I have yet to meet someone whose bucket list doesn’t include climbing the magnificent Great Wall of China, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. It was built to ward off enemies.
The photos you see of this architectural feat are stunning but when you are in there walking, climbing its brick-layered structure, you wonder how long it is, how many years it took them to build, and how many thousands of people built it – and died. Rumor has it that workers were staved off to death and their bodies were put underneath and in between these walls. There’s also another rumor that the Great Wall is the only structure that can be seen from the moon. Of these two rumors, we pretty much know which one is true.
In response to a reader comment of this blog, here’s the answer to the $1-million question: Which part of the Great Wall would be worth a visit?
First of all, the Great Wall of China is always worth a visit. There are many parts that are open to tourists and can be conquered in various climbing difficulties.
This 21,196.18 km-structure is immortalized in posters, postcards, books and movies. No wonder, we hope our destiny would bring us there! And speaking of destiny, I was destined to visit not one but 9 parts of the Great Wall of China!
Let’s start from where the Great Wall begins… Promise, I’ll never bore you with historical facts and trivia. 🙂
1. LAOLONGTOU (OLD DRAGON’S HEAD) aka SHANHAIGUAN GREAT WALL
It is known as the beginning of the Great Wall. The name, Old Dragon’s Head, explains itself. It is also the only part of the Great Wall where it meets the Pacific Ocean. There’s only a small part of it where visitors are allowed to walk. As soon as you buy your ticket, there’s a little indoor and outdoor museum that displays old relics, canons, armors and other killing-related tools used by the soldiers long time ago. This place was a strategic military post to fight against the invaders.
And oh, right next to this wall is where they hold their annual Great Wall Beach Party that would last for 12 hours. This rave is both famous and infamous for non-stop debauchery, drinking, dance and electronic music. They usually do it in the last week of June or first week of July. Go, and be a historically-relevant hedonist! LOL…
2. SHANHAIGUAN PASS GREAT WALL
Some minutes drive (I don’t really remember how long) from the Old Dragon’s Head is a part they call, The First Pass Under Heaven. Literally, you pass on a huge arched gate when you enter the vicinity. Visiting this section will help you understand the military might of China in ancient times. Tourists were mostly locals. Only few foreign visitors in sight when I visited there.
3. MUTIANYU GREAT WALL
This section is best for families, senior citizens and physically-challenged. It’s concrete and renovated to accommodate a large pack of tourists that come by everyday. They have cable cars here for easy shortcuts / access to the watch towers. There are also concrete steps leading up to the Wall–if you choose to or if you are strong enough to trek them. Some towers are vandalized by irresponsible tourists with “________ was here” crap.
Former US President Bill Clinton hiked shortly here. A half-day visit is possible. At the foot of the mountain, there are vendors selling art stuff, food and clothes. Beware, they’re ridiculously-priced for people who can afford to go to the moon. Haggle hard and pay a price that both you and the vendors are happy.
4. JINSHANLING GREAT WALL
If you take the 10-kilometer hike (booked from your hostel), Jinshanling is your starting point and it will end up in Sematai where your mini-bus will be waiting for you 4-5 hours later or more if you hike like a beauty queen in high heels. The beginning of the hike might not realllly impress you as it is concrete and boring. So, don’t waste your camera battery taking lots of photos in the first thirty minutes because the best is yet to come. This section of the Wall is known for its natural bricks and some parts are untouched that tourists were told to detour (at least in summer of 2009). It’s a grueling hike and there’s a steep part here with 99 steps that you literally walk / hike in all fours.
5. SEMATAI GREAT WALL
This is my favorite section. Very photogenic. It’s less renovated. They used the old bricks back to where they should be in the renovated parts. It’s stunning! This section is separated by a reservoir and it has everything you expect it to be: steep, marvelous, compact, odd and panoramic. The bad news is that, this section is currently under renovation, since June 2010. And unfortunately, it will last for 2 years!
My friends and I used to sleep in a hostel at the foot of the mountain. We woke up early the next day to see the sunrise and it was soooo beautiful (see the picture above or here). A security guard found us and demanded to pay the entrance fee but with our charms combined, we got away with it. LOL….
6. HUANGHUACHENG GREAT WALL
This section can be accessed in two directions. One is somewhere in a remote village (picture on the left) and it’s the most accessible part of Huanghuancheng. I went with a group of couchsurfers and we were guided by a Chinese friend of mine who is a freelance tour guide and knows a lot about off-the-beaten path sections of the Wall. We only paid for the transport, lunch and his services. I couldn’t remember paying an entrance fee since there were no ticket booths. We walked around for 30 minutes from the tiny village and followed a narrow, unclear path until we reached it.
If you go up right to the highest peak where tourists are allowed, you can see the view on the right side of the photo which can be accessed in a different village and you’ll cross through a dam/reservoir. We went there in a snowy day and it was freezing. It was not open for tourists but we found a ladder that goes inside the tower and up on the Wall itself. We braved the slippery slopes and the bitter cold just to see this wondrous beauty.
7. JUYONGGUAN GREAT WALL
This is the nearest Great Wall from Beijing. Boring concrete. If you go up, up there, you’ll be rewarded with the panoramic view that takes your breath away. This section used to be a military stronghold and it’s quiet obvious. You’ll see the signs everywhere here. They have a hostel nearby the parking lot.
Take subway #13 and get off at Longzhe station. Transfer to bus #68. It takes an hour or so.
8. QIANG ZI GREAT WALL
This is something I’m proud of. This part is not open to tourist yet and it will be for many years. It’s so remote. And perhaps, very few know about this section. Lucky me, I had a friend who brought me here with other couchsurfers. In what started to be a sunny day in Beijing, rain started to pour halfway on our way to a remote village. We had lunch in a shack where the backyard includes a part of the Wall itself. It was a daunting hike as there were no marked paths we could follow. We struggled climbing along slippery parts and overgrown bushes. We held on to century old bricks that could fall any moment and assisted each other to reach the top – all to see the V-shaped (see the photo below) section of the wall that connects two hills. Unfortunately, we can’t go further as it was too slippery and dangerous to trek. We were the only ones there! And this is absolutely my other favorite! 🙂
9. BADALING GREAT WALL
This is my least favorite part of the Wall. It’s narrow and crowded, even in low season. In summer and in Chinese holidays, you hike elbow to elbow with the crowd. Tour operators usually bring the tourists here because it’s sturdy and safe. And because – along the way, they’ll stop in jewelry shops and other shopping destinations to earn more commissions. Time is limited so they’ll suggest or rather, insist you on taking a cable car which is ridiculous.
My suggestion? Don’t go to this section. Every photo you take has hundreds of people in it. But, if it’s not your concern and you like the smell of sweat and stinky feet of people in all four directions, go ahead and good luck surviving! LOL…
The best time to conquer it is late Spring when the weather is nice, nature is a bit cool and the blurry view of the Great Wall snaking through the mist is addictive (if you start early). Stay until the mists are gone to see a clear view of it that looks like a dragon’s tail crisscrossing over mountains and hills. Summer is good, too, (for photographic purposes) but you really have to be there early to avoid the crowd. Or choose a part where it’s not so crowded.
Public transport and how to get there:
Though there are some buses that go in some parts of the Great Wall, the biggest challenge for every backpacker is getting there because bus drivers don’t speak English. Nada English. But, then, that’s part of the adventure, right? Just make sure you go there early because buses stop in many stations / towns / villages and so you can catch a bus in the afternoon back to Beijing. Some of these buses don’t stop right there on the Great Wall. Bus drivers will drop you off on the highway and you are on your own to figure the rest out yourself. Sometimes, the only stop is in the nearest town and you transfer to a local bus or hire a cab.
Great Wall Tours:
The best and the safest way to go there would be joining a tour offered by your hostel. Ask the receptionist that you want a tour to the Great Wall only and that you don’t want other tours. There are tour companies that bring tourists to jade / jewelry factories and shopping markets, thus, reduces your time to explore this UNESCO heritage wonder. They won’t tell you about these tours and you can’t read it in the promotional posters you see in the lobby. The last time I checked (circa 2010), booking this tour at the hostel cost $20 (transportation only).
Tips for Hiking:
Pack light. Bring a sandwich or chips. And bottles of water. Wear comfortable hiking shoes.
Check out The Jiankou Great Wall
I’d been meaning to go here but for some reasons I didn’t have the time. But a friend went and I was jealous of his photos. According to him, this section is “a camwhore’s delight.”
Go and check it for me.
“You are not a real man if you’ve never been to the Great Wall.” Take it from The Mao.