Prepare to be awed at the sight of the Great Wall of China. It’s not one of those much talked about attractions that actually underwhelms you when you see it.
Quite the opposite, this expansive piece of construction – presumably the result of mostly manual labor – lives up to its impressive reputation and surprises you with even more.
More grandeur. More wonder. More jaw-dropping views.
A guide to visiting the Great Wall of China
There are some key things to know before you go.
History of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall was built across the northern border of China to protect its people against raids and invasion. At various times, it also was used for border control where duties were imposed on goods being transported by Silk Road merchants. Although it never truly prevented invaders, the wall acted more as a psychological divider between Chinese civilization and the world, creating a mystique around Asian culture, and an albeit grudging respect for their strength and autonomy. Much of that still exists today.
The Best Place to See The Great Wall of China
With more than 13,000 miles of historical monument to choose from, there are several sections that can be visited. Where you go depends on how much time you have, the vistas you prefer and your tolerance for crowds. Badaling, the section closest to Beijing, is the most popular. It is the most renovated area and it has facilities like guardrails and cable cars that make it easier to climb. The downside is the hordes of tourists thrown together with the occasional pickpocket and the ever-present souvenir hawkers.
Mutianyu is the second most preserved section. It has less foot traffic and it is steeper. Simatai, the most perilous and dense area, appeals to the adventurers and Jinshanling gets a lot of avid hikers as it is completely un-restored. Other options include Jiankou and Gubeikou.
Caution: Wherever you go, please watch your footing! Undeveloped sections are insecure and in some cases damaged, so you could easily hurt yourself if you are not careful.
Hiking the Great Wall to Simatai
My local guide, a very pleasant and knowledgeable Chinese specialist in hiking on the Great Wall convinced me to go to the right, towards Simatai (join a guided tour).
It was December, one week before Christmas and luckily there was no snow in China yet. It was cold but not unbearable. The Great Wall of China was empty except for me, my guide and for one very stubborn hawker whose sales skills were developed under Mao’s strict regime where the word ‘no’ didn’t mean anything. She didn’t speak English and followed us all the way to Simatai.
Occasionally, pushing one of the Great Wall of China books in front of me, usually when I sat down to relax. In the end, feeling sorry for her but also admiring her perseverance, I decided to buy a book from her. She took the money and before I could say good bye she was far behind me. Trotting in her high heels, her modern business suit and laptop bag bouncing to get back before it got dark.
I was wearing many layers, new trainers and had a new Sony camera. The weather was excellent for taking photos. The fact that I was on my own and didn’t have to wait for people to move out of shot was an added bonus!
At the beginning, the trek was easy but the further along we went from Jinshanling towards Simatai the Wall gradually diminished from wide to almost non-existent with very steep steps and with loose stones and bricks. At some point, my guide and I were discussing the possibility to leave the wall and walk alongside it until we reached Simatai.
It was a good idea but the fact that you wouldn’t be able to get back up, made me instead get on my knees and hands and crawl up to the highest point of this part of the Wall – the Wangjinglou Tower. All my tiredness disappeared once we reached the Tower and saw beautiful views almost up to the outskirts of Beijing.
According to my guide the main function of Wangjinglou Tower was to observe enemies in the far distance. If the enemy was on the move, the soldiers would light a fire to alert the next tower who would relay the message along.
Once you pass Wangjinglou Tower hiking gets easier. You are almost descending towards the Simatai section of the Great Wall of China and once you are there, you have the option to get a zip line over the river and get of of Simatai, or if you are wimp like I am then you can continue walking.
The hiking route from Jinshanling to Simatai is about 10 km and it took me about 4 hours to complete. I didn’t have any training or any exercise before taking this hike. Bear in mind that I had lots of photo stops as the opportunity to be on your own up, there was too good to miss!
We passed 43 watchtowers and they are great places to relax and have a picnic or, as some people do, have a sleepover. If you are young at heart, I would always recommend you to stay an extra night in Beijing and do the hike on this portion of the Great Wall of China.
Most tour operators take you to the Badaling section which is the closest to Beijing and the most commercialized! You don’t have a quiet moment on your own and most of your photos would be full of strangers jumping in front of the camera like flies!
The second option would be the section at Mutiyunu which is very well-renovated and not as commercialized as Badaling.
For the ultimate experience, book yourself a private tour with guide and driver and do the hike from Jinshanling to Simatai – it’s closed for renovation until next year but if that fits in with your plans, all the better!
Best Time to Visit the Great Wall of China
If you choose to visit Badaling, try to get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the bus loads of people. An added bonus to going at those two times is that you also get better light for your photos.
The scenery and temperatures change with the seasons so in terms of weather, the best times of year to visit are spring and autumn. Then, it is sunny but there is no blistering summer heat. Think May, September or early October. During June to August, tourist season is in full swing.
What to Wear
To get the true experience of the wonder that is the Great Wall, you should spend between two to three hours exploring this great engineering feat. It will be a strenuous walk as you traverse main staircases and passageways or observe watch towers and garrison stations, so you’ll need comfortable shoes.
Ladies, no open-toed sandals, wedges or heels will do. Guys, I recommend loose trousers rather than denim because denim will cling to you after perspiration sets in. Let’s not dress this up too much, you WILL be sweaty and out of breath after a few steep climbs. And I say sneakers for everybody!
Some months it can get quite windy due to the high altitudes so a scarf or light sweater may prove useful. At other times, an umbrella would be nice too. In the summer, have moisturizer handy to help protect your skin.
What to Bring
If you can deal with the weight of a backpack, take your own snacks and water. However, if you’d rather stay light on your feet, food and drink will be available for sale in Badaling. Just know it will be pricey. Plus, western-styled food is hard to come by. As far as I know, there is nothing for sale in any other section.
Important note: While it’s important to stay hydrated, please temper your water intake if you have to go for regular bathroom breaks when you drink a lot. There are no pit stops along the way. The bathrooms are near to the ticket office and entrance.
Best Way Down
You can walk down, take a cable car or get into a toboggan. I chose the latter and the meandering downhill slide was a whole lotta fun!