The Great Wall is a true icon of classic Chinese identity and is undoubtedly going to be a true highlight of your trip to China. It is therefore worthwhile considering the options that you have when visiting Beijing. Unlike world wonders like Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall spreads itself out over vast distances, and so you don't have to go to the same bit as everyone else. So... where to visit the Great Wall then?
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If you are considering visiting the Great Wall of China and are willing and able to face a challenge and lace up a pair of sturdy and comfortable walking boots, then you can tackle wild areas which have been almost reclaimed by nature, surveying crumbling watchtowers and following paths which have been left to the elements for decades. Conversely, other areas have been restored to their original state, giving you a true sense of how the wall would have looked when it was rebuilt by the Ming dynasty. Better yet, some hikes and even some sections allow you to combine these, without the huge crowds and often with cable car access.
Let's have a look at five of the best places to visit the Great Wall of China...
Jiankou to Mutianyu Hike
Perfect for: A combination of the wild wall and a restored section
Hiking the Great Wall of China is a truly memorable and authentic experience. Our favourite excursion combines a hike through a remote wild section and the restored Mutianyu part, taking the cable cars down. This option allows you to experience the wall in complete isolation, far away from the crowds, and then see the structure in its original glory before descending.
We begin with a 45 minute walk up through a sloping pine forest at the tiny village of Xizhazi. As you climb, anticipation will build and your excitement grows as you get closer to your first glimpse of the Great Wall. When it arrives, it does so in grand style as a glorious vista of Jiankou emerges, rising sharply to the mountaintop to form a magnificent sight surrounded by verdant forest.
After climbing a small bamboo ladder, you'll find yourself on top of an atmospheric ruined watchtower - a perfect vantage point from which to soak in the views and savour the timeless atmosphere. This hike leads on along a rough path which rise and falls gently, narrowing improbably at certain sections as nature attempts to reclaim the wall. More often than not it will be you, your travelling companions and your guide, and not another soul in sight or earshot. Few world wonders can offer such an intimate experience. From here, we walk into Mutianyu...
Perfect for: Easy access and great views away from the biggest crowds
There are a few well-established restored sections near Beijing, of which Mutianyu offers perhaps the best Great Wall experience. Less touristy, cramped and crowded than Badaling, Mutianyu excels because it offers much more space to spread out, climb away from the epicentre and enjoy the sumptuous views and outstanding Ming-era architecture.
There is a great density of watchtowers here, some of which are in their original picturesque state and cable cars make for easy ascent and descent. The more adventurous among you might even prefer to take the toboggan 'rollercoaster' down.
Mutianyu is about 90 minutes from Beijing and, rather than hiking from Jiankou, it can be combined with a visit to the impressive Ming Tombs, final resting place of 13 Chinese Emperors, nestled in the countryside.
Perfect for: Spectacular views of a quiet semi-restored wall
Being further away from Beijing (a three hour drive), Jinshanling is a relatively quiet section of the Great Wall and arguably the most impressive restored section. It is known with Wall aficionados for its picture-postcard views and magnificent architecture, with over 30 watchtowers intersecting the wall as it rises and falls gracefully over the rugged mountainsides. It is these views and the relative lack of crowds which tempt visitors a little further from the capital and its semi-restored state makes it a viable alternative to the Jiankou to Mutianyu hike for those interested in walking the Great Wall of China.
There are cable cars here to, but these deposit you in the middle of the section, so we recommend committing to the full 3-4 hour hike The going is sometimes rough and steep in places, but there are few places to experience the raw beauty and wild atmosphere of the Great Wall of China.
Perfect for: Hardcore and historic wild wall with easier initial access
This is another wild and restored section, which has the advantage of having easier initial access than at Jiankou. You can also exit the wall at various points, allowing greater flexibility to shorten or extend your hike according to how you feel on the day.
Gubeikou links up with Jinshanling and was the site of many great battles with the Mongols in the Ming dynasty, making it one of the most historically important sections near Beijing. The going can be tough in places, with loose rubble and some steeper sections to contend with, and part of the hike takes you off the wall for a short time But Gubeikou is a great consideration for those wanting a crowd-free wild Great Wall experience who like a challenging hike off the beaten track.
Photo by Ronnie MacDonald
Perfect for: Unique lake views in a semi-restored section
This unique section incorporates a scenic lake, a crescent-shaped reservoir and spectacular mountains, for a rather different Great Wall experience. Parts are unrestored and somewhat challenging (strong knees and a sturdy back are essential), whilst other areas have been restored to their former glory. The climb takes you through a chestnut orchard up to large watchtowers, from where you can look down on the water and across the mountains. The views from the top are glorious and just rewards for your efforts on the steep climb, other parts even become submerged under water at certain times.
Huanghuacheng is not particularly crowded, despite being only a two hour drive north of Beijing. It is however a little more built-up compared to some of the other sections discussed here, with more buildings visible in the vicinity.
Photo by Johannes Bockh
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