Let me start off… by apologizing about just how many photos are contained in this post. I could’t choose favorites.
When first planning our trip to China, I can’t tell you HOW many hours I spent agonizing over what section of the Great Wall to see. Do we visit the most popular one Badaling? Or the second most popular Mutainyu that is close to Beijing and has a cool Tobogan ride down? OR do we venture out further from the city to visit a less restored section, otherwise called the “wild” sections. There’s a section where the wall meets the sea (probably too far), a section with very scenic views of a lake and mountains, a moderate hiking section that was 50% resorted, or a HARD hike section where the wall is 100% wild. The pros of doing one of the first 2 is that we’d be able to combine the Great Wall with other cool historic sites like the Ming burial sites, temples, or sites in Beijing city. The cons would be they would likely be more busy (especially Badaling) and I liked the idea of seeing less restore, more wild.
SO once I worked out the details of the rest of our itinerary to ensure we’d have enough time in Beijing to see at LEAST the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, I decided to go with a hiking section. Cause ya’ll know I like to hike! 😉 So do I pick the HARDER 100% wild one? Or the easier 50% restored section. We ended up with the latter, Jinshanling, mostly from looking at photos and watching videos where I thought the one looked much more picturesque. Next I looked into how to get out there as this section was 2-3 hours driving outside the city, and the hiking route anywhere from a few km to 10+! Since it was slated for our first day in China, I decided to just make it easier on us and book a tour where driver and guide would be organized for us.
So bring on our tour hiking from Jinshanling East to West (Simatai)
I found a few different tours, most priced within $200-$280 total with the cheaper ones being in group toursand the smaller hiking tours private. All of the small group tours (while having good reviews) talked about being taken to a “shop” stop which I hate and so I decided paying $30 more or so to have a private tour and no silly wasted time shop stop would be worth it. (and I still agree with this!)
About Our Tour
The tour itinerary was pick up at 8 (before peak rush hour which is more around 9/10 AM in China) with a 2 hour drive to Jinshanling, hiking for 4ish hours, lunch (which was included) close to the wall, and then a 2-3 hour drive to return. We had a luxury mini van for the ride out with a tour guide that gave us lots of information, showed us tons of maps, photos, and pamphlets for the great wall as well as Beijing. Best of all though, they had car Wifi, which if you’ve read my Iceland posts, you’ll know I’m a big fan of it! So we also got some phone time in during the long haul out to the wall. They also provided water, hiking poles (they actually made Braden bring one haha), and an umbrella if we had wanted (we didn’t) Overall the tour company was AWESOME, excellent at communicating (even better if you have wechat), allowed you to pay with cash at the END of your tour, provided lots of information, and overall provided an effortless day for us. So big win on that front.
So let’s get on with the tour shall we?
The eerie walk up to the wall
So we got up early to search for breakfast (which was not provided by hotel) and discovered there was a Mcdonalds close by that we thought would be easiest for breakfast. We walked over and ordered one of their breakfast deals a sandwich and drink combo, got them togo, and then hurried back to our hotel to eat there and ensure we were ready to go by 8.
Surprise surprise then when we got to our hotel and discovered… *gasp* KETHCUP on our breakfast sandwiches and A LOT of it at that. Neither of us are huge ketchup fans to begin with but considering this was a weird “sort of” ketchup mixed with melted cheese and egg on an English muffin, the result was pretty terrible. But we had 0 time to get anything else so we sort of gagged it down and the tour company was right there ready to go at 8.
After a short (ish) informative ride, we pulled up into a very gloomy overcast forest to start our hike at the East gate of Jinshanling (also referred to as Simitai West) Our guide told us this is normally where he ends the hike but he thought it would be better to get most of the “up” out of the way at the beginning and then have a more gradual down… instead of that in reverse. We didn’t care much so we agreed and ya… it was A LOT of up right at the beginning. Haha We pretty much climbed straight up stairs with little to no break for close to 30 minutes. Though it was definitely gratifying when we started to see our first tower! Fog or no fog.
The first tower where we climbed up and were on the wall
But fog was what we got. It was eerie how thick the fog was with the wall sort of just materializing out of no where. You’d walk a few feet away from a tower along the wall and look behind you to find it completely swallowed up, or just a large ghostly shadow. The humidity was also really intense making any climbing effort (which there was a lot of ) even more challenging. Still we enjoyed seeing the wall in this creepy sort of way but when we got to what was probably a very cool “look out” it occurred to us that if it was like this all day, we’d never really get to see the wall in all its glory. (which was a little depressing)
A little about this section: Jinshanling
1. Jinshanling comes from the name of the mountain pass this part of the wall covers: Jinshan, which also means Golden Mountain Ridge
2. It was first built in 1368 by General Xuda but largely expanded and fortified by the famous General Qi Jiguang in the 1570s.
3. The total length of this section is 10.5 km/6.5 miles and comprised of 67 watch towers (that are generally spaced about 320feet/100 m apart)
4. Jinshanling also has amazing pieces of original architecture as renovation really only happened centrally. It has original horse blocking walls, buttresses, and 2 beacon towers that stand apart from the wall.
5. The general wall specs here are: a height of 16 ft/5m to 26 ft/8 m at an altitude of 2,297 ft/700 m above sea level.
This was seriously all we could see for the first while
Believe it or not, we came down from there
Slippery sections- hiking poles were honestly not all that helpful, particularly since ours didn’t have rubber bottoms.
Looking back at the towers we came down FROM through the clouds
An un-restored section of the wall
We were excited to be able to see anything at this point..
The steepest stairs of all. We came down them, and it was funny coming across the people going in the other direction who were just aghast that they had to go up that. (there was literally someone in bikenstocks…. at least I had HIKING sandals on)
We pressed on for another 30 minutes or so through the thick clouds and it finally started to lift. We had another 15-20 minutes of low clouds but higher visibility before the sun actually came out. We got killer views the whole remainder of our hike, I mean I was obsessed with every bend and curve of the wall. Every direction was beautiful and even the scenery surrounding was gorgeous.
The clouds lifting finally!!
Glad we had a tour guide… to take our pictures haha
It was awesome finally getting to see parts of the wall through the windows of the towers!
Amazing scenery was the cherry on top
Looking at a restored tower through an unrestored wall
More about the Wall in general:
1. No you can’t really see it from SPACE… I mean looking at Google Earth satellites can you see it there? (Apparently the claim is you CAN see it with aid… ok)
2. Construction of the Great Wall is recorded in China’s history as beginning in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC – 476 BC)
3. Two of the larger construction campaigns were during the Han (206 BC – 220) and Ming (1368 – 1644) dynasties with the majority of the recognizable sites around Beijing originating from the Ming.
4. The official length of the Great Wall in its entirety (over 6 dynastys) is
21,196.18 km (13,170.7 mi)= HALF the Earth’s Equator
5. The Great Wall is not a continuous line: there are side walls, circular walls, parallel walls, and sections with no wall (high mountains or rivers form a barrier instead)
6. 1/3 of the wall has already disappeared
7. The last battle to take place on any section of the great wall was in 1933 during the second Sino-Japanese war.
Information on visiting Jinshanling:
1. The most helpful link to a map of Jinshanling’s 3 gates. We started our tour with a ton of stairs at the Southeast slope and Wangjing Tower hiking all the way to West Five Window Tower and then getting off the wall through Zhuanduokou Pass, via the General Tower.
2. Entrance to the Jinshanling Great Wall will cost you $8-$9.50 for adults depending on time of year and $4.50-$5.80 for children.
2. There are shuttle buses that run between the 3 main gates that cost $1.50 pp.
3. If you don’t want to hike up to the wall, the cable car runs 8:30- 16:30 from April 1 to November 10 and costs $5.80 1 way, or $8.75 return trip.
4. There are buses from downtown that cost $4.60 per person that leave every 40 minutes from 7:00 to 16:00. I personally hate buses so good luck if you choose this route.
5. If you DONT want to have a tour guide with you and want to save money, I recommend the company we used for logistics alone. They will communicate well with you, provide a driver that will handle shuttling you between gates and to/from Beijing on YOUR time table, provide maps and information, as well as water. Visit here for more info on the cheaper tours.
We saw over 40 towers on our hike from the East Gate to the Front (west) Gate
We hiked up… and then down more times than I could count
Getting close to the General’s tower which is about where the middle gate to either get on the wall of leave the wall is.
We were alone on the wall for the majority of our hike. Only passing people here and there with the most people hanging out close to the cable car area.
In a lot of the multi-story or covered towers were people selling goods, souevnirs, snacks, water, you name it. Be firm if asked to buy something. Braden asked “how much” for something we didn’t actually intend to buy anyways and we had a seller walk with us for at least 20 minutes waiting to see if she could convince us to buy something. She was very nice though and had amazing English, asking if I was alright when I moved slower down slippery sections. She eventually turned around when more groups were going the other direction.
That red circle is the first tower where we started our hike along the wall. It looked impossibly far away and yet we still had a little ways to go.
I think? That is the Simatai Reservoir….
This was getting close to the end. The last tower we went to see is the lower tower pictured here to the left.
And in that same spot but looking the other direction from whence we came.
Seriously EPIC day.
I know it looks like more of the same but in the lower right of this photo you can see the ruins of some of the horse blocking walls that were built to stop cavalry from charging the wall on the more milder slopes. I didn’t think ANY of those slopes were that gradual, particularly after climbing all the hills ourselves.
So many stairs! But very very scenic stairs!
Eventually we reached the middle gate of the Jinshanling section at the General’s tower which was our exit point. Since it had only taken us like 2.5-3 hours to hike to this point our guide told us we could continue past the exit a little ways on our own if we wanted to see more (though we would have to turn around and come back eventually)
So continue on a little more, we did.
One of the beacon towers.
The last tower we climbed up to.
We headed up just a little ways beyond to the next tower and while we were getting pretty tired, I still wish we could’ve gone on as the wall continued to get more and more wild it looked like. (grass growing along it and everything) I believe you can hike to the East gate but our guide said that would take another 3-4 hours at least. Still if you are super motivated and hiking prepared, might be worth it to try and loop that whole section.
Views looking out the last tower’s windows
A classic window tower- one of the most prevalent styles on this section of the wall.
You’ll notice the wall cutting in, this is an example of a Buttress. It added addition defenses for the hub of this section: the General Tower.
Heading back to our guide, ready to call it a day.
Looking up from the main entrance terrace below the general’s tower.
After meeting back up with our guide we headed down from the middle gate into what felt a bit like Disneyland. They had a much larger entrance here with a statue and cannons, and while there was music playing at every gate we’d passed, the addition of decorative fountains, waterfalls, statues, and flags hanging from lamp posts as well as a wide road/path heightened the sensation of this feeling like Disneyland. The access point to this gate is shared with the sky ride up so it would make sense to be a little more developed. It also looked like they were developing it a lot more with lots of buildings and restaurants/ shops going in a little further down the hill. After walking a bit further and taking a large golf cart like shuttle to the main parking area, we met up with our driver and headed to lunch only 5 minutes away.
First coke of the trip
The restaurant was housed in a small hotel and soft of gift shop that sold nice photography works of the mountain. Lunch was included in our tour price so we could order whatever! We ended up with a chicken dish and another pork dish (much more successful this time) and some “egg-fried rice.” We also got a couple cokes (my first one of the trip!) Everything was pretty good this time thankfully!
Then we were on the road again headed back to the hotel and what only took 2 hours getting out, took over 3 hours coming back during rush hour. By the time we got to our hotel, we were so ready to get out of the car! We both had read up on tipping etiquette on the drive back and decided to give our tour guide a solid amount and our driver a tip as well. Our guide, while not having the best English, was entertaining. He had a few jokes and things that didn’t quite translate right, told us a bit of how the country has been developing in recent years which we found interesting, and even let bits of his own life come out. Ie. You know not having like any money- eating bugs as a kid, serving a week in debtor’s prison, the usual tour guide stuff! HA Anyways I wouldn’t say we learned any crazy interesting history facts that we couldn’t easily learn by reading later but his impression of China was entertaining, the photos he took fairly good, and hey he trekked all over the wall with us.
By this time it was almost 6 and we were both pretty pooped. But, we headed down to Wangfujing street to look at the shops and ended up at another Mcdonalds where I had the best ice cream ever! For a little over $2 I got Mcdonald’s soft serve with a sort of caramel sauce in a thin waffle cone and 2 “Asian” dough sticks forming golden arches. It was seriously yummy. After a little wandering, we headed back to our hotel to hit they hay. SOLID, solid day.
Day 2 Costs:
Ice Cream $2.33
Tour: Jinshanling to Simatai (west) with Wild Great Wall $265
Hotel: Tianan Rega Hotel $78.50/night
Total Day 2: $348.45/2 people