Walking the Great Wall of China is one of those must-do items that is on everyone’s list who heads to China. Who wouldn’t want to walk one of the largest and most impressive structures that man has ever built?
What I didn’t want to do was battle the crowds and tourist hordes to do so. So often these days when I visit amazing places, I spend more time fighting through people who are too busy posing for the perfect Instagram shot to realise they are in the way. For the record, I have no problem with getting the perfect Instagram shot – I love my Insta account (make sure you follow along for regular updates). What I don’t love is when getting a photo is more important than the place itself. The old adage “stop and smell the roses” rings true more often than it ever has before.
For my Great Wall experience, I wanted to see it, feel the age and the craftsmanship, before I posed for my Instagram photo. The question was, could I find a part of the wall to climb that wasn’t a minefield of tripods?
As always when you are planning a trip, if you have particular peculiarities (like myself) I suggest doing some research. There is nothing worse than having an idea of what you would like to see, only to arrive and find that it is closed or covered in tourists. Therefore, I spent a fair bit of time before my trip researching the best way to see the Great Wall of China. I googled the best tours, read TripAdvisor posts and reached out to a cousin who runs a tour company from Beijing for advice.
(Warning: This post includes A LOT of photos of the Great Wall of China… you were warned)
Planning to walk the Great Wall of China
I discovered that there are many points in which you can climb up onto the Great Wall of China. Some are close to Beijing and include bobsleds to get back down from the wall. Some are a little further out and have fantastic views but are also very popular with all-inclusive day packages for Beijing. Then there are the spots that are several hours outside of Beijing, which have to be a day trip all by themselves.
So naturally, the last one was the one I wanted. But what tour to do? I only had one day in which to do this experience so that knocked out a number of the tours that weren’t running on the day I wanted.
Some included additional activities such as stopping off at restaurants or shops. I didn’t want to do that at all. Finally, I found one through Viator that fit the bill. I would be heading to the Jinshanling and walking to Simatai West. (To find out more about the tour I did, I have included a link. However, this post is NOT sponsored or in exchange for services)
What I didn’t do was fully understand the fine print of what would be included. Which ended up being a huge problem for me on the day. I had misread the trip notes about lunch being included. It wasn’t.
Getting to the Great Wall of China
I had printed out instructions on how to get from my hostel to the meeting point before I left Australia as I wouldn’t be able to use google maps in China. It is amazing how quickly we have changed to rely on a small piece of technology. I can remember when I was 18 and travelling through Europe for the first time, I would visit information centres to get a map of the city I was in. I wouldn’t even know where to look for an information centre these days. Do they still exist?
It took a lot longer to get to the meet point than I had thought it would. This wasn’t a problem though as I am always super early for everything, however, this did mean that I didn’t have time for getting breakfast as I had planned as I ended up arriving right on time.
The spot was a known tour pick up and drop off point as there were a number of lost looking westerners loitering around waiting for different buses to pull up and shout their name out the door.
When our bus did arrive it was your standard minibus that you see all over Asia. Once we were on board our tour guide gave us the days itinerary… it was at this point that I realised that we wouldn’t be having lunch… and also that I hadn’t had breakfast and was starving. Oh dear.
As we headed out of the city for our 3-hour drive to the Great Wall spot we would be climbing I quietly freaked out about my current situation. However, luckily we stopped off at a petrol station at the halfway mark. I grabbed a bunch of crisps and Oreos. Oh and water, lots of water.
About 10 years ago I wrote a post about the things you learn when travelling in Asia. One of those items was that your bus will always breakdown on a hill. I should have remembered this rule as our bus started to smoke as we went up a hill. Sure enough, within minutes we were all sitting on the side of the road waiting to be picked up. Luckily we were only 5 minutes away from our destination and our guide was able to arrange for a bunch of cars to come and get us for the last bit.
What should you bring to walk the Great Wall of China
- Food and water, obviously. Can’t stress this one enough, you won’t have the greatest time without them.
- Your camera – I couldn’t take enough amazing pictures, everywhere I looked was another great shot. In fact, this blog post is just another opportunity for me to show off my fantastic photos
- Sunscreen and a hat – there is no shade up on the wall, except when you are passing through the towers
- Small change – to buy water or ice creams from the local people who set up mini-shops in the towers
- Sturdy walking shoes – you want ones with grip as some of the wall is very steep, but the paving is quite slippery. Honestly, my hiking boots saved me from having to scramble up the side like some others I saw
- Hiking poles – if you had dodgy knees like me, these will help on the decent coming off the wall
- A FitBit – I seriously wish I had counted how many steps I did along the Great Wall of China
What I learnt walking the Great Wall of China
Be properly prepared to walk the Great Wall of China
As mentioned above, I clearly wasn’t very prepared for my hike along the Great Wall of China. Therefore, the very first thing I am going to tell you to do is to pack water, sunscreen and food. I had a really great day, I loved every second, but there were a few moments where I was worried about my health in the heat with very little water. What’s more, a picnic is a great excuse to stop and just admire those views.
The Great Wall of China is really big
I obviously knew it was big. But it is one thing to know something factually and quite another to see it in person. The pure gravity of this amazing structure and what it would have cost to build such a monument really impresses in on you as take each step. Knowing that I was 3 hours out of Beijing where there were many more points in which you could walk the Great Wall of China was a powerful thought. But when I remembered that it actually runs right up to the North Korean border, my mind almost buckled with the concept. To understand what I mean you need to go walk it.
The Great Wall of China isn’t flat
I had the naive impression that once I was up on the Great Wall of China it would be flat. That the only hill I would have to climb was the one I took to get up to the wall. I was wrong. It is nothing but hills. Each lookout tower is placed on a high point in the mountainside, so the wall snakes up to each one. There is literally no flat parts, it is constant uphill and downhill. On the bright side, it was a fantastic workout.
The views are spectacular
I couldn’t take enough photographs. Everyway I looked there was a stunning view. Sometimes of the countryside and sometimes of the wall. Or of both. To be honest, I didn’t put in too much effort with my photographs, I just pointed my camera and clicked. Multiple times a second. The Great Wall of China is definitely a drawcard all on its own, but the views make it a moment to remember forever.
The best part is the un-renovated part
Our guide advised us that the first 90% of the wall we would be walking had been renovated. The original structure was still there but it had been made safe and strong again. Therefore, we would be seeing the wall just as it would have looked when it was originally built. This was amazing and definitely really cool. However, the last 10% of the wall hadn’t yet been renovated, and this was by far my favourite part. It was here that you saw mother nature interacting with the wall. You glimpsed just how old this structure really is, with crumbling parapets and vines encroaching on the path. To me, it felt so much more beautiful and wild. It was definitely worth walking fast through the other parts to spend more time in this section.
Getting off the Great Wall of China hurts more than getting up
Going down always hurts more than going up. Getting off the Great Wall of China is no different in that regard. By the time I had gotten to the bottom, my legs were shaking and my knees were hurting. I honestly wish I had bought hiking poles to take on some of the strain.
Beer tastes better after climbing the Great Wall of China
My day up on the Great Wall of China was seriously one of my favourite days in my whole life. I loved every second. Even coming down off it was fun because of all of the views you got looking back up. What wasn’t fun was reaching the bottom, exhausted, hungry and sweaty only to learn that our bus was still broken down and that they had only JUST CALLED FOR A REPLACEMENT. Therefore, we would be waiting for 3 hours for it to arrive. This would have enraged me if the tour guide hadn’t quickly handed out free beer and chocolate. I can honestly say that no beer or chocolate has ever tasted sweeter than that one. Sitting in the late afternoon sun by one of the worlds greatest wonders with a beer in hand was a special moment… despite the lack of bus home.