Before you go, it pays to know that the structure is not technically a continuous wall but in fact is a series of fortifications made from different materials. In some areas there is no wall at all and instead the rivers and mountains were left to form natural barriers to protect the ancient Chinese kingdom. The Wall is accessible from virtually all the northern Chinese provinces but most people travel to it from Beijing.
The difference in the construction method and restoration of the various sections mean that your Great Wall experience can vary wildly depending on what part you decide to visit. Here are three of the most famous to get you started; tailor your adventure to your priorities and fitness levels.
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If you’re short on time while visiting China and have the Wall as your top priority, this is the most convenient section to visit. Just a 90-minute drive from Beijing center, it’s the most popular section – an estimated 75% of people who see the Wall do so at Badaling – which means it’s also the most touristy, so expect to see lots of hawkers with tacky souvenirs.
The upside to this section’s popularity is that this section is very well restored. Badaling is one of the easiest sections of the Wall to explore and you’ll be rewarded with incredible views that stretch on for miles. If you prefer to take it easy, opt for the cable car and relax while enjoying the spectacular natural scenery. There are loads of restaurants and shops and it’s also the most wheelchair accessible area, with plenty of ramps and lifts.
Badaling is the most popular section with Chinese tourists who usually take the local buses. If you’d like to beat the crowd and get there for dawn, hiring a taxi is an affordable option. Beijing daytrippers can easily combine their visit with a stop at the impressive Ming Tombs, a collection of mausoleums for 13 of the 16 famous Ming dynasty emperors. The structures are fascinating examples of Ming architecture but the real highlight is the Sacred Walk, a peaceful willow-lined walkway with intricate statues of guardians and animals.
If you’re looking for fewer crowds but still don’t want to venture too far from Beijing, Mutianyu is a good compromise. It’s the longest fully-restored section of the Wall that is open to the public and the impeccably restored watchtowers make for great photo opportunities.
Despite plenty of day trippers, you can get lucky in the late afternoon and find yourself almost alone on the 1.5 mile stretch of Wall. The hike here is more of a challenge than Badaling, so give yourself at least an hour to complete the 4,000 steps to the top. If you’d prefer to take the leisurely option, there’s also a cable car going up or a toboggan to allow you to glide back down again (making Mutianyu the most popular section of the Wall with children).
If you’re curious about rural Chinese life, plan a stay at the Brickyard Retreat. With stunning views of the mountains and the Wall, they also help organize tours to the local villages where you can meet the descendants of the original laborers of Mutianyu and explore local markets, orchards and restaurants.
Get off the tourist path entirely by visiting Jiankou. Wild and completely unrestored, this is recommended for serious hikers only. This dramatic and dangerous section hasn’t been repaired since 1644 but its original appearance, combined with spectacular and dramatic scenery, means that the adventurous traveler will be hugely rewarded.
If you’re coming from Beijing, it’s a good idea to get a reliable tour guide, either in the city or at Xizhazi Village, as you’ll need to walk at least an hour through the forest on a narrow path to reach the Wall itself.
Visitors are advised to treat this Jiankou with great respect. It’s not commercialized, so there are no trash cans around and you are expected to leave no trace of your visit. It can also be extremely dangerous; areas like the Sky Stairs should be attempted by experienced rock climbers only as the ascent is almost vertical and injuries aren’t uncommon.
One popular route is to start from the Nine-Eye Tower, a three-storey structure where you can see as far as Beijing on a fine day. From there, head towards the Beijing Knot, a meeting point of three sections of the Great Wall, surrounded by lush, green mountains. For a full day’s hike, you can continue through the most precarious sections of the Wall, like the Eagle Flies Upward and the Sky Stairs, before continuing on to reach Mutianyu.
Two-day hiking trips are popular along this section of the Wall as it can be quite challenging and tiring, even for experienced climbers. The Beijing Knot has very flat ground, making it the perfect spot to pitch your tent for the night.
The nearby towns of Xizhazi Village and Wofo Mountain Villa are the perfect places to get a glimpse into the Chinese rural lifestyle that is fast disappearing. You’ll also be able to refuel your energy with homemade dishes made from fresh, local ingredients.
Tips for Your Visit
Your ideal Great Wall visit should be in the spring when you’ll have the full benefit of the lush, green surroundings. If that’s impossible, opt for the autumn as summer can be too hot to hike while winter makes the terrain slippy and dangerous. The weekdays are a lot quieter than weekends and definitely, avoid visiting on any of China’s national holidays.
Even if you’re only visiting on a day trip, bring plenty of food and water as the snack and water prices can be hugely inflated.
If you want to make it to the top of the Wall for those incredible views, you’ll need to dress appropriately. Think comfortable footwear with a strong grip and lots of layers as you may begin to feel the chill as you climb higher. Sun protection is a must in clear weather and if the forecast is looking a little glum, definitely pack some waterproof clothing; the winds may destroy your umbrella!
Whether you have just a few hours or three days to explore the Great Wall, it’s an unmissable attraction and you won’t regret a second of it. Don’t forget your camera to get unforgettable snaps of the incredible scenery and share them on Facebook and Instagram, inspiring others to finally make the journey!