A Great Hike on the Great Wall

Walk along the world’s longest wall on a day trip from Beijing.


In the months leading up to our around-the-world trip, we asked each of our kids what their top three destination choices were; the Great Wall of China was at the top of each list. To experience the world’s largest man-made structure simply catches the imagination of young and old alike. (You can read about my daughter’s take on the experience here.)

Standing atop one of the watchtowers, the Great Wall appears to slither like a giant snake over the tops of rugged mountain passes as it disappears over the horizon. At about 4,000 miles in length, the wall is more than 1,000 miles longer than the Rocky Mountains, which stretch from British Columbia to New Mexico. It simply isn’t possible to take it all in. Nevertheless, almost 400 miles of the Great Wall is considered “near Beijing,” making it an easy day trip, even if it is just a tiny sliver of the whole.

Badaling, Jinshanling and Simatai, Oh My!

With so much to see, where does one start? Badaling is perhaps the most photographed section of the Great Wall and has many connections to and from Beijing on public buses and captures by far the most visitors—thus it is the mental image most tourists have of the Great Wall. Yet with its bustling marketplace and energetic entrepreneurs hawking cheeky souvenirs, it isn’t possible to grasp the remoteness of the Great Wall by going to Badaling. For an altogether different adventure, head to Jinshanling and make the five-hour trek along the wall to Simatai.

Getting There

While it is possible to take public transportation from Beijing to either Jinshanling or Simatai, make the hike, then find public transport back, the required connections to make it a day trip from Beijing are problematic. Booking this hike as a packaged tour solves that problem and is easy to do once in Beijing; any tourist desk (located in virtually every Beijing hotel or hostel) will be happy to make the arrangements for you.

Your tour bus will pick you up at your hostel before the sun rises. As the light of day begins to break, Beijing will begin to melt away as your bus heads towards a decidedly rural setting. Disembarking in Jinshanling you will likely be greeted by as many chickens as you will be local villagers. As you make your way from the bus, you’ll hike about 30 minutes along a dirt path that ascends steeply toward the Great Wall. This is the most strenuous part of the hike, and is within the capability of anyone willing to tackle what will be a five-hour hike.

What to Expect on Your Hike

Somehow, I had the notion that hiking atop the Great Wall would be like walking down a cobblestone street. This illusion quickly evaporated once we began our journey. The 30-minute ascent from Jinshanling aside, the hike to Simatai is not physically demanding, but it does require sure footing and the occasional loose step will give you a quick appreciation that there aren’t as many personal injury lawyers practicing in the People’s Republic as there are in the United States.

On our hike from Jinshanling to Simatai we made a friend who we called the Water Bottle Lady. She couldn’t speak a word of English, nor we of Mandarin. She followed us for most of our hike collecting our used water bottles. When we stopped for lunch, we offered her one of our sandwiches. I’ll never forget the look of bewilderment on her face at the prospect of a sandwich; if it wasn’t for a chance passerby who translated for us, we wouldn’t have known that she had never eaten a sandwich before. Her bewilderment gave way to astonishment when she realized the sandwich contained actual meat. She explained to us through our chance translator why she collected water bottles. Back in her village, she could trade in 13 empty water bottles for one bowl of rice.

The Great Wall follows the ridge of the mountain passes. In some places, the wall rises so steeply that you will occasionally need to climb with your hands as much as your feet. Roughly every 100 meters along the wall is a watchtower, which served as a guard post in ancient times. Perched from one of the many watchtowers you have a commanding view of the surrounding area. It’s hard not to feel the responsibility of the thousands of men who had the duty as a lookout in the same tower over the centuries. Looking toward the horizon the watchtowers, each with its own history of guards, stretch as far as the eye can see.

Simatai Zip Line 

About four or five hours after leaving Jinshanling, your hike will end at Simatai, known for its steepness and for being the only section of the wall that still has the same appearance as it did during the Ming Dynasty. In Simatai, the hike down from the top of the mountain is paved, but for 8 RMB/$1.25 USD you can take a zip line down.

The zip line is not for the faint of heart. Frankly, I couldn’t do it. My kids, on the other hand, had no issues with dangling from a wire about a mile long and several hundred feet above a canyon and a lake. We sent them down together on the zip line and had them wait for us at the bottom of the canyon while the lily-livered parents took the slow hike down.

Great Wall Shopping Tips

After arriving in Jinshanling, one of the villagers will take such a liking to you that you may conclude they are your personal tour guide for the day. And they will be; it’s your opportunity to support the local economy by buying anything from bottled water to handmade jewelry. Just accept that someone will follow you until you buy something, and then they will go find another customer. There are far more of them then there are of you, however, so you’ll be another vendor’s next customer. 

Unless you want to be weighed down with all manner of stuff, your best strategy is to buy nothing at all until you are at least two hours into your hike towards Simatai. By that time, most of the villagers that have been following tourists will have returned to Jinshanling and your morning’s tour guide will be anxious to close the sale and go home.

Destinations: Beijing, China

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Hiking, Sightseeing

User Comments

Inspiring! John - great article. I'm adding this my trip list and hope to see it with my kids someday.

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