Conquering the Wild Wall with Great Wall Hiking

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If there’s one question I was tired of answering when talking to people about my time in China, it was “What was the Great Wall like?”

In my two and a half years of calling China home, I visited some pretty remarkable places. I spent entirely too much time in Shanghai, I paid a visit to beautiful Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan, I played cricket in Xiamen, and I explored the wild west that is Xinjiang province

But I never did make it to the Great Wall.

My first real look at the Great Wall took my breath away.
My first real look at the Great Wall took my breath away.


When I decided I’d be paying a return visit to my former home over the university break, I decided to make visiting Beijing my first order of business.


It seemed somehow criminal that I hadn’t made it to China’s most famous city in all of my time calling the country home.


Much like my uneducated impression of London, I’d been guilty of deciding ahead of time that I wouldn’t like Beijing. I talk about this in more detail when describing my experience in Beijing’s hutongs, so I won’t go into details again here.


I was even guilty of deciding in my head that the Great Wall was somehow missable, like it was an icon in name only and wasn’t deserving of its fame.


How wrong I was.


Thanks to my friends at Great Wall Hiking, I was not only able to have my opinion proven wrong, but I was able to do so along one of the most picturesque, visually stunning sections of the wall.

Jinshanling Great Wall

Jinshanling to Simatai West

Located a three hour drive from Beijing proper, this largely unrestored section of wall offers up a more historic, authentic experience than crowded Badaling or touristic Mutianyu.


Far from the crowds of selfie-stick toting tourists and tour groups wearing matching baseball caps, the first impression upon arriving at Jinshanling is one of utter peace and quiet.


Our small group of four are all alone as we check in, lather ourselves in sunscreen (special thanks to Banana Boat for providing the sunscreen!), and prepare to head up to the mountain. The spacious visitor’s centre seems like a white elephant of the highest order as our footsteps echo in its vast emptiness.


Thanks to Banana Boat for protecting my dome on a hot and sunny day.
Thanks to Banana Boat for protecting my dome on a hot and sunny day.
The entire group (all four of us) posing in one of the guard towers.
The entire group (all four of us) posing in one of the guard towers. Photo by Great Wall Hiking.

“We will start walking up 1.7km of stairs to the wall,” our guide Peter informs us as we depart.


Peter, who hikes the wall something like twenty times a month, is not only ridiculously fit, but is also a font of knowledge on the wall. During our three hour drive he’d regaled us with an extensive history of the wall – from its origins to its construction to the three times in its history that it was breached.


His passion for the subject was infectious, and we were all bouncing on the soles of our feet with anticipation.


The Climb

Despite the best efforts of my personal trainer, I was woefully unprepared for just what an exhausting exercise it is to climb up 1.7km of stairs in the heat of the mid morning sun. I’d clearly underestimated just how difficult the hike was going to be, and slacked as a result. Stupid fatboy.


While the adorable American couple and the leggy Aussie ahead of me seemed to tackle the steps with aplomb, I paused frequently to ‘take photos’ as a cover for my burning need to suck in more air and shudder through the veritable torrent of sweat that was pouring from every perceivable orifice.


Stand back ladies, I’m gushing.


Climb as I might, the wall never seemed to get any closer.
Climb as I might, the wall never seemed to get any closer.

On several occasions I’d glance up at the distant wall and curse it.

“Why the fuck aren’t you getting any closer?”

The wall gave no answer. It treated me with the same disdain which it met hordes of Mongolians with centuries before.


Bastard wall.


I was approaching the white light and speaking in tongues when all of a sudden one of the towers loomed over us, blessing us with the kiss of its shade and a reprieve from the walk.


I was exhausted and we hadn’t even set foot on the wall yet.

A blessedly flat bit of the Great Wall.
A blessedly flat bit of the Great Wall. Photo by Great Wall Hiking.

The Great Wall

Describing the wall as ‘great’ isn’t hyperbole.

It’s not like some guy giving his penis a daunting name in the effort to give it an air of mystery.

The wall really is a sight to behold, and the mind boggles at the sheer amount of manpower and resources that went into constructing such a monumental barrier.

It also gives some indication of just how terrifying the barbarian hordes who necessitated its construction must have been.

George RR Martin may have been inspired by Hadrian’s Wall when he described The Wall, but China’s wall is a far more fitting real world example.

I won’t bore you with (more) flowery prose to describe the experience of walking the wall. I think photos do it far more justice.

Old China and new China hanging out.
Old China and new China hanging out.
My fave shot of the day.
My fave shot of the day.
While much of the Great Wall has been restored, large portions of Jinshanling remain at their crumbly best.
While much of the Great Wall has been restored, large portions of Jinshanling remain at their crumbly best.
Oh Fuck. Off.
Oh Fuck. Off.

The Reprieve

The one experience from the wall that warrants mention would be our brief beer stop atop one of its loftiest towers.

By this point it was 1pm and the sun hung high overhead, so the idea of sipping a blissfully cold beer was enough to make up for the fact it was a watery Chinese beer.

And let’s be honest, there’s something surreal and once-in-a-lifetime about sipping on a cold can of suds while gazing out at one of the most amazing feats of human endeavour the ancient world has ever known.


An ice cold beer atop the Great Wall. That's the stuff memories are made of.
An ice cold beer atop the Great Wall. That’s the stuff memories are made of.

I’d like to thank Great Wall Hiking for their role in getting me to the Great Wall. While my trip was complimentary, my opinions are my own. I had a fantastic time and would definitely recommend them if you’re looking to see the Great Wall in all of its glory. I took the Simatai to Jinshanling tour and loved it.

Not only did we finish, we got a certificate to prove it!
Not only did we finish, we got a certificate to prove it! Photo by Great Wall Hiking

The $136 USD price tag is a bargain considering it included transportation, the guide, all relevant permits, a few beers, lunch, and a flash drive full of professionally taken & edited photos at trips end.

Your Say

Have you ever taken on the Great Wall of China? How was your trip?

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  1. First off I would like to say thank you ,based off your blog and your review / details . I decided booked a tour with Great Wall hiking. Peter too was my guide. All I can say unbelievable !!!!!
    Peter was amazing wealth of knowledge which made the entire tour.
    The pictures you posted and the views I experienced were unbelievable. The 1.7 km of stairs you mention are seriously no joke. It is a straight up ass kicker. However when you step onto the wall that first time, suddenly all the burning / gasping for air and legs feeling like jello disappears. I was in utter awe of what I was looking at.
    Thank you again for the recommendation it made my experience everything I had hoped for.
    Pierce (on a bullet train back to Shanghai)
    via OH-IO

    • That’s fantastic to hear, Pierce! I thoroughly enjoyed my day out with Great Wall Hiking and have since hiked 8 other different sections of the Great Wall on my own. If you’re ever heading back to Beijing and are feeling a little adventurous, let me know and I can point you in the right direction!

  2. The Great Wall is one of the main reasons I visited China. Our first visit we went with a small tour and spent our time at Badaling. It was a great first experience and even the remnant commercialism didn’t put me off! Our second trip we were with a larger tour group. This time we climbed the wall at Juyongguan. An incredible experience! Amazingly only four of the group of 24 took the challenge to climb to the highest point Later on our trip we did a family tour to Mutianyu. While only a little less commercial than Badaling it has some great views (when there’s no haze) and the road to it provides some amazing views of small Chinese villages. My recommendation – never miss the opportunity to view one of the world’s wonders! I’ll be back to conquer Jinshanling to Simatai (the wild wall) one day!

    • Definitely worth it for the serenity alone.

      I’m sure I’ll tackle the Great Wall again someday. I do want to check out Mutianyu so I have a better basis for comparison, and there’s even wilder portions of the wall that you can hike & camp on.

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