THE BEST PLACE TO HIKE THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
About the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall snakes its way forcefully along China's historical northern border. Towers & ramparts erupt continuously; a vista straight from an ancient sketch. The lush rolling hills behind are all of China, the lush rolling hills beyond are the lands of barbarians (…historically speaking).
All parts considered (and added up), this mega structure measures in at around 13,200 miles (21,200km) and some sections are over 2,300 years old. It is not one long wall, but rather several different sections, undulating haphazardly over various terrains. Different parts have different histories, were built for different purposes, and guarded against different enemies. The parts we know best along the northern borders were linked together in the Qin Dynasty - a rather good idea of China’s first unifying Emperor.
“He who has not climbed the wall, is not a true man” *
Better get on and climb it then…
Need more inspiration? Check out the video from our hike here:
Tours to the Great Wall of China
From every hostel in Beijing you will find offers for tours to the Great Wall, and why not? It's one of China's great attractions; famous to every schoolchild around the world and an ancient, heroic feat of massive engineering. The famous "pub-fact" goes that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made construction visible from space... this unfortunately isn't true - but never let the truth get in the way of a good fact (FYI, the largest man-made construction visible from space is the Netherlands... Perhaps a google search for another time).
Whilst the offer of these day-tours might be tempting, it is worth taking into consideration that your day could be a little hectic, crowded and just a tad stressful (if you escape without a selfie-stick induced injury, you’ve done rather well). Depending on the tour it might also be expensive.
If that isn’t quite your cup of tea, you’ve come to the right place.
True to form we bucked the trend (and made our lives a little more challenging) and headed to the Wild Great Wall, 120km north of Beijing. It turned out to be one of our favourite places during our entire trip to China. We hiked in complete solitude on over 30km of unrestored wild wall and through crumbling guard towers, all the while surrounded by layers and layers of breathtaking green & blue mountains - not a town in sight.
We’d hasten to suggest that even on a 2 week holiday, this trip should be firmly on the itinerary.
Where to hike the Great Wall of China without a tour
The town we headed to in order to start our Hike along the Great Wall is called Gubeikou, 120km north-east of Beijing. Whilst that sounds like quite a trek, the journey was brilliantly straightforward, and outrageously cheap. Plan it right and you may also stay in some of the nicest back-packer accomodation across the country.
Time to get there from Beijing: 4 hours
Cost to get there from Beijing: 24 RMD pp
Suggested number of days: 4 including travel there and back
Suggested distance hiking on the wall: 30km over 3 days.
How to get to Gubeikou from Beijing
This is not a challenging journey by way of logistics, but everything is a little challenging in China by way of language/queuing/navigating public transport, so take a deep breathe & throw yourself in. It’s a piece of pie to get from Beijing to Gubeikou if you know what to look out for.
In regards to price, you’re looking at no more than 21RMB per person (that’s about £2.40). If you have picked up a pre-paid Beijing travel Yikatong card you can swipe this for the whole way, but cash is also fine.
Total time: roughly 4 hours
1. Take the Beijing subway to Dongzhimen Subway Station, using either line 2 or 13.
Time: tbc on where you start Cost: tbc on where you start.
2. Follow the sign for Bus Transfer Hall, leading up steps into a large hangar,
Follow the signs towards the 980 Express Bus.
3. The 980 Express bus heads north every 15minutes, swipe your card and find a comfy seat.
Time: 2hours Cost: 17RMB
4. Take the 980 Express all the way to the final stop in Miyun Bus Terminal
You’ll know where to get off - as the bus won’t go any further.
5. Leave the bus terminal and cross the main road, head west for 100m until you reach the bus stop for bus 25
The buses should be heading north-west, the same way your original bus was pointing. There is a small bus shelter and a few signs in chinese with the bus numbers.
Location of Miyun Bus Terminal & Bus 25 Stop here (may even be a little closer to the bus terminal - check the stations)
6. Get on Bus 25.
These leave less frequently than the 980 Express buses, between 6am and 6pm they leave roughly every 40minutes… but don't count on it being on time. The local taxi-cab drivers will tell you that there is “no bus, no bus” in order to encourage you to take their car, and some ingenious local has even gone so far as to scratch off part of the 25 bus timetable … but be patient, it will arrive.
It is also worth noting that the longer you wait the lower the taxi price will be... we started with a taxi price offer of 140RMB and by the time the bus arrived it had dropped to 60RMB, we still took the bus, but if we had any more luggage we probably would have caved.
Time: 1 hour Cost: 7RMB per person,.
7. Get off the bus when you approach Gubeikou tunnel
There is a big, decorative archway on the righthand side. We found all of our fellow-bus goers very keen to help and when said "Gube-Eee-Koo" when asked where we were going they all enthusiastically gestured to us when our stop approached. NB: Buses in China are loud & gossipy & really rather fun.
8. Walk to your hostel or guest house
Most hostels should be within walking distance, if not try giving them a call and see if they'll do a pick-up.
Where to stay in Gubeikou
For the savy: Great Wall Box House
We stayed at Great Wall Box House and couldn't reccomend it more highly, you'll find it a ten minute walk from the bus stop. The incredibly friendly and laid-back owner, named Joe, will sit down with you and show you his map of the area to help you plan out your hikes. His hostel serves delicious breakfasts, packed-lunches, dinners, and a take-now, pay-later system bar (yes we ran up quite the tab). The best thing however, is that the hostel is also home to 14 cats who roam their home and will, dependant on mood, play, run, meow or make themselves comfy on your lap. During our stay, another 6 kittens where born...
If you’re allergic to cats… maybe give this one a miss.
Private Double Room: From £60 Per night
Bed in mixed dorm: From £18 Per night
Check out prices & availability here.
For the Glam: Echo by the Wild Great Wall
We walked past ‘Echo’ and couldn’t resist popping in for a look around and a quick refreshment at their beautiful bar and garden; suitably named "The Courtyard by the Wild Great Wall”. The stylish decor, friendly staff and comfortable rooms looked very enticing after a long hike. They also boast a conference room (why not), and a beautiful rooftop bar overlooking the wheat fields & a view of the Great Wall behind them.
Double Room: Starting from £134 per night
Check prices & availability on AirBnB here.
For the flash: Vangen Spa Hotel
This top of the range hotel in the area has a Spa and restaurant on site. It is just meters from the start of the wall. It's perfect for a splurge if you're in need of a bit of luxury after a gruelling day of hiking.
Double Suite: Starting from £150 per night.
Check prices & availability here.
Suggested Hiking Itinerary for Gubeikou
There is 30kms of good hiking around Gubeikou, you can cover it in 2 days, but a 4 day trip including travel is the best way to plan your time.
There are lots of ways to skin a cat, or walk a wall, but below is our suggestion after exploring the paths and talking with the locals.
Leave Beijing at 8am and arrive in Gubeikou at 12pm (use above guide).
Check in to the Great Wall Box Hotel, and then head out for an afternoon hike in the Wohushan Great Wall Scenic Area, otherwise known as the "Crouching Tiger" wall. Don't forget to order dinner at the hotel before you leave as there’s not a lot by way of restaurants nearby.
From the hotel, turn immediately right when you leave the front door skirting along the side of the house, head over the river and then turn left. Walk through the town a short wait before bearing right up a paved hill towards a large gate-house/fortress marking the Great Wall. This is the start of tomorrow’s hike, but for now, go under it.
Turn right at the bottom of the hill & walk through town, parallel with the main road that you’ll probably be able to hear on your left hand side. Cross this road just before the toll barriers - it’s about 8 lanes wide - you can’t miss it. Head over the bridge and follow the road as it curves around to the left. On your right hand side there will be a small bricked entrance area - somewhat overgrown. Head up the steps & have a read of the various signs talking about the history of the wall. You’ve reached the trail head & its pretty obvious which way to go from here.
Warning, its a steep climb and at times you'll be scrambling up the hill, but the Great Wall will be your constant companion. Whilst the majority of this hike runs along side the wall (the actual walk is too decrepit to walk on) the views & severity of the construction are pretty mind-blowing. Reaching the highest tower overlooking the surrounding region will leave you feeling triumphant. Descend back the way you came towards the hotel.
Plan to walk for 5 hours.
Great Wall Box House. (as above)
After breakfast set off with your pre-ordered packed-lunch back into town, but this time head east into the Pan Long Shan Great Wall Scenic Area, or the "Curling Dragon" hike. If you plan to camp, grab your kit as this is your opportunity.
Plan to walk for 4 hours.
The hike starts at the large archway reconstruction that you passed yesterday.
You may be asked to buy a ticket to walk the wall from a local, it cost us 25 RMB which we thought was quite reasonable. The walk takes you from the town into the mountains along the ancient wall itself and through decaying guard towers, most of which would be suitable to sleep in if you wish (though a little creepy). Walk for about 4 hours until you reach a fork with a path descending down into a valley on your right and a thin narrow section of wall with a guardhouse beyond to the left. The point is de-marked by large metal blues doors denoting an area of building-work. This particular part of the wall is very crumbly so we’d suggest detouring it.
Conveniently, at the bottom of the hill, there are a couple of Inns to drink, eat & sleep at or a camp site to pitch up in.
This local inn is set further into the hills with views of the wall from the hotel. Run by 2 generations of the same chinese family, the Inn has a local charm, ensuite rooms with incredibly big beds and offers breakfasts and dinners.
Double Room: From £20 per night
Walk back up towards the wall and take the right trail (not the left trail you came down the night before) back up to the ridge of the wall. Continue heading east along the wall for an hour until you reach a large gatehouse with what used to be 24 windows (a WWII bomb took out a bunch so now there’s more like 7).
This large tower marks the start of the restricted military zone, take the path off the wall to the left (so keeping the wall on your right) and descend into the valley. The path winds for about an hour through thick trees and a few abandoned cottages - look our for hidden well you might fall down!
You’ll soon arrive at the entrance to the Jin Shan Ling section of the great wall. There is a clearing and an entrance, but no-one was collecting any money, although the sign said the cost was 65 RMD. Head back up to the wall and walk for another 1 hour 30 until you reach the restored section, it'll be obvious when you have arrived. At Shalingkou tower you have the option to take the tarmac path down off the wall and into Jin Shan Ling tourist village. Take a taxi (you'll have no problem finding one) back to Gubeikou for no more than 120 RMD.
Plan to walk for 4 hours.
STAY: Vangen Spa Hotel
Vangen Spa Hotel would be ideal as a little reward after the long hike. Spa baths, great size rooms, and a tasty selection of dishes on site for dinner.
Double Suite Room: From £150 per night
Either walk approx or ask for a lift back to Gubeikou tunnel bus stop and take the 25 bus back to Miyun. Ask your hotel for the latest timetable. In Miyun, enter the bus terminal and take the 980 express back to Beijing. Plan for a 4 hour journey.
The hardy can do this walk in 2 days and return on day 3.
Overall this trip was a highlight of our time in China, after the bustling crowds and humidity of Beijing it was a welcome release to be back in nature and away from the masses. The landscapes are unforgettable and the way the ancient wall winds across the mountain ridges as far as you can see is a sight we won't be forgetting in a hurry.