by professional tour leaders, and can be a lot of fun as you get to know different people along the way. Tailormade trips led by local guides are also available where you have more flexibility not only with your itinerary but also your travel dates and level of accommodation.

Best time to walk the Great Wall of China

Seeing the Great Wall is one of China’s most sought after activities. Thousands of people descend on Badaling and Mutianyu during the summer and on Chinese National Days. Between June and August temperatures can reach as high as 30°C, with the potential for storms too, and up on the wall there is very little in the way of shade or shelter. Temperatures are more comfortable between September and October, usually around 18°C. Clear blue skies, fewer crowds and the changing colours of the foliage all around make autumn the best time of year to walk the Great Wall. Do remember though that the first week of October is a Chinese Golden Week when practically the whole country is on holiday, and many people choose to spend it at the wall. During the winter from December to February temperatures can drop below freezing, and when walking you’re very exposed, so you will need warm clothing. Chinese New Year is a busy time too, but if you don’t mind the cold and the crowds, the wall when dusted with snow is wonderfully photogenic. April and May see some of the most glorious scenery, though as well as bringing with it crisp fresh air, the earlier part of spring can be windy too. Another Chinese Golden Week falls in early May – the Badaling section can see up to 70,000 visitors in a day at this time.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Anderson Smith2010] [Intro: JLB1988] [Which section? Badaling: Roman Boed] [Which section? Jiankou: Ronnie Macdonald] [How fit?: Ronnie Macdonald] [Best time to walk: zhu810529]
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