When planning our three week trip to China last year, some sights were an absolute given. The Great Wall of China was a must-see for both my boyfriend and I, and as we were flying into Beijing, it was one of the first things we would do on our journey across five cities.
We soon realised, however, that it wasn’t a case of just ‘seeing’ the wall. The UN World Heritage Listed site spans more than 20,000 kilometres (12,427 miles) and comprises walls, watch towers and shelters. There are different sections ranging from a 40 minute drive from Beijing to more than two hours away, and the type of wall differs from fully restored to completely inaccessible.
So you’re going to visit the Great Wall, but which section is best? There are at least 10 options from Beijing, but here’s an overview of the most popular parts:
- Badaling: the most touristy, completely restored. Avoid if you can, according to locals.
- Mutianyu: restored, but slightly less crowded than Badaling. You can walk a distance then turn around, or continue to Jiankou.
- Jiankou: wild, unrestored wall with challenging hiking. Going from Jiankou to Mutianyu is a popular (but not busy) route.
- Jinshaling: minimally restored, less crowds but further away.
- Simatai: a mix of restored and wild wall, night tour options.
*Note: The path between Jinshaling and Simatai was closed when we visited in September 2017 and it’s not clear if it’s reopened.
The section you choose will depend on how much time you have, your fitness and personal preference. Badaling is the closest to Beijing so great if you’re pushed for time – it’s also the best option for anyone with limited mobility. Mutianyu is a bit less touristy and well restored, but not for those wanting to see original wall. Jiankou has been dubbed the most dangerous section, completely untamed and requiring a hike through a village. Some say Jinshaling is the most beautiful but it’s two to three hours from Beijing so you’ll need a full day. Others say Simatai is the most peaceful. Tour company China Highlights, with whom we booked unrelated train tickets, has a good overview of the different sections.
My boyfriend and I read various blogs and Chinese tour company websites to try decide which section to choose. We wanted to avoid crowds, hike a section, we had a full day available and we wanted to see unrestored wall. As the Jianshaling to Simatai section was closed, we chose Jiankou to Mutianyu.
Tour group, guide or solo?
When it came to the Great Wall, my boyfriend wanted a guide while I wanted to do it solo. I figured with enough research, printed maps and allowing lots of time, we’d be fine. My boyfriend, on the other hand, said it was the first day of a three week trip in a country neither of us has been to before. We’d chosen a wild section of the wall that was reportedly the most dangerous and if we got lost or injured, it could set us back for the rest of the trip. He had a point. I reluctantly agreed to a guide, although I resented the extra cost and sharing the experience of seeing the wall with a stranger when we were both fit and seasoned travellers.
On the plus side, we would had a private vehicle, could choose our departure time and didn’t have to use our brains on the first day of vacation. After reading some TripAdvisor reviews, we emailed a few companies for quotes and availability before booking Beijing Walking. It cost US$300 for two people, payable in cash on the day.
Hiking Jiankou to Mutianyu
Here’s what to expect specifically on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route. You could hike in either direction, but as Jiankou is higher, it’s easier to start there and go downhill. The path is about 9km (5.5mi) and can be broken into three sections:
- Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower
- Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu
- Mutianyu to cable car/exit
1. Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower
Our guide Joe met us at our Beijing hotel precisely at 7.30am. It took nearly 2.5 hours to reach Xizhazi village thanks to traffic, but we weren’t on a deadline. The drive was mostly highway, but became mountainous and jungle-like in the latter half. Both my boyfriend and I fell asleep at times, still recovering from our red-eye flight.
Our vehicle stopped at Xizhazi village, but there was no obvious town centre. We used restrooms next to some old exercise equipment before driving for another few minutes. We arrived at a small car park, although the area looked more like small farms than the start of a hike. Choosing the Jiankou to Mutianyu route for the least tourists, I was disappointed when another car pulled up next to us. It was a young couple with a baby and they didn’t have a guide. They set off while we got our backpacks ready and put on sunscreen. As soon as I got out of car, I noticed it was harder to breathe. It was a warm day too.
From memory, we took off about 9.45am. We began our walk at good speed, following our guide along the zig-zagging, uphill path. It wasn’t long before we caught up to the couple, who’d stopped at a fork in the path. Our guide pointed the way and they continued, while I paused so we’d get some distance between us. My legs were fine but I was puffing and panting, and felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I was really surprised, as my fitness levels are good and I hardly felt like we were high up. But I was dripping with sweat within 20 minutes.
We saw the couple again, once more uncertain of the way. Their baby started wailing and they followed us for at least another 10 minutes. I was so mad! They’d saved a few hundred dollars by just hiring a taxi – then took advantage of the private guide we’d paid a premium for. Their child’s screams were destroying the serenity. My heart began to sink.
I was still stopping every 10 minutes or so to try catch my breathe. There were at least three times when the path forked with no signage about where the Great Wall was. It was getting increasingly humid in the trees and behind my knees was getting itchy. There were bugs too. But finally, we lost the couple and their screaming infant. And after 45 minutes, my boyfriend and I got our first glimpse of the wall! I was so excited! We wound our way up the steepest part yet, then we were suddenly at the base of tower. Exactly as we’d read in other blogs, there was a farmer with a ladder. We paid him 5¥ each and voila – we had reached the Great Wall!
There is no way you could climb up the tower without the ladder, unless you maybe had a few people and could climb on each other’s shoulders. The farmer had a selection of beer, Red Bull and water for sale too. I was grateful to have a guide for this part of the hike only, as there really was little signage or clear paths to reach the tower.
2. Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu
Standing on top of the tower was an extraordinary moment. After spending almost an hour hiking uphill in jungle, it was incredible to emerge in an open space and witness the Great Wall for the first time. I looked out in all directions, admiring the Chinese ingenuity and remarkable history before me. It became clear what an impressive defence structure the Great Wall once was.
After a good amount of photographs, water and towelling down, we began hiking the Jiankou section. There’s only one direction you can go – towards Mutianyu – as the other way is completely inaccessible. The path, while overgrown and a bit uneven, is easy to follow. Trees and shrubs will brush you constantly. The wild section didn’t last long though. We weaved up and down but the wall was mostly downhill from Jiankou tower. That didn’t stop my legs quivering and turning jelly! There was no shade either, except in towers. For perhaps an hour, we had the wall largely to ourselves and I felt reassured we’d chosen the best route after all.
About halfway on the Jiankou section was the Ox Horn, a very steep part that goes up and down the side of a mountain. Our guide told us 10 people fall to their death each year, which I can only assume is fall and slip as there was no cliff face as such. Our guide took on a detour, saying the Ox Horn section was closed as the downhill part was too dangerous. We left the wall for the first time, heading slightly south then parallel to the wall through light forest. Again, there was no signage or paved path so this may be difficult if attempting to do the hike on your own. It was maybe 10 minutes before we resumed walking the wall.
3. Mutianyu to cable car/exit
The end of the Jiankou section and the start of Mutianyu was marked by two men with umbrellas selling snacks and drinks. We’d hardly seen another soul for an hour but the crowds started here. Hilariously, tourists were posing with a sign that said ‘I Climbed the Peak of the Great Wall’ despite that spot not being the highest (Jiankou Tower is the highest point). From here, the walk was simply down a lot of steps. I felt for those who were travelling in the opposite direction to us, as the staircases were steep and still no shade. People were wearing fashion boots, sandals, jeans, and even summer dresses. I was still sweating just going down steps, and my legs shook whenever we stopped at a flat section. The last 10 minutes or so was particularly picturesque – it was every image of the Great Wall you’ve seen come alive!
Our party of three reached the Mutianyu cable car at 1pm, and I was surprised we’d gotten there so quickly. We’d hiked quite fast, which I assumed was necessary to cover the distance but I didn’t expect our Great Wall experience to end so early. I would’ve rather have slowed down, and perhaps stopped for 10 minutes somewhere to have some water and take in the views. Our guide gave us the option to either take the cable car down down or walk another 40 minutes to the bottom. However he explained the local restaurant he intended for lunch wasn’t near the Wall and stopped cooking at 2pm.
Part of me was sweaty and thirsty, and my legs were stiffening whenever we went uphill. But I also hate taking shortcuts. My boyfriend felt the same. We decided to take the cable car down, given we’d covered a good distance, the rest of our holiday would be quite physical and also, we wanted to experience a good local restaurant on our first day!
The cable car cost 100¥ and took three minutes. It was nothing special, convenience only. I was surprised to see how touristy the area was at the base was compared to the seemingly empty village where we’d started our journey. Here, there were restaurants, market stalls, even a Subway and Burger King. There were busloads of tourists, especially those who were older, likely retired, and had little desire to walk far. I cringed at the long line for the restrooms – only to realise the women were waiting for a Western toilet rather than use the squat toilets. I walked past all of them, shaking my head, used the bathroom, and remembered why I prefer independent travel.
We took a shuttle bus down to the car park, met our driver, and then drove to our lunch venue for an incredible feast and a few beers. We arrived back in Beijing around 4pm, giving us enough time to shower before heading out in the hutongs that night! You can read more in My Must-Do in Beijing.
It was absolutely surreal seeing the Great Wall in real life and the best thing is, I can do it all again with another section! While I don’t think a guide was necessary for the main Jiankou to Mutianyu route, there was no way we could’ve identified which paths to take from the village to the wall. The Ox Horn detour may have also been proved tricky, based on the lack of clear paths or signage.
Was it Dangerous?
Not at all. The greatest dangers on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route were getting lost on the village trail, sunburn or chaffing. That said, we didn’t do the Ox Horn section and the September weather, although warm, was ideal as there was no wind or rain. If this was reportedly the most dangerous section, it’s a very tame wall indeed!
What to Bring
Bring sunscreen, water and a hat (I accidentally left mine in our vehicle). We visited in early September and it was 31°C (75°F). I’m not usually a big sweater and I’m from Western Australia, known for its hot climate, but I sweated! The only shade is in the towers and you’ll be walking steep hills, steps and/or long distances. I would also bring a small towel to wipe off sweat (a hotel hand towel would be perfect). By chance I had some baby wipes, and thank goodness because there was nothing else to soak up the sweat.
What to Wear
It was a warm day so we both wore active wear (okay, I wore a Lululemon runsie but it’s so comfortable!). Part of me wished I was in crops or a t-shirt to give better coverage from shrubs and branches but it was the trade-off to stay cool. If the forecast is cooler, bring layers. I had a light, long sleeve shirt but I left it in the car as it was obviously going to be a warm day.
While some blogs recommended hiking shoes, this was absolutely not necessary for Jiankou to Mutianyu . Given this was meant to be the most dangerous route, it’s safe to say you don’t need them anywhere on the wall. Sneakers were perfectly fine, although I’d avoid tennis shoes or Converse for example, as you want something that will absorb the impact of all those steps.
When I next visit China, I’d absolutely return to the wall! I would love to see some water or lake areas, see the wall at night or even camp there. I’m hoping the Jinshaling and Simatai sections will an option, as these are reportedly the most beautiful and peaceful parts (although I wasn’t at all disappointed with our views). It’s unlikely I’d do the Jiankou to Mutianyu route again, but only because I like to experience new things. However, as mentioned, I’d probably go slower and stop for water and snacks somewhere just to take in the views.
QUESTION: If you’ve visited the Great Wall of China, please add your experience and tips below!