Destination: The Great Wall Of China
“ A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao Tzu
The symbol of China, and considered as the world’s most breathtaking man-made sight, the Great Wall really is worth the trip to Beijing. Totaling an astonishing 13,000 miles of fortification, it snakes through the northern portion of China.
There are hundreds of tours of course, but you really don’t need one. As an expert hiker (and certified hiking guide) myself, I can honestly say that you’ll waste hundreds and thousands of dollars on being led down a very easy-to-follow trail that goes one way only. There’s no way you can get lost. Research the different parts of the wall before you go, then choose the most compatible section based on your hiking ability. If you’re an informed visitor, you don’t need to book a tour.
In saying that, I don’t recommend being completely independent either. It’s quite tricky to navigate the tickets, shuttles, entrances, transfers, and exits – all of what a driver can do for you. I sat down with the concierge at my hotel and went through all the options, including which part of the wall to see. There’s one accessible from Beijing’s central train station, and that gets jammed with the millions of visitors that give it a bad rap. But before plunging in and hiking into the Great Wall, consider first your fitness.
Is Your Fitness Great Enough?
It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.
Before setting out on this (truly) fantasy hike, make sure that you’re healthy enough to be able to walk the few kilometers that the Great Wall hike offers.
No matter what section you visit, having basic fitness is definitely important. Unlike North American wonders (such as the Grand Canyon) there really didn’t seem to be many first aid stations in case of need. Consider yourself to be self-supported and stay within your physical limits. I would recommend being able to walk 30 minutes comfortably in undulating terrain – prepare by walking for a few weeks in advance in your local park. You’ll probably want to do at least 10,000 steps up there on the wall.
Get a Fitbit or track in your phone steps before you go, so you feel confident in keeping pace – especially if you go to the crowded areas. When surrounded by people, it’s harder to stop for rest. When I visited the Forbidden City, it literally felt like 80,000 humans were in the flow of all walking the same direction. I’m sure parts of the wall will feel like that if you’re not as lucky as I was, having the wall all to yourself!
Hiking on the Great Wall is best enjoyed by walking at your own pace, enjoying the landscape and the Great Wall view to its fullest. Beginners and first-time hikers soon will discover that a steady pace is enough to reach their destination well before they expected. These hikes are amazing for anyone, and any age. However, the fitter you are, the more opportunity you’ll have to go further and explore more.
How I Got The Wall ALL To Myself!
I really couldn’t have planned a better experience of the wall. It was so good that although I initially wanted to go for a few days, I ended up doing just one day because it really was so perfect, I didn’t think I could possibly top it.
The concierge at my hotel coordinated a private car for me. I told him that I wanted to be there for sunrise, and the driver picked me up at 3.45am. Turns out, he’s driven for multiple Presidents and VIP’s, very well connected. He called ahead his contact at the gate with his driver ID… low and behold, I was his VIP client that day and snuck up with the staff car to the entrance at 6 am. The pink sky was poking its way over the lush greenery of the mountains as I strolled energetically up the wall. I felt incredible and know that I’ll cherish those moments forever.
Create Your Own Crowd-Free Experience
Plan ahead! Get fit, pack good shoes, read up on the different sections of the walls on Pinterest or Google. If you can, figure out the most appropriate time to visit. For example, if you’re only in Beijing for a day or two, make sure it doesn’t fall on a weekend or public holiday as those will be the most crowded times.
Some things I found out in my travel planning:
- Spring is the best season to visit the Wall, since it’s quite sunny, and you’ll see the breathtaking view of apricot trees blooming across the Great Wall.
- Visit on a weekday. Avoid going to the place during any of the Chinese holidays as obviously, that’s the busiest time!
- Visit early morning or in the late afternoon, since most of the crowds gather during mid-morning hours. I came down from my hike around 9.30am and it was literally packed with Chinese tourists making their way through the gates. They also hold international forums and conferences with hundreds of people, including music and loudspeakers. Definitely not the peaceful vibe you want for your walk.
- There are 3 main places from Beijing to visit the Great Wall. If you’re an intermediate hiker, I’d recommend doing like me and coordinating a driver from your hotel to take you to the Mutianyu part. It’s less crowded and known for its greenery. It’s also easier to walk than Jinshanling, where I went. I went there because it is known to be the most beautiful, but it really was an advanced level of walking. I don’t think many of my fitness clients in Whistler would be able to walk it very easily. It’s also 5 transit changes on the public train. Harder to get to means fewer people! The most popular (and commercial) tourist place of Badaling. Try to avoid that one.
- A good pair of walking shoes is essential.
- The only restrooms are at the main entrance. Pre-hydrate, and re-hydrate but maybe don’t drink much when you’re on the hike. You won’t be able to ‘find a tree’ or anything private should you need to go.
- The hike is as tough as you want it to be. Go with your mood – this was more of a soulful experience for me than a physical. I wandered…took photos….drank water… looked and looked again… read all the information on the watchtowers and reflected a lot. It wasn’t about powering through or working out. Invite your loved ones, 10 or 100 years old. It’s not about the pace.
Truly A Bucket List Day
The real magic of visiting The Great Wall of China is the wonder of the world that becomes part of you when you venture out and make trips like these happen. As I type this from my hotel room overlooking the hustle and bustle of Beijing traffic with the sun setting below the skyscrapers, I think in awe of where I saw that same sunrise this morning. These are the adventures that empower me to seek more, the journey’s that inspire my creativity and awaken deeper levels of wisdom. I’m that girl that went to Beijing and wound up alone on one of the worlds most visited tourist attractions…. What the heck???
So if you love hiking, start researching how to make this trip happen. Nothing beats being able to incorporate hiking in one of the world’s wonders. It’s natural to worry, over think and maybe over a plan. But once the butterflies turn to excitement, you’ll realize that a rocking fit life deserves these kinds of rewards.
Have a great trip!