Walking the Great Wall

Advice on visiting the world's largest tourist attraction in winter


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25 November 2013

It merits all the superlatives. It is the largest military construction in the world, and the largest man-made object on the planet. Over 6,200 kilometres length makes it the longest wall in the world. At over 9 million visitors a year, it is one of the most intensely-visited sights: the Eiffel tower receives a mere 7 million, the Statue of Liberty 4 million. (The Great Wall has to succumb to Disney World in Orlando, at almost 17 million, and Notre Dame in Paris, over 13 million). It was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1987, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Most of the wall is still unrestored: only a few sections have been returned to their original appearance, with its watchtowers spaced two arrow-shots apart so that every section of the wall was protected. Though the first Great Wall was built from 214 B.C., the most familiar parts of the fortification dates to between 1569 and 1583.

When you're in Beijing, it's one of the classic tourist visits. But 'classic' can mean 'crowded,' and so we recommend selecting one of the less familiar locations where you can enjoy the spectacular scenery in relative peace and quiet.

Simatai, 110 kilometres north-east of Bejing, is one of the most exhilarating stretches of the wall, 19 kilometres of watchtowers, precarious plunges and scrambling ascents. Before 2010, some parts of this route were so steep and rocky that they were like elementary rock climbing, with free hands essential. There are some unusual features of the wall in this part, such as obstacle-walls, secondary walls to deter enemies who had already succeeded in climbing the Great Wall itself. Simatai closed in 2010 for renovation, and it is due to reopen on 28 October 2013. At the time of writing, it was difficult to find confirmation of the reopening, and for this and many other reasons, we recommend taking a one or two-day tour organized by experts such as greatwalladventure.com, who will accompany you to see the highlights. Advance booking recommended.

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Simatai is one of the few parts that retains its original Ming Dynasty appearance, and it is often considered as a 'Museum of the Great Wall.' "The Great Wall is unmatched around the world," said Luo Zhewen (1924-2012), one of China's most authoritative archaeology scholars, "and the Simatai section is unmatched amongst all sections of the Great Wall." The steep mountain ridges make it spectacular as well as gruelling work. Heavenly Ladder is a narrow section (50 cm at its narrowest point) that ascends at an 85-degree gradient, with steep cliffs on both sides. At the end, Sky Bridge is 100 metres long and 40 cm wide. The frequency of watchtowers in this area is much higher than in other parts, just 100-200 metres apart, compared to the average of 500 metres for the Ming towers.

A typical Simatai hike runs from Jinshanling to Simatai, including many watchtowers, and the unrestored 'Wild Wall' portion. Groups organized by greatwalladventure.com are a maximum of six in size; the fee includes personal transfers to and from your hotel in Beijing, entry fees to the Great Wall, English-speaking tour guide, water, and lunch in a local farmer's restaurant. You will see the Watching Beijing Tower at the highest point of the wall, so-called because you can see the city from there. After about one-and-a-half hours of hiking, you reach Simatai, with its famously steep sections.

If you make this visit in winter, go prepared for the cold – temperatures can drop well below zero. Tough hiking boots are essential, as well as sunscreen, sunglasses, energy bars... and of course, your camera!
Mutianyu is another beautiful stretch of wall that has been fairly comprehensively restored, but that is free from the hordes of tourists visiting Badaling, the most popular coach excursion from Beijing. The walk from Jiankou to Mutianyu takes you through some of the most breathtaking scenery of all, particularly evocative in the winter snow. You will see villages where farmers and their families live and work exactly as their ancestors did generations ago. The 10-kilometre walk takes you to deserted watchtowers whose most frequent visitors are hawks and eagles. An unexpected extra is a toboggan ride down. In short, a world apart from the bustle of Beijing.
The most visited part of the Great Wall is Badaling, but its totally-restored state often leads to it being described as a Disneyland version of the wall. Other more authentic and evocative parts are Qian Jiankou, Huangyaguan and Xishuiyu.