A Guide to the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is an ancient network of walls, earth works and fortifications that stretch from one end of China to the other and cover over 8,000 kilometers. The oldest sections of the wall were built over 2,200 years ago while the newest sections are only 400 or so years old. The wall is an engineering marvel, a historical monument and a testimony to the might and ingenuity of the ancient Chinese empires.
Walking the wall is an incredible experience and an opportunity to see Chinese history, an unrivalled feat of engineering and fabulous mountain scenery. A visit to the Great Wall will be one of the highlights of your time in China and no trip to China is complete with out at least one trip to the Great Wall.
Most people will only have the opportunity to visit the sections of the wall near Beijing so this guide will focus on these sections.
The Beijing sections of the Great Wall of China
There are over 10 sections of the Great Wall that are all north of Beijing within a maximum of three or four hours travelling. I have listed the six most popular or impressive sections below with the distance from Beijing then given detailed information on each of the six sections.
Badaling 80 Km
Jiankou 73 Km
Mutianyu 70 Km
Gubeikou 120 Km
Jinshanling 125 Km
Simatai 120 Km
Badaling Great Wall of China 八达岭长城
Back ground – In Chinese badaling means reaches in eight directions. Badaling was given this name because this section of the Great Wall is built on a series of mountain ridges that head off in many different directions. Badaling’s commanding position on head of these ridges, its excellent defensibility and convenient transport routes made Badaling a key strategic position in Beijing’s northern defense.
Badaling is the most popular, most crowded and most accessible section of the Great Wall. For at least half the year from mid Spring to mid Autumn, Badaling is so crowded that walking in some sections is brought almost to a standstill.
History – Badaling is a Ming Dynasty wall that took eight years to build and was completed in 1505. It was the first section of the Great Wall of China to be fully restored and it was opened to the public in 1957 during Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward.
Size – The Badaling section of the Great Wall is 3,741 meters long with 12 watch towers in the northern section and six towers in the southern section. The average altitude of Badaling above sea level is around1,000 meters and the highest point of Badaling is 1,015 meters.
On average the wall at Badaling has a height of 7.8 meters and a width of 5.7 meters. Badaling is rumoured to be wide enough for five horses to gallop on side by side. It is wide but five horses would be a very tight squeeze.
Difficulty and condition of the wall – Badaling is in excellent condition and very well maintained. The main section of the wall is from the ticket office to Tower 8 which is the top of the chair lift. Walking the wall in this section can be tiring but is not difficult and should not be a problem for the elderly or people with walking difficulties. The section of the wall from Tower 8 to Tower 12 at the end has steep sections and is more difficult to walk.
All sections of Badaling have a metal hand rail on either side which makes walking Badaling very safe. The chair lift at Badaling runs from the near the ticket office all the way to Tower 8 which is the highest and the most crowded part of the wall.
Getting there – Badaling is by far the easiest section of the Great Wall to visit and you can get there by train, multiple bus lines, taxis, private cars and with tour groups.
Train – Train is the easiest and most comfortable way to reach Badaling and method I recommend. The S2 train to Badaling runs from Beijing North train station to the Badaling train station. The easiest way to reach Beijing North train station is to catch the subway to Xizhimen on subway line two then use the A exit which is right in front of the train station. The train ticket is 6rmb and the train takes just under 80 minutes. The trains leave Beijing North train station at 6:12am, 7:58am, 8:34am, 9:03am, 10:57am and 12:43pm.
Summary – For convenience, ease of access and low difficulty, Badaling is the best section of the wall to visit. If you have walking difficulties then Badaling is also the best section of the Great Wall to visit. The very dense crowds that are like a train in peak hour do detract a lot from the experience of being on the wall so I would make Badaling the last choice for most people.
Jiankou Great Wall of China 箭口长城
Back ground – The meaning of Jiankou is arrow knock and Jiankou is given this name because the mountains it is built on are shaped like an arrow with a collapsed ridge resembling an arrow knock.
Jiankou is the most dangerous of the Beijing sections of the Great Wall, the most isolated and inaccessible and one of the most popular sections for photography.
History – Jiankou is a Ming Dynasty Wall built in 1368. Jiankou has not been restored and never officially opened to the public.
Size – The Jiankou section of the Great Wall is roughly 22 kilometers in length and consists of three parts. The western part from is from Nine Eye Tower which is the most western point of Jiankou to Jiankou watch tower is 12 kilometers. The middle part from Jiankou watch tower to the Ox Horn Edge is 3 kilometers and the eastern part from Ox Horn Edge to the beginning of Mutianyu is 7 kilometers.
Difficulty and condition of the wall – Jiankou is the most dangerous section of the Great Wall and normally called the “wild west” of the Great Wall. Jiankou is unrestored and in original condition which means many parts of it have been destroyed, eroded, are mounds of rubble or completely overgrown.
In some of the steep parts where there is erosion, you have to climb up almost vertical surfaces where a fall will lead to serious injury and possibly death. The nearest hospital is at least one to two hours away and that is once you leave the wall. Very few foreigners visit Jiankou because it is remote and very difficult to walk and accidents are common with local visitors to Jiankou.
I’m an experienced rock climber and there were some parts of Jiankou that in hindsight I should not have climbed because they were just too dangerous so it very difficult and dangerous section to climb.
Getting there – The starting point for hiking Jiankou is a small village called Xi zha zi 5 that is around 75-80 kilometers north of Beijing and hard to reach. To get to the village you first catch the subway to Dongzhimen subway station on subway line two then catch the 916 express bus at Dongzhimen Wai long distance bus station. The bus station is right next to exit B at Dongzhimen station and hard to miss.
The 916 express bus takes around 90 minutes ands terminates at a small city called Huairou where you get off at the last stop. From Huairou you catch a taxi to the village and the taxi ride takes just over one hour.
There are a number of paths behind the village but only two or three of them lead to the Great Wall. Take the path that heads north west and reaches the wall at the Beijing Knot tower. If you are uncertain which path to take, ask one of the villagers for directions. They are friendly and used to giving tourists directions. The path from the village to the wall takes 30 to 40 minutes to walk.
So you can see Jiankou is called the wild west of the wall for good reason and if you get hurt climbing Jiankou, you are a long way from help.
Summary – Jiankou is an incredible section of wall for photography and the rugged beauty of the wall and the surrounding mountains is breath taking. Jiankou is extremely isolated and you will spend most, if not all of your time on the wall by yourself. Jiankou is also extremely dangerous, the steep treacherous sections should be avoided and it is only suitable for fit and experienced hikers.
Mutianyu Great Wall of China 幕田峪长城
Background – After Badaling, the Mutianyu is the most famous and visited section of the Great Wall of China. Mutianyu is the longest restored section of the Great Wall, is highly developed and very easy and enjoyable to walk. Mutianyu is takes longer to reach than Badaling so most tours to Mutianyu do not include stops at numerous markets and factories along the way. This is a big problem with tours to Badaling.
History – The original Mutianyu section was built during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-557) and gradually fell into disrepair over the centuries. It was restored in 1568 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and served as protection against the defeated remnants of the Yuan Dynasty and Mongol hordes.
Mutianyu was restored again in 1986 after four years of restoration and opened to the public on the 1st of May 1986.
Size – The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is approximately 2.5 kilometers long, has 23 watch towers and an average height of 7 to 8 meters and an average width of 4 to 5 meter The west end of Mutianyu connects to the unrestored Jiankou section of the Great Wall at tower 23 and the east section of Mutianyu connects to the unrestored Lianhuachi section at tower 1.
Difficulty and condition of the wall – Mutianyu is harder to climb than Badaling because there are many steep sections, steep stairs and several areas where you need to use your hands to climb. Most areas do not have hand rails so you have to be careful and take your time. If you have any difficulties walking, I suggest you just walk the wall between tower 6 and tower 14. This still gives you an excellent Great Wall experience, awesome views and avoids the more difficult areas.
Even though the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is only 25 years old, you can see a number of areas that are damaged and very worn and looked much older than 25 years. Comparing the condition of some parts of the wall that are hundreds of years old such as Jiankou and in excellent condition to some parts of Mutianyu that are in poor condition, it is easy to see that the quality and craftsmanship of the original wall is superior.
Getting there – The best way to get to Mutianyu is by bus and the 867 bus goes directly from Beijing to the Mutiayu village and ticket office at the base of the wall. To catch the 867 bus, you catch the subway on subway line two to the Dongzhimen subway station and use the B subway exit. The Dongzhimen Wai long distance bus station is right next to the subway exit.
Most bus bays at the bus station are inside in a massive building. The 867 bus bay is on the outside and a little tricky to find. The easiest way to find it is to go to the main entrance then walk anticlock wise around the block until you get to the 867 bus bay. The walk from the main entrance to the 867 bus bay should take around 5 minutes.
There are two 867 buses in the morning that leave at 7:00am and 9:00am and two buses in the afternoon that leave Mutianyu at 2:00pm and 4:00pm. The bus trip takes two and a half hours and cost 16rmb.
Summary – The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China is an awesome section of the Great Wall to walk and vastly superior to Badaling. If you are not comfortable with a combination of buses, taxis and minibuses to visit the more remote sections of the Great Wall like Jiankou then Mutianyu is an ideal choice for you.
Gubeikou Great Wall of China 古北口长城
Back ground – Gubeikou is one of the longest sections of the Great Wall near Beijing and after Jiankou, is the most isolated section. Gubekou has a western section that is in original unrestored condition and an eastern section that has been fully restored. There has been no commercial development of Gubeikou and there are no shops, toilets or other tourist facilities.
History – The Gubeikou section stands on an area of strategic important that has been the site of fortifications for over 2,500 years. The first section of Gubeikou was built by the Northern Qi Dynasty of 550-557. The wall was later rebuilt, extended and fortified during the Ming Dynasty of 1368-1644. Final reconstruction was completed in 1567 and there have been no renovations or changes made since then.
Size – Over 20 kilometers long and has 143 watch towers positioned at an average distance of 156 meters. Many of these watch towers are in ruins and hard to identify as watch towers. Gubeikou varies in width with the narrowest sections less than 40cm wide.
Difficulty and condition of the wall – The wall at Gubeikou does not follow any steep cliffs or ridges and all the important steps are fairly intact so walking Gubeikou is not dangerous or too difficult. There are some sections with steep drops but crossing these can be done safely. The most western section is difficult to walk and should be avoided unless you are fit and an experienced hiker. The western and eastern parts of Gubeikou are like two different walls. The eastern section is restored and very similar in condition to Mutianyu.
The beginning of the western section is in such bad condition that the wall is not visible at all and there is only the crumbling remains of two watch towers. The condition of the wall at the beginning is so bad that much of the trail is beside the wall because the actual wall itself is either in ruins or piles of brick and rubble. The condition of the wall improves as you head west and some parts of the wall and several watch towers are almost complete.
Getting there –Gubeikou is located 120 kilometers out of central Beijing and the best way to get there is by bus. To catch a bus to Gubeikou, you catch the subway on subway line two to the Dongzhimen subway station and use the B subway exit. The Dongzhimen Wai long distance bus station is right next to the subway exit. At Dongzhimen Wai you catch the 980 fast bus to a small town called Miyun and get of the bus in the center of the town. From there you can either catch another large public bus to Gubekou township or one of several minibuses.
Summary – Gubeikou does not have the crowds of Badaling or Mutianyu and it is not dangerous or difficult to hike like Jiankou. This makes Gubeikou and excellent section of the Great Wall to visit if you want a bit of adventure but don’t want to struggle or risk life and limb. The contrast between the original western part and restored eastern part is fascinating and great to see.
Jinshanling Great Wall of China 金山嶺长城
Background – Jinshanling means gold mountain and this section of the Great Wall was named after two mountains it was built on, Big Jinshanling and small Jinshangling. It is one of the least well known sections of the Great Wall near Beijing and normally used as a starting point for hiking to the more famous Simatai section of the Great Wall.
History – Jinshanling is another Ming Dynasty wall and was built during the period from 1368 to 1389. It was later rebuilt between 1567 and 1570 by the famous General Qi Jiguang. The original wall is in good condition and the west end has been partly restored in the last few years.
Size – Jinshanling section of the Great Wall is 10.5 kilometers long with an average height of 7 meters and width of 5 meters.
Difficulty and condition of the wall – From west to east, the first part of Jinshanling is in good condition but gradually deteriorates as you move eastward and becomes rocky with loose stones and bricks and some collapsed areas. Even with these tricky areas, walking Jinshanling is easy and should not be a challenge if you are in decent condition.
Getting there – The easiest way to reach Jinshanling is to take the 980 bus (same bus to Gubeikou) from the Dongzhimen Wai bus station to Miyun. Once you arrive in Miyun you can take a minibus, private van or taxi to Jinshanling. Most people use this method to get to Jinshanling, walk to Simatai then get back to Beijing from Simatai where there are more transport options.
Summary – A good section of the wall to visit but if you do go to Jinshanling, you should continue all the way to Simatai.
Simatai Great Wall of China 司马台长城
Background – Simatai is a wonderful section, said to be the best of the Great Wall and my personal favourite. Unfortunately Simatai has been closed for renovations since June 2010 and the Simatai authorities are not expected to open it again until at least mid 2012.
This means that there are no of transport routes to Simatai and the condition and difficulty of walking Simatai will not be known until after restorations are complete. I have included below basic information Simatai.
History – Simatai was first built during the North Qi dynasty in 550-557. It was rebuilt during the Ming dynasty during the period from 1368 to 1398. Until the current restoration, Simatai was one of the most original of the Ming Dynasty sections of the Great Wall.
Size – The length of Simatai is5.4 kilometers and the width of some parts of the wall is only 40cm. Simatai is divided into two sections by Lake Yuanyang Hu. The western section has 18 watch towers and is built on a shallow mountain ridge. The eastern section has 15 watch towers and the wall there is built on very rugged and steep mountain ridges.
Difficulty and hiking conditions – Prior to Simatai’s current restoration the western section was in good condition and easy to walk. The eastern section had breath taking views, was very narrow in some parts and very difficult to climb. The wall containing the last three towers on the eastern edge was considered to be too dangerous and not open to public. More adventurous visitors to the wall just ignored the closed sign and continued to the end which was one of the best parts of Simatai.
Getting there – Prior to the restoration, the most common method of getting to Simatai was to catch the 980 bus from Dongzhimen Wai long distance bus stop to Miyun. From Miyun, catch a taxi or minibus to Simatai. There were other buses from different parts of Beijing that operated at set times and went directly to Simatai.
Summary – Simatai was one of the best sections of the Great Wall to visit because the views were incredible, a lot of watch towers, no crowds and challenging but not too difficult walking.
The best part of the Great Wall to visit depends on your level of fitness, what you enjoy and how comfortable you are catching public transport in China.
For people with low fitness levels or who have difficulty walking, Mutianyu is the best section to visit. If you like crowds and value convenience, Badaling is the best section. For more adventurous travellers who want to see the original wall, Jiankou and Gubeikou are ideal.
My recommendation is to visit the safer eastern end of Jiankou that has some of the best scenery on the Great Wall and walk east to Mutianyu. This walk can be completed in a day and will provide you with the original and impressive Jiankou wall and the restored and relative uncrowded western end of Mutianyu.
Great Wal of China Links
Wikipedia on Great Wall of China – For facts and figures on the Great Wall of China