One of the highlights of Beijing was completing a bucket list entry – visiting the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall is one of the new ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ and a UNESCO World Heritage site. According to China’s Cultural Heritage Administration the original wall is over 2,000 years old and 13,170 miles.
Legend has it that a helpful dragon traced the outline of the Wall for the workers. In thanks, the builders followed the dragon’s tracks.
Although the wall has deteriorated over time, the 300 – 600 year old sections still standing are attributed to the Ming Dynasty when the Great Wall became the world’s largest military structure.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling
Throughout northern China, there are many wall sections accessible to the public. Although the Badaling and Mutianyu sections are closest to Beijing, they’re notoriously congested. An alternative section, located in the mountains northeast of Beijing, is the Jinshanling site. The Wall at Jinshanling is less commercialized and affords stunning vistas amid smaller crowds. It’s also known as a photographer’s paradise.
Here the wall hugs the Big and Small Jinshanling mountaintops for a total length of 6.5 hikeable miles. It zigzags from Longyu Pass in the west and ends at Wangjing Tower in the east with breathtaking views in all directions.
Our Great Wall Trek
Jinshanling is an easy 2 hours by interstate from Beijing and we left just before sunrise with a hired driver. He dropped us at the middle (main) gate near the tourist center. Looking around, we couldn’t believe we were alone; not another tourist or tour bus in sight! It was such a contrast to the congestion we experienced at the Imperial Palace.
From the ticket check, we followed a path leading up to the wall. Although it was March, the temperature was brutally cold and windy. We bundled up in winter jackets, hats and gloves to protect ourselves.
The path’s ascent was rapid but not brutal and we encountered only one person, a worker sweeping the path. For those with limited mobility or just a different experience, there’s a cable car ride just past the ticket check and it drops you at the base of the wall.
There was still ice on many areas of the path, especially in the shade.
Entering the Wall
We arrived at the base of the wall just as the sun was burning off the morning dew. Everyone enters the wall through arched openings at the base termed “passes”. We entered the wall at Houchan Pass and headed up the steps to the Houchan watchtower.
From the Houchan watchtower, you can either head left toward the Shizan tower or right, towards an unnammed tower. We chose to head left. As we embarked on our official wall journey, we were flabbergasted we were the only visitors. Just amazing.
At Jinshanling there are 67 watchtowers, 3 beacon towers, and 5 passes. The watchtowers are densely distributed at intervals of 55 to 110 yards.
Great Wall Dimensions
Nothing prepares you for the wall’s size. It’s a behemoth, ranging from 16 to 26 feet in height. It’s 20 feet wide at the base, and tapers to 16 feet at its apex. The width was considered wide enough for five horses or ten men to walk side by side. Construction materials are bricks and stones held together with mortar that consisted of lime and rice flour.
The top of the wall has a lot of uneven surfaces, vertical ascents and descents, and gorilla-sized steps. As a result, the ascents are strenuous and leave you breathless.
Alternately, going downhill requires caution due to the grade and unevenness.
It seems there were times when I was literally on all fours scaling steep, tall steps. I found this surprising because the Chinese are typically small in stature. It’s a good thing the towers are spaced so close because they provide motivation to continue on.
One other thing to note is the sky, it’s so clear and an incredible shade of blue. This is such a contrast to the haze that envelopes Beijing and Shanghai.
The Wall Panhandlers
Remember that I said there weren’t any tourists in sight? Well, although there were no other identifiable tourists, three panhandlers approached us during our journey. The first was a guy wearing a long black leather coat. He passed us along the wall and waited for us to get into one of the watchtowers before engaging us. The second was an older lady in a bonnet. You can see here perched along the wall waiting for us to return.
And the most successful was another gentleman who claimed to be a farmer with lots of kids to feed. Although he didn’t have the size shirt we needed, he completed the sale anyway. They were all very persistent, maybe because we were the only potential buyers. I’m sure they do a brisk business in the warmer months since there are no kiosks to purchase water and snacks along the route.
Most of the western portions of the wall are preserved. However, as you head east, the terrain gets more rugged. Overgrowth has overtaken some portions making for more precarious trekking.
There is a wild beauty associated with the un-repaired areas which makes you appreciate the preservation efforts required to keep this site accessible to visitors.
The Wall is an incredible testament to human achievement and an extraordinary marvel to witness; not to mention a unifying symbol of one of the greatest civilizations to inhabit our earth. If you ever get the chance to see it in person, don’t pass it up!