Three ways to see the Great Wall of China, two much greater than the other
My first trip to China 15 years ago came at a pivotal moment.
The country had just been admitted to the World Trade Organization. The largest construction project in the world — the Three Gorges Dam — was nearing completion.
A few months before my visit, Beijing had been chosen as the host city for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The writing was on the wall: China was on its way to solidifying its place as a world superpower.
But when I returned home, the one question I heard over and over had nothing to do with China’s future.
“Did you see the Great Wall?”
I’m sure some people travel to Beijing and skip a visit to the wall, but there was no way I was going to visit China and overlook the country’s iconic monument.
Built over a period of 2,000 years, the wall traverses China from east to west, coursing more than 5,500 miles, depending on how you measure it.
Although much of the Great Wall has devolved into rubble, the section running through the mountains north of Beijing was built during the Ming Dynasty — 1368-1644 — and is among the youngest and least ravaged by the elements.
When the Chinese government decided to restore a part of the wall, it did so at Badaling, 43 miles northwest of the city. This is where President Nixon famously stood atop the Great Wall in 1972.
By the time I visited in early 2002, the trip from the parking lot to the Badaling ticket booth required navigating a warren of trinket and snack shops selling goods as varied as Dove bars and fake Mongolian coins.
Once at the wall, I headed right — the steeper choice and the less crowded option — but there was no avoiding the steady bombardment of sales pitches by postcard sellers and vendors waving “I Climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts.
The bricks used to build the wall were inscribed with thousands of Chinese characters — names of visitors, I assumed — etched into the masonry.
And then I heard something. Something disturbingly familiar.
Audio speakers, parallel to the edifice, pointed toward the wall and emitted music.
Improbably, Western music.
A Strauss waltz played on Chinese instruments.
A Chinese-Muzak version of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.”
“The Lonely Goatherd” from “The Sound of Music.”
It was definitely not the Great Wall I wanted to see, much less hear.
With the mystique and majesty of the monument neutered, I swore that my next visit to Beijing would see me on the wall in a place well off the beaten path.
It wasn’t long after my first visit to China that I began to hear stories about the “wild wall” — unrestored sections of the Great Wall that were rugged and untamed, tantalizing hikers.
The Chinese government once forbade visits to the crumbling structure, but several hiking outfits have sprung up, providing easily arranged guided day hikes and overnight camping trips.
Spurred on by a glut of cheap airfares to China, in November 2015 I booked a flight for a quick trip to Beijing. The main focus of my five-day visit: an untouched section of the Wall called Jiankou.
My Lonely Planet guidebook promised I would find “stupefying hikes along perhaps Beijing’s most incomparable section of ‘wild Wall.’”
Who could resist?
The second visit
Although you can take a bus to some of the most-visited Great Wall sites, and there’s even a train to Badaling today, I didn’t want to fuss with transportation and directions on my short visit in November 2015.
I booked a day trip through China Hiking, a Beijing company that includes transportation from the city, lunch and a guided hike.
A couple of days before my flight, I looked up the weather for Beijing: Snowflakes dotted the forecast map. China Hiking assured me by email that the trip was still a go.
When I arrived in Beijing two nights later, the storm’s first snow was falling.
The designated meeting point the next morning was at the exit for Beijing’s Lama Temple subway station.
As promised, guide John He was waiting. He glanced at my shoes while welcoming me and then introduced three other hikers: an Australian woman on holiday and two businessmen from France and the Netherlands taking a day away from their work trip.
“After lunch, we’ll start walking,” John said, as our driver pulled onto the busy road. “Normally, the hike takes 3½ hours, but we’ll see.”
He noted that he had checked in with the owner of the farmhouse where we were to have lunch. “He said it’s snowing, but no wind. We’ll have fun.”
The trip out of Beijing was a slog through slush and traffic, but within an hour we had entered the countryside. Soon after we were winding through a tranquil valley and up a driveway to a simple farmhouse surrounded by bare walnut trees.
For lunch, cooks from the kitchen loaded the ubiquitous Lazy Susan with plates of steaming mushrooms, cabbage, chicken, an omelet — all hearty and filling.
What we’re going to see today is a real piece of history, not something for tourists.
— John He, China Hiking guide
By the end of our meal just before noon, snow had stuck and the accumulation could be counted in inches.
The gentle flurry showed no sign of abating.
The trailhead was a couple of minutes down the road, just around the bend in a narrow canyon, but the wall was nowhere to be seen through the fog and snow.
John opened the rear of the van to pull out gear for our hike. Each of us received walking poles and a pair of lightweight rubber crampons that could be pulled over the soles of our shoes for extra tread.
“What we’re going to see today is a real piece of history, not something for tourists,” John said, adding that although this section of the wall was among the best preserved, it was still about 500 years old.
The first sections of China’s Great Wall were built in the 5th century BC, but that was only the first of three distinct building phases, each with its own architectural style, He explained.
Much of the wall in western China was built of mud bricks. Successive dynasties extended and reinforced the wall, particularly after the rise of Genghis Khan, who successfully invaded Beijing from the north 800 years ago.
“This Ming Dynasty wall was the last to be built,” John said. “After that, there was no more need.”
Many sections of the wall have become dust; recent calculations estimate the combined length of the various fragments and spurs at 13,114 miles.
The hiking was steep at first, through scrub and brush, but after about 15 minutes John stopped us and pointed.
Across the canyon, fewer than 1,000 feet away, fallen snow outlined a squiggly black line inching down the face of a mountain and then up the flanks of the hillside in front of us.
The Great Wall was revealed.
With more scrambling we came to the first watchtower. A short staircase climbed to the top of the wall, and I ran my hands along the cold brick as if to confirm it was real.
Besides being surprisingly steep, hiking along the top of the wall was more rugged than I imagined. The structure was actually two parallel brick walls, 24 feet tall and about 18 feet apart. In between was dirt and rock, capped with a layer of brick on which to walk.
Small trees had emerged along much of the ramparts, degrading the walkway. Even where the “roof” of the wall was intact, it was often so precipitous that slipping was a near-constant peril.
In some sections, parts of the outer wall had crumbled, requiring us to walk along paths only a foot or two wide, with one side dropping to the base of the wall and then down a steep mountain to terrain veiled by the clouds.
It was hard to imagine the life of soldiers living here.
For the most part the walk on the snowy wall was magical and would be difficult to re-create. Not one footprint lay in our path, and the mounding snow absorbed all sounds, creating utter silence.
The towers, every quarter-mile or so, were chilly, forlorn havens — a bare guardroom below capped by an observation platform from which trees sprouted.
It was hard to imagine the life of soldiers living here.
And yet, there was one thing I was missing: With the snow and cloud cover obscuring vistas beyond a couple of hundred feet, on this day I could only imagine the picture-postcard panorama of the Great Wall snaking over the hills into the distance.
No sooner were we trudging down the hillside back to the van than I was planning a return trip.
A third visit
My third visit to the Great Wall came 11 months later. I was headed to a convention in China, so I came a few days early to explore Beijing.
This time I booked a day trip with another tour company, Great Wall Hiking.
Gary Lee, the company’s founder, told me in an email that he was running a trip to Jinshanling the morning after my arrival in Beijing.
“It was restored in the 1980s, but it’s still spectacular,” Lee said. “It’s my favorite part of the wall, and if you go during clear weather you can see 10 to 15 miles in either direction.”
Jinshanling is also known for its high density of watchtowers, and each is unique, he said.
This time, the October skies cooperated perfectly. Beijing had been cloaked in smog the week leading up to my trip, but a day of rain had cleared the air just before landing, and intermittent sunshine was forecast.
I met a guide, Robert Luo, at a subway station along with four other hikers — three Australians and an Englishman visiting Beijing on business — and we headed off through the traffic to Jinshanling.
Owing to a longer, two-hour drive, Jinshanling was less crowded than other developed areas of the wall, Robert said.
“Each year, Jinshanling gets about a half-million people,” he said. “But Badaling gets 8 million.” (Badaling seemed to be the elephant against which all other wall sites were measured.)
Robert assured us that we would start our hike not at the main entrance but a trail from the east gate that would take us to an unrestored part of the wall, on the west side of a closed section called Simatai.
After just a few minutes on the trail, winding through a canopy of oak and chestnut trees, the wall came into view, topping a ridge that climbed up and east.
It was a not-insignificant climb to get to the structure. We arrived at the first watchtower 30 minutes later, panting — and awestruck.
From one side of the tower we could see the Great Wall roller-coastering to the west across hills and ridges, finally ascending a mountain miles away.
To the east, the wall fell away in ruin — the unrestored bit — with rubble and brush confined between the bricks and then to a rapid climb to breathless aeries, where ridges were crowned by watchtowers.
A hike along its crest would feel at times like walking on clouds.
Robert encouraged us to clamber east and negotiate some of the crumbling wall. We then circled back to make our way west on the ramparts toward Jinshanling’s main entrance, four miles away.
The view was a succession of continuously evolving vistas — one moment the path before us would be a series of undulations topped by the towers, the next we would be staring down an impossibly steep, sloped staircase.
For the most part, the wall follows the highest ridges so a hike along its crest would feel at times like walking on clouds.
Although many stretches of the wall have succumbed to the elements naturally, Robert said that the Chinese government has played a role.
“In the 1960s and ’70s the government’s official policy was ‘let the past serve the present.’ Villagers were encouraged to build houses using bricks from the wall.
“Mostly this happened at the lower elevations and passes.”
Curiously, I could see how the quality of the restoration evolved as well. A short stretch at Jinshanling that was rebuilt by a Japanese crew felt authentic and real.
But Robert said a five-mile section of the wall in Suizhong county, 200 miles east of Beijing, was repaired by the local government in 2014 with unlovely results.
Photos show the edifice almost devoid of character, its ramparts looking like little more than an elevated concrete walkway.
“A lot of people are very unhappy about this,” he added.
Lately there are reports that other, formerly “wild” sections of the wall are being tamed — with cement, insensitive or sloppy rebuilding, and ticket booths. Wall-lovers say areas are being ruined through modernization.
The debate on ideal preservation methods for the wall will continue, probably beyond our lifetimes. But with sites such as Badaling receiving as many as 30,000 visitors in a day, the pressure to make this iconic UNESCO World Heritage site accessible to more visitors will only increase.
Although our group was almost alone when we began our traverse at the Eastern Tower with Five Eyes, as we continued west we started to meet more walkers. The mood was festive and joyous, and multiple school groups passed us on this crisp fall day.
After three hours of hiking and exploring 16 watchtowers, we arrived at a trail leading down to the main entrance.
I wasn’t ready to go.
I could see the spine of the Great Wall coiling over the hillsides toward steeper mountains — I longed to explore more.
Robert saw me gazing wistfully.
“You know,” he said, “we offer overnight camping trips on the wall, right?”
If you go
The best way to Beijing
From LAX, Air China offers nonstop service to Beijing and Delta, All Nippon, United, China Eastern , China Southern, American, Cathay Pacific, Hawaiian, Asiana and EVA offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares from $749, including taxes and fees.
A visa is required for U.S. citizens visiting China. Obtain one through the Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China, third floor, 500 Shatto Place, Los Angeles 90020. The cost is $140, whether for a single entry or for a multiple-entry visa. Valid for 10 years.
If you are staying in Beijing three nights or less and will be traveling to a third country (such as Japan or Hong Kong) you may be eligible for a free 72-hour transit visa, allowing you to visit Beijing (only) without a standard tourist visa.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 86 (the country code for China) and the local number.
WHEN TO GO
Weekends and public holidays draw many Chinese visitors to the Great Wall, particularly in summer; midweek visits are better.
The Great Wall usually receives snowfall just a few times each winter; summers can be quite hot and rainy. April and May and September and October are best for mild temperatures and clear skies.
HIKING THE GREAT WALL
The most accessible, restored places to walk on the wall are at Juyongguan, Badaling and Mutianyu — 35, 45 and 55 miles from the city, respectively. All can be reached by taxi, and most hotels book private or modestly priced group tours. At Badaling and Mutianyu there are chair lifts to the wall, and both sites are moderately wheelchair-friendly. The Jiankou section is overgrown and particularly exposed (and technically, closed to hiking, but it’s not enforced). Sturdy footwear with solid grip is a must; hiking poles will come in handy. The Jinshanling wall is mostly intact but the hike still involves sections of uneven terrain.
To visit one of the unrestored sections of the wall, go with an established tour operator. Accidents on the crumbling edifice are not uncommon, and evacuation is difficult.
I had rewarding days with China Hiking, 156-52-200-950, and Great Wall Hiking, 158-114-44-863.
China Hiking’s Jiankou hike is $90, including transfer from Beijing, entrance fee, lunch and an English-speaking guide. Great Wall Hiking offers the Jinshanling day trip for $136 per person.
Both tours last about nine hours, and reservations in advance of your arrival in Beijing are recommended.
TO LEARN MORE
China National Tourist Office, 550 N. Brand Blvd., Suite 900, Glendale; (800) 670-2228.
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