Visiting the Great Wall of China was definitely something that I proudly ticked off my bucket list during my trip to Beijing. I mentioned in a previous post that I spent a couple of weeks exploring Shenyang to visit one of my girls who was working there at the time. Of course, the trip would not have been complete without paying the Great Wall of China a visit and goodness me, it was incredibly breathtaking.
For context, my level of fitness wasn’t at its best when I visited the Great Wall of China (and tbh not much has changed at the time of writing this, but we move). So, as you can imagine, this experience of accidentally going on an INTERMEDIATE level (level 3+ out of 5 levels, level 5 being the hardest of all trails) hike up one of the unrestored sections of the wall was going to be, by default, one for the books.
The Great Wall Spur Hike
To those of you who aren’t into long hikes, don’t worry as there are much easier trails you can take to make your way up the Great Wall of China and there are also other ways to get up there that don’t even require the long hike. I’ll tell you guys about some of your other options shortly. However when I went, my friend and I did a hike on a part of the wall that has remained untouched since the beginning of time. The trail that we went on was called the ‘Great Wall Spur Hike’.
Quick facts about the ‘Great Wall Spur Hike’ trail:
- Starting point is at Xiang Shui Hu Great Wall, which then finishes at Mo Ya Shi Ke
- Takes around 3.5 to 4 hours to complete the entire trail
- Walking Level is 3+ (out of 5 levels, level 5 being the hardest most physically challenging trail)
- Hiking package came with coach pick-up transport to and from downtown, 2x tour guides, entrance fees and a well deserved lunch after an intense climb up and down the Great Wall.
The Great Wall Of China: My Experience
Like I mentioned earlier, I was super unfit for the challenge of doing the hike (which later on I found out to be quite an intermediate level hike) but in the lead up to the day, I was feeling confident and so excited, more than anything, to just go ahead and do the hike already. Loved loved loved my girl so much for arranging everything beforehand, so I knew for sure, that it was going to be a super memorable day, and indeed it was.
We actually went up as a group and we had two guides with us who were just amazing humans. Like honestly, I really put them through a lot that day. But more on that in a little while, the walk towards the foot of the wall already felt exhilarating in itself as the adrenaline really started to kick in like no other. I had to keep pinching myself because I actually couldn’t believe I was about to see the wall for the first time in my life. I felt so grateful, excited and just so pumped for the experience of a lifetime.
Now many people say that the toughest part of the hike is the steep hill climb which roughly takes about an hour at steady speed, which yes I agree was definitely challenging but with all the excitement and being in awe of the surroundings, I personally found it completely bearable. Yes – even in my unfit state, going up was so much easier for me than going down. Also, our guides were really good at keeping the group together by hiking at a very steady pace with a handful of breaks allocated in intervals. After that initial climb, we reached an incredibly beautiful, unrestored section of the Great Wall.
To the well-seasoned hikers out there, you guys are going to love this trail. The views are incredible as the hike continues along the wall which passes through numerous towers where you can take a breather and soak in the views. I wanted to take a mental photo of every moment of this hike, it felt completely surreal. I wanted to be able to just close my eyes in the future and transport myself back to this day to remind myself that this world is huge, filled with endless beauty that I wish we all did a better a job of caring for, especially in the wake of what has been happening in the Amazon rainforest fires as of late. Actually, let me digress a little. One of the main reasons why I love to document and share my travel experiences on this blog is because travel has really broadened my perspective in life and it has opened my eyes so much more in seeing how extremely blessed we are to call this planet our ‘home’. So I hope that I can share that sentiment with you too because our planet needs our love and care more than ever.
Okay, so back to the hike. Now this image amazes me every single time I look back on it because it always has me wondering how the heck I even got down there in the first place to take this photo. I don’t really remember falling into it, but I don’t remember how else I would have managed to get down there. What I do remember though, is being in the actual, shall I say – cave? Or ditch? I’m not sure but I remember quite a few of us went down there to rest and this part was actually near the beginning of our hike. So if you end up going there anytime soon, on this specific trail, then please enlighten me if you can on how people actually manage to get down there. I really want to remember. I wonder how I climbed out of it as well.
Taking A Rollercoaster By Foot
Doesn’t this remind you of a rollercoaster trail where you basically reach one of the peaks before you get dropped? Because imagine doing that trail minus the comfort of sitting on a rollercoaster carriage. Imagine doing that by foot. BY. FOOT. Again, for the experienced hikers out there, you’d probably love the adrenaline kick out of doing a trail like this, but for the unprepared and the unfit like myself, it quite literally went downhill for me from this point. The hike back down into the village where we started took me HOURS and now looking back in retrospect, I can pretty much pinpoint it to one big mistake on my part which would have made my journey back down so much more bearable.
Wear proper hiking boots!
– Me, after surviving the hike
Your (clever) girl right here went in with only trainers. No freakin’ wonder. My feet were literally in so much pain and as TMI as it sounds, because we were going down very steep terrains with barely any stable ground to grip onto, the angle of my foot being pulled by gravity meant that my toes were constantly stabbing into the toe caps of my trainers. It felt like my toe nails were stabbing into my nail beds. Mmm lovely right?! See, travel isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds. There are also blood, sweat and tears. All of which makes it a wild adventure right? And I wouldn’t have it any other way (apart from the bit where I should have worn proper hiking boots rather than trainers, lol).
This guy right here. THIS GUY. Him and his colleague who was our other guide on the day were so lovely. I’m sure they pretty much hated me after this day and probably also questioned their choice of profession after everything I put them through. But my gosh, I’m not sure how I would have managed to get down without them. I literally held on to their arm (I say ‘their’ because the two guides actually took turns holding me, haha it was so embarrassing!) to the point where I actually feared for their lack of circulation because I held on to them so tightly. It took us so long to get down, and when I say ‘us’ I literally just mean just ‘us’ – myself, one of the two guides and my friend, haha! Oh my gosh, the rest of the group had already made their way down way before we did, because of me and my toes, who were on their death bed by this point.
I think I actually heard our guide call for back up on his walkie talkie LOL. The sweetheart actually went and organised a pick up for me when we reached the foot of the wall. Honestly, I’ve never been that happy to be on flat ground. I could feel my toes proper doing CPR on each other inside my trainers, bless’em, I really put them through it, the little troopers. In terms of the pick up, it was actually a very pleasant surprise. Exciting even. As right up until that moment, I had never been on the back of a motorbike before! That day was my first time, as a motorbike was already waiting for me as we got down from the wall, and on that motorbike was a lovely local from a rural village nearby. I got on and hugged him from the back, like we’ve known each other all our lives. Off we sped down the hills and I actually remember a dog running alongside us as we went back down to our tour operator’s base, where the rest of the group were having dinner while waiting for us. I mean, yeah I really should have felt so embarrassed for holding back the group so much and I felt so bad, but the rest of the evening was such a blur for me. Felt like I was given a new chance at life.
The Different Sections of the Wall
For those of you who are starting to consider visiting the wall and are wondering which part of it to visit first, I’ve put together some quick pointers on some of the options you can pick from. However, I want to re-iterate that I have only visited the wall once before so far, which means I have only experienced one part of it – Jiankou. Therefore, I can speak from first-hand experience about this area. However, the rest are all findings from my own research. If you are seriously considering one of the other routes below, then I definitely recommend to do further research ahead of your visit.
Badaling – Probably the most popular and most visited section of the wall. It’s perfect for those who are either pressed for time or aren’t up for doing the more challenging hikes up the wall. It’s super convenient as there are cable cars there to bring visitors up and down, hassle-free. Be prepared to be met with crowds however, unless you arrive very early in the morning. Another thing to note is that this is a restored section of the wall which would still be beautiful of course, but will be a different experience to seeing the wild, unrestored parts that have remained untouched since the wall was first built, thousands of years ago.
Mutianyu – A greener, quieter and less crowded alternative to the hustle and bustle of Badaling, Mutianyu would be perfect for those who have a bit more time to spend on the wall. A day would be great. In fact, if I ever get the opportunity to visit the Great Wall again, I would probably go to Mutianyu first. Similar to Badaling, there are cable cars or chair lifts to take visitors up and down the wall, but its coolest feature (in my opinion) is the toboggan ride! An unforgettable way to whizz your way back down to ground level, after a day of exploring at the top.
Jinshanling to Simatai West – Sunrise and sunset views are best experienced from this section of the wall. It’s also one of the quieter routes to really enjoy a more intimate time at the wall. You also have the option to camp out here for a totally unique experience.
Gubeikou – This is one of the wilder trails that can be enjoyed by hikers. However, you’ll need to be mindful, as the wall actually goes through a military zone, which means that some parts of it will be off-limits.
Huanghuacheng – Just like Badaling, Huanghuacheng is a very well-restored part of the wall. Here, you’ll be able to enjoy beautiful sceneries of mountains and lakes. The only thing to be aware of is that it is located in quite a remote area which means that travelling there from Beijing might be quite challenging. There are also no direct buses that can take you there, so in that regard, you may need to do extra planning and research beforehand.
Jiankou – This is where I went and is the more wild and secluded part of the wall. It truly delivers an intimate experience of visiting the wall like no other. The only way up is to hike, which is a super adventurous way to experience the wall, especially for thrill-seekers that love trekking in the wilderness. The views I saw here were undeniably breathtaking and was 10000% worth the effort to hike all the way up to the top. Just be careful of a few broken sections and missing steps as it is very steep!
The Great Wall Of China: Travel Tips
Despite the challenging hike, the whole experience was absolutely amazing. Definitely an experience of a lifetime and I couldn’t be more grateful. I hope you guys will be able to visit the Great Wall too, if you haven’t already. To be honest, I think I want to go back again and see more of it in the future, but maybe go on a more gentle hike, of course. Or, just get fitter and go back at it again. Below are some tips which I feel would be really helpful, as a starter for ten, for those of you who are considering to visit.
- Decide which section of the wall you want to visit first
Depending on various factors like your fitness level, scenery preferences and distance from Beijing for example, I suggest doing some research before your trip into which section of the wall is best for you. If you do decide to visit one of the unrestored sections of the wall, then be extra mindful of the trail’s difficulty and what fitness level is required to climb it.
- Go on a guided tour
I couldn’t recommend this more, especially if it’s either your first time visiting the Great Wall, or if you choose to add a kick of adventure into your visit by hiking up the wall to explore off the beaten track and see unrestored stretches of the wall (meaning that they have been completely untouched since the wall was first built, thousands of years ago). The tour operator we went with was ChinaHiking, which was founded by Fred & Heidi, who have hiked the Great Wall in Beijing over 500 times!
- Wear proper hiking boots
I couldn’t stress this tip enough, especially if you’re hiking up one of the more challenging routes, as per my story.
- Eat breakfast and stay hydrated
You’re going to need all the body fuel you can get, especially if you’re doing a more challenging trail.
- Get there as early as possible
This is especially relevant for those of you who are visiting the restored sections of the wall, such as Badaling, as it gets crowded and busy very quickly. Getting there early means you can take your time taking good photos and admiring the views more peacefully.
- Dress in layers
The best time to climb the wall is probably Spring and Autumn where it’s not too hot and not too cold. But regardless of when you decide to go, I recommend dressing in layers so you’re prepared and protected no matter what the weather conditions will be. Something long-sleeved would be good to pack to cover your arms if it’s not too hot so you can be protected from scratches as you make your way up the wall (especially for those who are doing the harder trails).
- Wear sun protection
The higher you climb the more harmful the sun’s rays are going to be on your skin. So make sure you bring sun protective measures, such as wearing a hat and using sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to protect yourself against UVB.
- Be safe
Last but certainly not the least, be safe. Keep an eye on the weather forecast in the days preceding your visit and dress accordingly. Although it is possible to climb the wall on your own, I would still advise to use a guide for safety purposes. You want your visit to be as safe and smooth as possible so you can just relax and enjoy.
And there we have it. My experience and tips on visiting the Great Wall of China. To this day, it’s probably one of the best things I have ever experienced and it’ll be a memory I will never forget. If anything, it’s probably a memory I would very likely build on in another future visit.