China pt 3 - Great Wall

Our group on the Great Wall of China

Today was our day to visit the Great Wall. As soon as we got into the car Bruce said "I have good news and bad news." I guessed them both. It was going to bright and sunny (good news). It was going to be hot (bad news). I was ok with that. We got to do our hike and the pictures would be good. A little discomfort because of the heat seemed like a good trade. Check that opinion a little later in this post.

The most heavily visited spot on the Great Wall is the Badaling section. It is only 50 miles from downtown Beijing and has a freeway running to it. It has been almost completely restored and gets millions of visitors every year. We opted for a more remote section that is well preserved but in more original condition. It was a half day hike and a longer drive to get there.

A little background on the Great Wall. Defensive walls had been built by many of the minor states within China during the Warring States Period that goes back to about 700BCE. The first "Great Wall" was built by Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor who unified China in 220BCE. He ordered all the wall dividing the parts of China taken down and the northern border with Mongolia to be fortified. It is estimated that one million people worked on this project. Most of the wall was a rammed earth fortification and almost nothing remains of it today. It is not even known exactly where all the sections of this wall were located, although it was north of the current Great Wall.

Riding a cable car to get up to the Wall

What is known as the Great Wall today was built 500 - 600 years ago during the Ming dynasty. The wall is primarily brick construction. A lot of the wall has eroded or vanished, but there are sections that are still in quite good shape or that have been restored. The most famous and well preserved sections are just north of Beijing. They were particularly important becasue they were protecting the capital.

It took us about a three hour drive to reach the start of our hike. After about two hours we stopped for gas and a toilet break. This was where we got our first view of the wall. Although I had seen lots of photos, they don't convey the reality well. It just goes and goes and goes on. That is hard to capture in a photograph. The wall climbed from the pass that the highway went through and just continued along the ridgecrest for as far as I could see. Amazing. And I speculatively got my "I Climbed The Great Wall" tshirt at the rest stop so I would be sure I had one. After our stop we drove for another 45 minutes. And the wall was still there. I know that the wall is over 3000 miles long. But it is different when you drive and drive and it is STILL THERE.

Walking the Wall - seems easy enough

Our hike was along the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall to Simitai. It is well preserved but not as heavily restored as Badaling. So it is not in perfect condition. The hike from Jinshanling to Simitai is 11km (about 7 miles) so it seemed like a good distance to give us a feel for the wall. And it is supposed to be "not too bad". The section from Simitai is very steep and dangerous and parts of it are closed for safety reasons. And best of all, the Jinshanling section is not supposed to be crowded.

We started with a cable car ride. There was no one there and Bruce even had to look around to find the person we got the tickets from. So far, so good. Not crowded as advertised. Then we got in the cable car. Seemed a little rickety, but it beat walking all that way uphill. And once we got up out of the valley there was a great view of the wall as we climbed. The cable car claims to take you to the highest point on the wall but it does not. As soon as you hit the wall you have to climb. But it was still a big advantage over starting in the valley. From the top of the cable car it was about a ten minute walk to the wall itself. And from there the wall seemed to go off in both directions to infinity, following the crest of the mountains. Quite a sight.

Bruce and Steve bringing up the rear

The wall is made of bricks and is about 15-20 feet high for most of the stretch that we hiked. It is about eight feet wide and originally had ramparts on both sides, although in some places these are missing. There are guard towers about every quarter of mile. These are two or three stories and were where the soldiers stayed who garrisoned the wall. There were firing ports in the walls of the guard towers that provided some neat views while we rested in the shade in the guardhouse. We were told that there were 34 watch towers between Jinshanling and Simitai. Most of the hike was along the top of the wall although there were a few short sections where we dropped down to a trail beside the wall to avoid a bad spot on the wall or in a towers.

We had heard about hawkers at the Great Wall. I expected that they would just be along the wall set up to sell their tshirts or souvenirs. And some of them did work that way. About every other watch tower would have someone in it who was selling cold water or CocaCola. But they also had another system that was interesting. When we were in the cable car and just getting to the upper station I could see some people standing there. Bruce commented "there are the hawkers". This didn't really register because they didn't seem to be set up to sell anything. An when we started walking they started walking too. Turns out they followed us over half the way to Simitai. So rather than pass various stands as we walked, the hawkers were right there with us the whole time. Look thirsty? They'll pull out a bottle of water to sell you. Want a souvenir? They had books and tshirts. Apparently the local people have some system where they queue up and when it is their turn they get the next tourists who come out of the cable car. Since there were four of us we had four of them follow us. They did pretty well. We felt that after they followed us all that way we had to get something from them. So we bought a book, some tshirts, a poster and some bookmarks. Bruce said we paid too much but oh well. Our hawkers hit the jackpot. They did come in handy. Sandy had a little old lady that hiked with her the whole way and steadied her whenever we got to steep parts. She was a tough old lady.


Since I am an experienced hiker and mountaineer I expected the wall hike to be pretty easy. Seven miles. No big deal. Wrong. Very wrong. Even though we did all the net elevation gain from the valley in the cable car the wall is here is never flat. It is always up and down following the crest of the mountains. And it is not like a trail. Trails traverse a slope and climb gradually. If it is too steep they switchback. The wall just goes straight up. A lot of it is just steps. Sometimes very steep steps. There were many sections where the steps were so steep that I was "scrambling", using my hands on the steps in front of me of balance as I climbed. And of course we were too gung ho and probably didn't pace ourselves that well at first. So instead of an easy four hour hike it was more like a four hour session of running wind sprints. And regrettably I was out of shape for that. So it was hard. Very hard.

But it was glorious. The whole way we were high in the sky with fantastic views. The weather was fantastic (if a little too hot). And the Wall itself is unbelievable. During the Ming dynasty as many as a million soldiers garrisoned the wall. Tens of thousands of people died over the years during its construction. It is truely amazing. I have done a lot of traveling and a lot of hiking but some things just stand out. Hiking to Mt. Everest base camp. Visiting the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Going to Stonehenge. Climbing the Matterhorn. And hiking on the Great Wall is up there with those truely memorable things that I have done. A great day.

Eventually Bruce pointed out our final destination. A deep valley with a river cut across the line of the wall before it climbed up to Simitai. As we approached the river canyon the wall became super steep dropping to the river and a gap before resuming on the other side. We diverted to some very steep steps next to the wall that dropped down to a suspension bridge across the river. After that it was straight up steep steps to the road. I am embarassed but will admit that at this point I was out of gas. It took me a long time to get up those steps. At one point I saw Bruce's head poke over the wall above to check up and make sure I hadn't fallen in the river. But I made it.

There were some stands set up at the road so we stopped for a rest and some cold drinks. I was fine but Shannon was feeling badly. She had been the fastest but had pushed too hard and eventually got sick. But then she was better and we continued on to - The Flying Fox.

Lunch stop in one of the watch towers

I hadn't heard about the Flying Fox. But as we were approaching the river canyon I noticed that there were steel cables running from high on one side to the river on the other side. They probably were about a quarter of a mile long and dropped about 300 feet. Then while I was walking I heard a yell and looked up. Someone was hanging in harness that was attached to the cable and sliding down from one side to the other. Then when we reached it Bruce told us that it was going to be how we would get back! After assuring it was safe, getting us our tickets, and getting us in line he excused himself. He said he had a heart condition and was going to walk down. Right. But there we were. You basically put on a climbing harness - leg loops and waist harness. This attached to the something on the cable with a carabiner. Then you just sat down and slid off the platform into space. Shannon went first, then Sandy and then me. I don't have any photos of the Flying Fox but I did take video. I think I got good shots of Shannon and Sandy going off. I tried to take video while I was riding the cable but it was impossible to keep it steady.

Well as you probably suspect we all made it down in one piece. After that we took a short boat ride across a lake to where there was a parking area. Bruce and our driver met us here. From the lake we had a spectacular view of the Simitai section of the Great Wall. This is one of the steepest sections of the whole Wall. The Wall narrows to less than a meter wide with steep cliffs on the sides. Several people fell off to their deaths so this section is now closed to tourists. I even read that goats were used to haul the bricks up to build the wall because they were the only animals that could up the steep sections. I wonder what army was going to be marching over those cliffs that were being held back by the Wall. But it is an amazing site.

After our hike we were supposed to have an hour ride to our hotel. Bruce and our driver had never been to the hotel before so they weren't sure where it was. I assumed that it would be right where we finished our hike. It wasn't. It turned out that we had to drive pretty much all the way back to Beijing (about two hours) and then drive out the other direction to reach the hotel. The total time was about three and a half hours. This was the only part of the trip that wasn't planned well. It would actually have been easier to go back to Beijing to our hotel. And especially since Shannon wasn't feeling well the drive was tough. But we finally made it.

Video Sandy on the Flying Fox

Additional pictures

Chinese rest stop