The Great Wall is not a contiguous, monolithic structure. Over time, parts of the Great Wall have crumbled and dissolved into the sand, leaving fractured sections that begin on China’s east coast and continue to the country’s northwestern deserts. The Wall runs just north of Beijing, and I recommend several separate sections that you can visit easily from the capital. While there’s no need to visit each section (unless you’re a hiking and nature aficionado with lots of time on your hands), I think a visit to at least one is a highlight of any trip to Beijing.
While the sections of the Great Wall that I recommend in Beijing China travel are not far from Badaling—the most commercial and most visited part of the Great Wall—they couldn’t be more different. This day-long Beijing China travel will give you an insider’s peek at two peaceful parts of the Great Wall, plus take you to one of China’s most avant-garde architectural projects where you can enjoy post-climb pampering at a spa.
The 1-hour journey to the Commune and the other points mentioned on this Beijing China travel can be made by taxi or bus (tourist bus no. 1 or 5 from Qianmen or tourist bus no. 2 from Beijing Railway Station will take you to Juyongguan), but my recommendation is that you rent a car for the day. If you overnight at the Commune (highly recommended, the hotel can arrange return transport to the city or drop you off at the Badaling Bus Station if you’d prefer to avoid the costly transfer fee.
Badaling Great Wall
This is the Disneyland version of the Great wall, and the section that many Chinese aspire to visit. A trip here is convenient and quite picturesque if you don’t mind the crowds. This section was constructed around 1368 of brick, stone, and soil. It was the first part to be restored, back in 1957. A cable car was built in the 1980s, which was followed by a KFC and then a Starbucks. Although it is one of the most dramatic sections of the Great Wall, the sheer number of visitors can be overwhelming. Buses leave Beijing every 5 minutes and take an hour.
Huanghua Cheng Great Wall
The restorations began only recently at Huanghua Cheng, which makes it a good choice if you’re interested in seeing a more natural part of the Wall but don’t want a hike that’s too vigorous. (There’s no cable car here.) The area is near a reservoir and is blanketed with yellow flowers in summer (the name Huanghua means yellow flower). The incline is gradual at first, but it gets steeper as you ascend.
Jiankou Great Wall
This section is for serious hikers only, and is our favorite part of the Great Wall. Few travelers buses make the journey here, there’s no cable car, and in the off season the ticket collectors don’t even bother to collect the admission fee since the area is fairly remote. You’ll have to rent a car for this excursion. (I’ve spent plenty of time here, since I rent a house in the nearby countryside.) Start at Xi Zha Zi Cun, where the road dead ends into a parking lot and follow the trail up to the Great Wall. Turn left once you reach the Great Wall, and prepare yourself for an intense 5-hour hike. The tallest watchtower in the distance is Jiankou; just before you reach it, look for a marked by a flat, paved section of the wall. This will lead you back down to the road. From the road, it’s a 20-minute walk back to the parking lot. Make sure to bring plenty of water and a lunch.
Jinshanling Great Wall
Like Jiankou, this part of the wall is mostly un-restored, though tourist officials have installed a cable car here. Jinshanling is 10km (61?4 miles) from the Old Northern Pass, through which Qing royalty passed on the way to their summer retreat at Chengde. The Great Wall here, restored in the 16th century, features unusual circular towers and elaborate defensive walls leading up to towers. It is possible to do a dramatic walk from here to the Simatai section (see “Simatai,” below), which takes about 5 hours. You’ll have to arrange for private transportation to drop you off at Jinshanling and pick you up once you arrive in Simatai.
Mutianyu Great Wall
Restored in 1986, Mutianyu is slightly less crowded than Badaling. Like Badaling, it has a cable car, but Mutianyu also boasts a German-built toboggan ride, which you can take on the way down. Located in a heavily forested area, it’s especially photogenic in rainy, misty weather. Public transportation for the 90-minute trip to Mutianyu is sparse, so your best bet is to rent a car for the day.
Simatai Great Wall
Though the farthest from Beijing, Simatai is a good option for those who want a challenge travel. The most harrowing portion, steep and un-restored, is on the east (right) side of the Miyun Reservoir. The endpoint is the Wangjing Ta, the 12th watchtower; beyond that is the Heavenly Bridge (Tianqiao) where the wall narrows to only a few feet. The round-trip hike takes 3 hours at a moderate pace. The section of Simatai west of the reservoir leads to Jinshanling. Simatai gets crowded on the weekends, especially now that a cable car has been built. On weekends, a luxury tour bus for ¥95 leaves Qianmen at 8:30am and returns to Beijing at 3pm. (Make sure to have your hotel contact the bus company to confirm the return time.) If you plan on walking to Jinshanling, it’s best to arrange private transport to pick you up there.
Juyongguan Great Wall
The Juyongguan section of the Great Wall, a recently restored area an hour away from downtown Beijing, is one of the sections closest to the city and the most historically significant. Guarding one of two crucial passes to Beijing and the North China Plain, it was the site of pitched battles involving Jurchen, Mongol invaders. There may have been fortifications here as early as the 6th century – before Beijing existed. In any case, it affords breathtaking views—my professional photographer friends agree that it’s their favorite section of the Great Wall. Yet Juyongguan receives fewer travelers than other areas, making for a peaceful climb. It’s worth stopping at Juyongguan to view the ancient and remarkable Yun Tai (Cloud Platform), which once stood astride the old road running northwest into Mongol territories. Dating from 1342, it was the base for three Tibetan-style stupas, which were toppled by an earthquake and replaced during the Ming Dynasty by a Buddhist temple.
If you’ve walked the two sections of the Great Wall recommended in this Beijing China travel, you may be ready for a body treatment or a foot massage at this elegant spa. The spa has an outdoor deck with a perfect view of the Great wall on clear days.