Climbing the Great Wall of China

great wall of china

great wall of chinaUntil you reach the Great Wall, you’re no hero.
~ Chairman Mao Zedong

I remember learning about the Great Wall of China when I was a child. It sounded amazing. It was hard for me to fathom a manmade object thousands of miles long (some sources have now measured the Great Wall at over 13,000 miles long!).

I knew the Wall construction was started in the Zhou Dynasty, almost 3,000 years ago. I knew it was built to protect the Qi state from invasion from other states, and to protect the silk road trade. However, no amount of statistics or photos could truly prepare me for seeing the Great Wall in real life!

As our tour bus meandered north of Beijing, we escaped the hustle and bustle of the city, and stepped into the rolling rural lands. However, it wasn’t until we were in the parking area of the section of the Wall we visited that we caught a glimpse of the Wall, far off in the distance, skimming the backbone of the graceful line of mountains.

It was then that the reality of the scale began to sink in.

great wall of china

There are several sections of the Great Wall, north of Beijing, that you can hike.

  • Mutianyu – is fully restored and offers cable car rides from the parking area to the Wall. You can then take a toboggan down from the east part of the Wall down to the valley, for a fun way to descend.
  • Jinshanling – is partially restored. This section also offers cable car rides from the parking area to the Wall.
  • Juyongguan – The section we visited did not have cable cars, but when you’re hiking the Great Wall, the climb to the Wall is really pretty minor. The parts we were able to hike were well restored, allowing you to really get a feel for what it must have been like when the Wall was used for fortification.

This section offered two different hikes. Going left from the parking area, the climb was precariously steep.  To the right was also steep, but not as bad.  Brittany and I chose going to the right, wanting to be able to see as much of the Wall as possible.

What’s the Great Wall Like?

In one word…


great wall of china stairsAs you travel along the Wall, you are constantly going either up or down stairs.  These aren’t modern-day, totally uniform stairs. These are crazy, willy-nilly stair heights!

Sometimes the step is only a couple of inches — barely noticeable. Sometimes the stairs were up to my knee — so about 16 to 18 inches!  And, there’s no rhyme or reason to their heights. It’s not like you have a section of short steps, then a section of uber-tall steps. Nope!  It was just a random jumble of sizes.

Going up the stairs, this wasn’t as much of a challenge; however, going down it was sometimes awkward. You’re not able to get in a normal rhythm of stair climbing, and it meant you definitely had to pay attention to where you were stepping. In fact, going down, many people sat and scootched down on their butt, step-by step.

Important Things to Know When Visiting the Great Wall

Strange Looking Americans

The rest of our tour group had went left, so Britt and I were on our own going to the right. Let me say, if you are obviously not Asian, and particularly blonde, be prepared to be stopped — many, many times — to have your photo taken with other folks visiting the Great Wall. For us, this was a lot of fun, and Britt & I decided it was our opportunity to act as goodwill ambassadors for America. :-)

great wall photos


However, it’s definitely something you have to be mindful of, especially if you’re supposed to be back at your tour bus at a certain time. We were a bit late, being waylaid by folks wanting photos. I really wish we had had more time.

Very Few People Speak English

great wall of chinaI’ve traveled all over the world, and although I try to learn as much of the native language as possible, I’m always thankful to come across at least some people who speak English. At the Great Wall, very few people speak English. The little shop owners didn’t speak English, and the people we met along the Wall — most from rural areas of China — definitely didn’t speak English.

So, when they would come to us to ask for a picture, they would simply grab us and often mime taking a photo. My daughter, thankfully, knows a little Mandarin, so could briefly converse, which everyone seemed to love. Of course, as soon as she said something in Mandarin, they’d get excited and speak very quickly, and she’d have to let them know her Mandarin wasn’t that good. :-)

There Are No Bathrooms on the Wall

Be sure to use the facilities before you start your adventure. At our section, there was only the infamous “squatty potties” — but, that is way better than being uncomfortable climbing up and down a bazillion stairs!

great wall of china

How to See the Great Wall

great wall of china parapetThere are three ways you can see the Great Wall — alone, on a private tour or on a group tour.

  • Alone – Climbing the Wall alone (or with family and friends), gives you the ultimate freedom. You can stay as long as you want and go at your own pace.
  • Private Tour – Exploring the Wall with a private guide offers some flexibility; however, there’s usually a time limit to the tour. Private guides do give interesting insight into the history of the Wall.
  • Group Tour – This is the least flexible option. The tour guide sets the pace, and you’ll definitely be under the tour’s time constraints. However, you do get the guide’s insight into the historical aspects of the Wall.

When to Go to the Great Wall

This part of China definitely has seasonal climate changes. For this reason, Spring and Fall are the best times to climb the Great Wall. Summer in Beijing can be downright sweltering, making the rigorous hike challenging. In the Winter, it gets very cold and can snow, making climbing the stone steps dangerous.

Smog in Beijing

great wall smogRegretfully, as you can see in my photos, we had beautiful spring weather (it was late March), but it was incredibly smoggy. Having grown up just north of Denver, I was used to sometimes seeing the brown haze trapped over the city, from an inversion layer. This smog, however, was pervasive our entire stay in Beijing. When asking our tour guide about it, she told us that sadly brownish-yellow skies were more common than blue.

Very sad.


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