Where do I even begin?! The Great Wall of China is a bucket-list item, so coming to Beijing wasn’t going to be complete without checking this one off. However, it’s January. It’s cold. And there are so many choices.
Getting there is one thing. China’s traffic is among the worst I’ve seen, and when you drive in Seoul on a regular basis, that’s saying something. You’ll probably want someone else to navigate the mess that is Beijing (home to a casual 22 mil). If you’re looking for adventure and heading to the Wild Wall (Jiankou, Gubeikou, Huanghuacheng), you probably want to make arrangements with a private driver & guide. If you don’t mind the crowds, or want an easier trek – you can get to the restored sections (Mutianyu, Badaling) with a tour group or taxi. In theory, it’s even possible to take public transportation (but read up on the scams first here!).
After countless hours of research (and a lot of indecisiveness about hiking 5 hours in January)…. we decided to go for the Wild Wall. We would start off hiking the untouched section at Jiankou, and another 4-5 hours later, we would finish the hike along restored Mutianyu.
So we had just booked a 10 hour day trip. Half of which would be spent in Beijing traffic, and the other half in below-freezing temperatures. Sounds great. We were super excited (but really we were).
Our guide, Leo, and his driver picked us up from our hotel at 8am. Right away he was fantastic. Super friendly and talkative, he started right in getting to know us and telling us anything we wanted to know about China. And I don’t just mean where to go for a tourist in the city. Read on for details.
After lots of good conversation, we finally ended up in a small remote village 2.5 hours later, where we would start our trek getting up to the actual wall (this is half the battle, trust me). We only passed two or three signs reminding us that this section of the wall was off limits. Our guide brushed it off – as long as you have a good relationship with the villagers, and give them a little money now and then, NBD. So off we went, and 40 minutes later we were climbing up the two stories into first watchtower.
When we came out on top and looked around, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Jiankou runs along the ridge of some seriously steep and breathtaking mountains. It’s known to be one of the most dangerous sections of the Great Wall, and people have actually fallen to their death on parts of it – hence why its not open to the public. But the views! Pictures won’t ever do it justice…
After snapping some photos and catching our breath, we started the real hike along the Wild Wall. When you think about what it took for the Chinese to even transport all the materials to this point (much less build the wall), it really starts to blow your mind – not to mention the fact that the wall spans more than half the length of China. They didn’t put it on the New 7 Wonders of the World for no reason.
Once we started the walk up (and then down) the steepest section, our legs were burning pretty good. If you want an idea of how steep, and how nonexistent the footing is – take a look:
When Leo stopped us on the worst part of the incline to take some pictures, my thoughts were – WHY and WHY. I could barely stand up without holding onto the wall, so I thought “I’ll just slide down this thing and meet you guys at the bottom”. Turns out these are some of my favorites now 🙂
When you level the camera with the wall, it looks like we’re falling over. But if you turn your head to look at us as if were standing straight up, you can see that the wall is almost vertical!
After just under 2 hours, we reached the beginning of the Mutianyu section, marked by a tree full of red ribbons. You immediately notice the contrast between the two sections. Mutianyu is in pristine condition with English signs everywhere, and people everywhere too. You can even get an ice cream or a beer to take with you as you walk. We were able to move through this section a lot faster, and finished early in just 3 hours!
After the hike, Leo took us to a traditional Chinese restaurant. The food was a mix of Northern Chinese and North Korean influence, and it was some of the best food I’ve ever had. We shared three dishes and toasted over baijiu (Chinese vodka) made from scratch by the restaurant. If you ever get your hands on any, drink up! It’s very good (not bitter like Russian vodka) and goes down easy.
Throughout the hike we learned so much from Leo, but sitting down to an early dinner together was the best way to wrap up our day. He was so candid with us – telling us the ins and outs of how the Chinese government operates, what Millennials think of life in their country, how the car lottery operates in Beijing, what Chinese culture expects of a woman who’s just had a baby….I could go on. It was SO. FASCINATING. We laughed about the differences between Americans and Chinese, and still found common ground in our world views. I don’t think we could have asked for a better guide.
I would HIGHLY recommend using Leo & Beijing Walking for your trip to the Great Wall. He has so much knowledge of Chinese history, and knows his way around perfectly. It was a huge bonus for us that he was so open when sharing about life in China. We felt completely at ease with him all day – like we were with a friend.
If you’re going to see the wall at all though, do it right and experience the Wild Wall! I couldn’t imagine what we would have missed out on had we decided to only see the restored section. It is so worth the cold, the extra hours and the cost (although your legs might feel otherwise).
Until next time, Beijing!
Side note: If you’re planning a trip soon, make sure to read up on all you need to know before going to China here!