At more than 13,000 miles (21,000 km) in length, China’s Great Wall is unquestionably one of the world’s most incredible ancient wonders. The labyrinthine fortification was constructed to protect countrymen from invasions by nomadic tribes, and work on the wall was continued without interruption over nearly two millennia, beginning in the 3rd century B.C. and continuing through the 17th century A.D. Some of the earliest portions of the wall were built by the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of Imperial China, using soil, gravel, stone, and wooden framework, although much of what stands today was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).
During our week-long stay in Beijing, we couldn’t wait to get out and do some hiking along the iconic wall. Looking to escape some of the more touristed and crowded portions of the wall, we ultimately opted for a 13-km hike from Gubeikou to Jinshanling, almost a three-hour drive (145 km) northeast of Beijing. While we desperately hoped for a more peaceful hiking experience, we were unprepared for just how deserted this ancient section would be. Showcasing both restored and unrestored segments of the wall, the unexpected tranquility allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in the ancient history beneath our feet, as well as the stunning panoramas that unfurled before us.
Every step of the hike was simply spectacular – around every bend and over every hill, the wall stretched out for mile after mile, crowning the crests of the emerald Yan Mountains as far as the eye could see. Beginning in Gubeikou, the wall is largely unrestored, with no rebuilding or repairs since its final construction in 1567. The wall here is ragged, in disrepair and covered with vegetation, but still standing. The Gubeikou section was first built by the Northern Qi Dynasty in the 6th century A.D. and was later reconstructed during the Ming Dynasty. This part of the fortification protected an important pass between Beijing and Mongol territory, and more than 100 battles were fought along this portion of wall. Towers appear at regular intervals along the Panlongshan section of Gubeikou’s wall, including the unique 24-Eye Tower, each providing some welcome shade from the blistering sun.
Eventually, we reached a section of the wall that is controlled by the Chinese military, restricting our path forward. To bypass this section, we climbed down into ‘Spider Valley’ and spent some time pushing our way through dense undergrowth before oddly finding ourselves standing in front of a small bed & breakfast that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. They did, however, have a tiny freezer full of ice creams and popsicles for sweaty hikers to enjoy, and we relished the icy refreshments.
Shortly after hiking out of the valley, we clambered back onto the wall, this time on the Jinshanling section. In stark contrast to the broken, unrestored masonry at Gubeikou, Jinshanling quickly gave way to a carefully-restored section of the wall. And while there was something beautiful, historic, and authentic about wild Gubeikou, it was also interesting to see the wall as it would have appeared when it was first built. With its arresting views, untamed wall, and unforeseen serenity, this portion of China’s formidable Great Wall really allows you to absorb yourself in the remarkable history surrounding you.
Total distance: 8 miles
Elevation gain: 2,003 feet
*Note: We hiked this portion of wall with Beijing Hikers, and would highly recommend their services.