For most people, ‘doing’ the Great Wall means taking a tour from Beijing out to Badaling, rebuilt since the 1950s and boasting cable cars and a KFC. Or there’s Mutianyu, with hundreds of souvenir stalls and a toboggan run.
For a structure that clocks in at over 8,000km in length—and that’s just the Ming Dynasty section—nobody sees much of it at all.
Less than 100km is open to the public. The rest is old, broken and inaccessible, in a country that’s modern and networked.
But, as Sir Edmund Hillary said of Everest, and why he wished to climb it: “Because it is there”.
Well, the Great Wall is there, and I wished to climb it. Or at least, a bit of it that wasn’t in the guidebooks. Without dying.
But where to start? Through a combination of Google Earth and the Great Wall Forum, an English-language website for Wall nerds, I hit on a suitable site far from the well-trodden watchtowers around the capital, and procured a set of GPS coordinates.
Then, together with a friend, we rode the rails out to the industrial city of Tangshan, 180km east of Beijing, infamous for its polluting steel mills and a devastating earthquake.
The plan was to commandeer a taxi to drive us to our coordinates (point A), pay the driver to wait for us at another place (point B), then hike from A to B along the Wall and get home in time for supper. Easy.
The Ming generals built atop cliffs and mountains to utilize their natural defensive features, and soon enough we were driving along a new highway toward the Yan Mountains, a range that rises up from the Bohai Sea into a defensive barrier all the way to Beijing and beyond.
At least we hoped we were; we couldn’t see through the polluted haze.
A few days earlier I had been excitedly zooming over the mountains of Hebei Province in Google Earth like it was the opening credits of Game Of Thrones.
The reality, on arriving at our coordinates, was less inspiring.
The road had become a mud track so we’d elected to hike the rest of the way. But it stopped at a terrifyingly huge quarry, with no way to walk around it.
It shouldn’t have been there. It must take years to dig something this deep, even in China, yet it wasn’t on the satellite photos.
As luck would have it, a bemused truck driver pulled up, looked us over, lit a cigarette, and gave us a ride.
After skirting the rim of the enormous crater we explained to our good Samaritan that we were Great Wall hikers.
He mulled this over for a bit, then dropped us off beneath the dam-like foundations of a mountain highway. “Go in there, you’ll find it.”
Emerging through a dank drainage tunnel we were at last greeted by something vaguely appealing.
A dry creek tapered gently uphill, just as it had done on Google Earth. If we followed it for about 1km, according to my calculations, we’d meet the Wall.
Picking up the trace of a trail, we finally got a glimpse of watchtowers—a pair of inward-sloping stone pillboxes on the horizon.
Unfortunately, we lost the way just 15m from a tower, and it took half an hour to wrench our way through a patch of thick thorns.
50cm a minute and a thousand tiny cuts.
Grim as it sounds, all was forgotten when we finally climbed on to the Wall proper, hiked for a while and turned to marvel at our first stunning vista of the day.
The battlements, awash with autumnal reds and yellows, were worn and crumbling, snaking up hundreds of meters, impossibly steeply, to the ridgeline.
Even the lingering pollution lent the scene a sort of Middle Earth quality. It was incredible to fathom such an ancient structure here at all, surrounded by roads, highways, factories and cities, utterly forgotten and near impossible to get to.
That day we encountered only one other person, a man patiently foraging for mushrooms.
The steep section we were looking at I had known to avoid, thanks to Google Earth’s elevation profile feature—we were hiking in the opposite direction.
But that’s not to say our journey was easy.
At times the Wall gave way entirely to natural rock along a sheer cliff, with drops either side. Glorious, vertiginous, dangerous.
Combined with loose rubble and next to no access on or off the Wall (remember the thorns), it was no walk in the park.
The light was fading when at last we came to a notable roofed watchtower called Shenweilou (‘invincible might tower’). The sight of it from above was blessed relief; our taxi, the only car waiting in the parking lot, even more so.
Mission accomplished, more or less. Another 6km of Great Wall under the belt, only thousands more to go.
This lesser-known restored section of the Great Wall is called Baiyangyu (White Sheep Valley). If you have plans to hike it:
- You’ll need a VPN to use Google Earth / Maps in China, but you can use Apple Maps without restriction.
- Keep day hikes to under about 7km in length.
- Have a ‘civilised’ end point to aim for where you can easily get picked up from or spend the night.
- The Great Wall, however remote and neglected, is still a protected, technically private national monument. Do your bit; pick up other people’s trash, try to avoid disturbing loose rubble.
- Watch out for those thorns.
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