Naturally, while in China, we had to see the Great Wall. In an effort to escape the crowds, we signed up for two days of hiking with an organization called Beijing Hikers, whose trips tend to move outside of the easily accessible, and hence congested, areas of the wall. Our hike leader was a loud, crass, hilarious woman from Chicago named Mill (or Millie) with boundless energy and no hesitation about speaking her mind.
The Great Wall’s total length is 13,171 miles long, of which 5,500 were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). Various iterations of the wall have existed since the 7th century B.C., when the Chinese began building walls to protect the countrymen from invasions by nomadic tribes; virtually all of those sections have been destroyed, though, and most of the still-visible portions were constructed during the Ming Dynasty.
GUBEIKOU TO JINSHANLING
We had looked up the air quality forecast, hoping for some nice, clear skies, and were pleased to note that the forecast for our first day looked pristine. Our hopes were somewhat dampened when we set off in the morning under a heavy haze of smog, partially obscuring our first views of the wall. Happily, though, and despite no apparent wind, the haze lifted just partway into the morning, giving way to clear blue skies and stunning views.
This hike was simply spectacular – around every bend and over every hill, the wall stretched out for mile after mile, crowning the emerald hills as far as you could see. The first section we hiked, the Gubeikou section, was largely unrestored, the walls in disrepair and covered with vegetation, but still standing. The Gubeikou section was first built in the 5th century, and was reconstructed during the Ming Dynasty. Towers appeared at regular intervals along the wall, providing some welcome shade from the blistering sun, along with platforms to seek even higher views of the surrounding mountains.
Eventually, we reached a section of the wall that is controlled by the Chinese military, restricting our path forward. We climbed down into a lush valley named, ominously enough, 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. Initially, we were hiking on broken, unrestored masonry, but this quickly gave way to a carefully-restored section of the wall. The untouched sections were beautiful and felt authentic, but it was also nice to see portions of the wall that appeared as they did when they were first built.
Total distance: 8 miles
Elevation gain: 2,003 feet
JIANKOU TO MUTIANYU
Our second day of hiking started with our small group staring straight up at a guard tower looming over us, on top of what appeared to be a precariously steep hillside, with our hiking leader cheerfully announcing that was our first stop. We made good, if sweaty, time up the hill and in less than an hour we were looking at a section of the Great Wall that begged the question of why they even bothered in some areas. Precipitous, rocky cliffs fall off either side of the mountains, with the wall threading its way along the spine of the range. I can’t imagine who looked at 1,000’ sheer cliffs and thought, “you know, that really needs a 15’ wall on top of it… just to be sure.” Regardless, it made for a breathtaking view.
As with the previous day, we began on an unrestored section of the wall, the Jiankou section, constructed in 1368. This section was fairly short, however, quickly linking up with the Mutianyu portion. This part of the wall is actually fairly old, constructed in the 6th century A.D., but it has undergone multiple repairs and restorations starting in 1569. We rapidly became glad for the restoration work, as we found ourselves on a series of extremely steep staircases, which likely would have been dangerous, if not impassable, if left in their original condition. At the bottom of the staircases, we followed the wall as it climbed and descended the hills beneath, sharply dropping away in spots, before ascending just as quickly a few feet further. Far more people were on this part of the wall, and the reason became evident when we got closer to the entrance and found a chairlift that bypassed the hike up the hillside. Our hike leader informed us that we had the option of taking the chairlift down, in a tone that suggested such a choice carried with it a lifetime of shame and regret. We naturally opted for the manual route, marching down the seemingly-endless staircases before piling back on the bus to Beijing. Though not nearly as impressive as the first hike, and getting into some heavily touristed areas towards the end of the trek, we enjoyed our second day out on the wall.
Total distance: 4 miles
Elevation gain: 1,291 feet