Like all things grand and iconic, the Great Wall of China runs the risk of disappointing eager visitors. For us, it was one of the few historic sights in China that actually lived up to the hype.
Due to a series of underwhelming visits to Chinese historical sights, we put off a visit to the Great Wall until our final moments in Beijing. Hoping to avoid the lingering Chinese and Western tourist hordes of late autumn, we skipped the heavily touristed Badaling segment (the sight of Nixon’s “This is a great wall.” moment) for a more personal, challenging and less reconstructed segment: the 12 km hike from further flung Jinshanling to Simatai.
After a series of charades at a Beijing long-distance bus station, we learned it was impossible to travel to Jinshanling entirely by public transport. The bus could only take us to Miyun, about three-quarters of the way there. The bus driver “conveniently” had a taxi driver friend in Miyun who could take us the remainder of the way to Jinshanling and pick us up from Simatai later that evening.
The bus driver was right: Jinshanling was in the middle of nowhere. The village was several degrees colder than Beijing, a layer of snow covered the ground and all souvenir shops and restaurants were closed. The wind whipped, temperatures were low; tourists were few. The taxi driver hesitated to leave us behind in the midst of this snowy desolation, but a lone ticket woman let us in.
Atop the first tower, we surveyed the vastness of the surrounding countryside. The Great Wall followed the fluidity and contour of the hills for as far as the eye could see. The wall looked oddly like it belonged to the landscape – as if it were a natural wonder instead of a manmade one.
The Great Wall, whose original purpose was to protect the Chinese Empire from invasion, was built over the course of 2000 years (6th century BC to 16th century AD) and stretches across 6,400 km (4000 miles). To appreciate the scale of history, the section at Jinshanling dates only to the Ming Dynasty (13th-16th century).
The winter landscape was barren and desolate – save the lone vendor huddled for warmth inside a tower with his postcards and drinks. The air was so crisp and clear that we were afforded a look into nearby Mongolia. From afar, the hills rolled. Up close, the steepness of the wall was underscored by the challenge we faced scaling crumbling, unrenovated segments of it. The openness of the sky and the grace of the surrounding topography emphasized our human insignificance, but the wall – a manmade triumph – stood in refutation.
Several hours later, we reached a second ticket window for the Simatai stretch of the Great Wall. In Simitai, the wall’s towers had been rebuilt and the path reconstructed to make it more foot-friendly; vendors were more numerous and aggressive to match the increasing number of tourists.
The remoteness was lost. We had returned to civilization.
Great Wall Details and Options
Transport: You won’t save much money taking public transport and a taxi, but it will add to the adventure of the trip. Take a bus from Dongzhimen long distance bus station in Beijing to Miyun (about 1.5 hours, 18 Y). Buses leave every 30-45 minutes. We paid a total of 200 Y for a taxi driver to take us from Miyun to Jinshanling and later from Simatai to Miyun. If you make your way to Jinshanling, it’s possible to hitch a return ride with a tour group from Simatai to Beijing if you time things right.
Tickets: 40 Y for Jinshanling, 40 Y for Simatai – yes, you have to buy a ticket for each section of the wall you cross – and an irritating third one (5 Y) for a bridge in Simitai that we were told was run by a separate company. The zip line at the end of the hike at Simatai (35 Y) made for an exciting end to the day.
Transport and Tours from Beijing Hostels
- Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation runs buses to Jinshanling with pick-up from Simatai. 260 Y/person, including Great Wall entrance fees. That’s just slightly more than what we paid, so it’s not a bad deal. We met travelers who gave this tour good reviews.
- Leo Hostel runs a Secret Great Wall Tour that gets good reviews online and offline.