From idle stroll to tough hike, here are some of the best routes to make the most of the Wall
Route: Jinshanling to Simatai
Time: A long day trip from Beijing
Why: A spectacular, mildly adventurous hike along a ruined section, with magnificent views
This is a deservedly popular section to trek, yet it never feels busy or mobbed. After being dropped at Jinshanling – many hostels and travel companies run trips here – tramp up to the wall (or take the cablecar) and turn right to head east. You can walk along the rugged and unreconstructed wall here for about three hours, and it’s a mighty impressive stretch: there are jutting obstacle walls (built to split up big groups of invaders) and sturdy oval watchtowers.
Most of the walking is straightforward but in places you’re scrambling up and down steep, crumbly inclines – you need to be sure of foot. Watch, too, for loose rocks dislodged by your companions.
The walk ends at Simatai. This is a lovely, dramatic-looking section, but it’s being renovated, so you’re not allowed to continue (though some do).
Getting started: Jinshanling and Simatai are around 110km north of Beijing. Many hotels run unguided day trips, depositing you at one end and picking you up from the other. It’s a long day out, but you can turn it into two by staying at Jinshanling – locals rent out rooms, and there’s a guesthouse near the ticket office. Spend the second day walking west to Gubeikou Great Wall, about 12km away. The guesthouse can arrange transport back to the capital from there.
While you’re there… Explore Beijing: visit the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square, walk among the remaining hutongs (traditional old streets) and have a beer at a bar around Houhai Lake – see our guide to the city in issue 90.
Route: Around Mutianyu
Time: A short day trip from Beijing
Why: An easily navigable stroll along one of the reconstructed sections of the wall
This stretch, about 90km north of Beijing, is a popular day trip with tour groups now that the main section near the capital, Badaling, is overcrowded and overdeveloped. It’s fiercely touristy at the base, but you quickly leave that behind when you get moving. It’s been heavily reconstructed, with stairs and paving slabs for easy walking, so this is the place for the less sure-footed.
It’s a pleasant stroll along a ridge through forested hills, and you’ll pass through 20 guard towers. Like much of the wall, it dates from the 14th century, but the first ramparts were laid in the sixth century. There’s a cablecar that takes you up; you can get a toboggan ride down.
Getting started: Most hotels and hostels in Beijing will happily arrange this trip for you. There’s also the option of taking a tourist bus from Dongzhimen station in the summer season. Alternatively, take bus 916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou and catch a cab the rest of the way.
While you’re there… Take in the surrounding countryside, which looks particularly fine in autumn, when the leaves start to turn.
Route: Huanghuacheng wall – from Huanghua Road to the Eighth Guard Tower
Time: A day trip from Beijing
Why: A challenging wild-wall walk, offering great scenery and no crowds
This unreconstructed section is only 60km north-east of the capital, and the road slices right through it. A few years ago this was called the wild wall and was completely unmonitored; the only people you were likely to meet were avaricious locals demanding small tolls. These days there’s a ticket office and the locals have returned to selling drinks.
Turn right from the road, cross the reservoir and you’re quickly clambering along dramatic, precipitous ruins. Take care, as the way is quite steep and dilapidated. It levels off after the fourth guard tower, with impressive views of desolate mountains. The way becomes pretty impassable after the eighth guard tower – a path here will take you down to the road.
Getting started: Take bus 916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou; get a cab from there.
While you’re there… Add on a side trip to visit the Ming Tombs (30km away), final rest-place of 13 of the 16 Ming emperors.
Route: Hexi Village to Gubeikou and Panlong
Time: 2 days
Why: A longer hike in appealing scenery, with the chance to either camp in a guard tower or stay in a local village
Gubeikou is an appealingly dilapidated wild section that offers the chance for some extensive country hiking. The walks start from Hexi Village, 80km from Beijing.
One trail leads steadily up Wohu Mountain. Much of the wall is ruined – you have to walk alongside it – but the guard towers are well preserved. At the highest tower, about 13km from Hexi, views are magnificent, but there’s no going on.
Return to Hexi to pick up another section (the Panlong stretch) and walk the top of the wall along a fairly level route, for around 5km. If you want to explore both, it makes sense to stay the night in Hexi; plenty of farmers rent out rooms but bear in mind that facilities are very basic – no running hot water.
Getting started: To get to Hexi, take bus 916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou and continue by taxi.
While you’re there… Continue north to the 18th century imperial retreat of Chengdé.
Route: Jiankou Great Wall, from Xizhazi village
Distance: Up to 20km
Time: 1-3 days
Why: A challenging and intriguing hike close to the capital
This lovely section has only recently become accessible and is the new destination of choice for the intrepid. The wall here is white (it’s made of dolomite), and there is a hikeable and picturesque stretch that winds along thickly forested mountain ridges.
Some parts are nerve-wracking, and so steep that they have to be climbed on all fours. Note that much of the stone is loose, so you really need to watch your step. There are no facilities and no one will be charging an entrance fee, but the difficulties mean you shouldn’t contemplate the trip without a local guide.
The small village of Xizhazi, 55km from Beijing, has rudimentary lodgings with really rather good home-cooked food. From Xizhazi it takes an hour or so just to reach the wall. Only the most determined choose to hike the full 20km from west to east; most people attempt the first 10km, or choose to walk the most spectacular middle section (3km), which is easy to get to and has no tricky parts.
Getting started: It’s possible to do this section as a day trip from Beijing, or you can stay overnight in Xizhazi – recommended if you’re going to attempt all 20km. Guides can be arranged via companies in Beijing.
While you’re there… It’s possible to camp on the Great Wall itself – which means you’ll experience a magical sunrise over the structure, all to yourself.
Note, you will need to take all the gear you might need (including all-weather kit), or enlist the help of a local tour company; you won’t be able to find camping gear in the small villages.
Time: A day for the fort, but a week if you want to explore the surrounding area thoroughly
Why: Essentially, this is Central Asia – visit to see the vast fortification, but also the fascinating culture of the Turkic-speaking Uighur people
Way out in China’s wild west lies the last fort of the Great Wall. To its builders, this is where civilised China ended and terrifying wilderness began. It was strategically vital as, with the mountains of Tibet to the south and arid desert to the north, all trade on the Silk Road into Central Asia was funnelled through the pass here.
Today, the large population of Muslim Uighur people reminds you that you’re a long way from China proper; the faces, language and architecture here are completely different to Beijing.
The magnificent fort itself – known as ‘The Impregnable Defile Under Heaven’ – stands on a bleak plain, with mountains north and south, the same colour as the desert around it. It was built in 1372, with an outer and an inner wall, red-pillared gate towers and elegant tiled roofs. The outer wall is more than 700m long, and used to be patrolled on horseback. This was the last post on the trip into exile of disgraced officials and fleeing criminals; looking out from the crenellated walls, it’s easy to imagine the foreboding those outcasts would have felt. Incredibly, out here, you’re 5,000km from the wall’s easternmost point.
Getting started: There is a direct flight from Beijing to Jiayuguan city with China Eastern (4.5 hours). Alternatively, take the train – the Beijing-Urumqi service stops here; journey time from the capital is around 35 hours.
While you’re there… Explore the rest of the west: visit the superb Buddhist murals and statues of the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang (a few hours west by train). Then back-track into eastern Gansu province, to visit the Tibetan monastery of Labrang, to roam the Silk Road site of Luomen and to take a hike through Moon Canyon and the Qilian Shan mountains.
Route: Shanhaiguan to Laolongtou
Distance: 4km of wall, plus excursions
Time: 2 days
Why: See a sleepy town and some impressive remains where wall hits water
Shanhaiguan – the pass between the mountains and the sea – is a small town that holds some incongruously grand fortifications. It’s only a few hours from Beijing and offers a welcome change of scale. The town’s centre is dominated by the First Pass Under Heaven, one of the Great Wall’s few gates. With three outer walls around it and a tower above it, the defenders weren’t taking any chances.
Following the wall’s remains 4km south brings you to Laolongtou – the ‘Old Dragon Head’ – where the wall meets the sea. It’s named after a sculpture of a dragon that looks out over the beach and marks the Great Wall’s eastern terminus.
Rent a bicycle to reach sights out of town: as well as more wall, check out the Mengjiangnu Temple, dedicated to a woman whose husband died building the wall; according to legend, on hearing her sobs, the bricks crumbled in sympathy, revealing her husband’s bones.
Getting started: Shanhaiguan is easily accessible by train from Beijing; the trip takes three hours.
While you’re there… Nip to the kitschy seaside resort of Beidaihe (20km south).
Route: Around Fenghuang, Hunan province
Time: 2 hours
Why: A change of scene in a lovely Miao minority town
The barbarian threat didn’t just come from the north; there’s a stretch of 16th-century wall, nearly 200km long, in Hunan province, south China, designed to keep the Miao minority in check. It’s not as tall or wide as its northern counterpart but is much less visited. It has some distinctive touches, such as upturned eaves on the beacon towers.
There’s a reconstructed section close to the charming historical town of Fenghuang, which makes a great base. The town has a strong Miao presence and its narrow cobbled streets reward wandering; you’ll see plenty of wooden stilt houses and there’s a lovely 300-year-old covered wooden bridge.
It’s lively in summer and there are plenty of travellers’ cafés; ask at these about wall hikes. There’s little more than earthen ramparts in evidence but the countryside is attractive and dotted with minority villages.
Getting started: For Fenghuang, take the train to Jishou in Hunan (25 hours from Beijing), then get a bus (1.5 hours).
While you’re there… Combine with a trip to the karst peaks of Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve, 150km north (two hours by train).