The Great Wall of China (长城 Chángchéng) is a series of walls that stretch from Liaoning Province through Hebei Province, Tianjin Municipality, Beijing Municipality, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Shanxi Province, Shaanxi Province, and Ningxia Autonomous Region into Gansu Province within the country of China.
The Great Wall of China can be visited at many places along its length of several thousand kilometers. Its condition ranges from excellent to ruined and access varies from straightforward to quite difficult. Note that different sections also each have their own admission fees, e.g. if you want to hike from Jinshaling to Simatai then you probably have to pay twice. Although its construction is popularly associated with the tyrannical reign of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di in the 2nd Century B.C., the wall that tourists see today dates much later to the Ming Dynasty.
The Great Wall, as we know it, is actually a series of several walls built at different times by different emperors.
- First Great wall: built by the Qin Dynasty 221–207 BC
- Second Great Wall: built by the Han Dynasty 205–127 BC
- Third Great Wall: built by the Jin Dynasty 1200 AD
- Fourth Great Wall: built by the Ming Dynasty 1367–1644
The other walls are now mostly ruins. It is the Ming wall that turns up in all the photos.
First Great Wall
The First Great Wall was ordered built in 214 BC by Qin Shi Huang Di after he had finished consolidating his rule and creating a unified China for the first time. The wall was designed to stop raids by the Xiongnu raiders from the north. 500,000 laborers were used during the 32-year building period to create the First Great Wall.
Although the wall worked at keeping out enemies, it did nothing to stop internal pressures which lead to a regime change in 206 BC and the new leadership of the Han Dynasty. The first Han emperor, Gaozu, was quick to see the benefits of the wall against the raiders and ordered more wall to stretch out as far as Zhaoxiang, Gansu Province.
Second Great Wall
Over 70 years later, the Han Dynasty were still fighting the raiders since the Great Wall had been left to deteriorate and the raiders had breached it in several places. In 130 BC, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty embarked on a program of extending, rebuilding and fortifying the original First Great Wall. After the emperor finished adding more regions under his rule in 127 BC, he ordered a major expansion program that created the Second Great Wall, outposts in Zhangye, Wuwei, Jiuquan, Dunhuang and Yumenguan in Gansu Province and Lopnor and other outposts in Xinjiang Province. The Great Wall was extended down the Hexi Corridor through which the Silk Road traders would travel on the way to and from the West.
When the Han Dynasty fell apart into the three kingdoms of the Wei, Shu and Wu, the northern Wei kingdom decided to continue maintaining the Great Wall so that they could keep out the Rouran and Qidan nomads from the northern plains. Despite the constant maintenance, the Wall kept being breached by the Rouran nomads. Additional walls were built inside and outside of the Great Wall by the different kingdoms. Eventually the Wei kingdom was replaced by the Jin Dynasty (AD 266 - 420) following a coup by Sima Yan, one of Wei's court officials.
Nothing more was done to the Great Wall until the reign of the Liao and Song dynasties. The Liao Dynasty, ruled by an ethnic minority tribe known as the Khitans (Qidan (契丹) in Mandarin), controlled the north while the Song Dynasty controlled the south. The Liao were troubled mainly by a tribe in the northeast region of China called the Jurchen (known as Nüzhen (女真) in Mandarin) so they built defensive walls along the Heilong and Songhua rivers. These failed to stop the raiders from coming south.
Third Great Wall
- See also: Mongol Empire
In 1115, the Jurchens established the Jin Dynasty and since they were from the north themselves, understood that the Mongols were right behind them. The Jin emperor ordered the construction of a Third Great Wall to be built in Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The walls built had the characteristics of having ditches running along the walls full length.
Despite the impressive fortifications built, the Mongols overthrew the Jin in 1276 and established the Yuan Dynasty. During the Yuan dynasties rule, the Wall fell into deep disrepair and in 1368, the Chinese Ming Dynasty walked right in and took control.
The Ming Dynasty, after getting rid of the Mongols, determined that they would never be taken again by outsiders. The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu, re-established manning of the Great Wall, fortresses and garrisons were built along the wall, and the fort at Jiayuguan was built in 1372 at the western end of the wall. The third Ming emperor, Yongle, turned his focus outward from the empire and sent out explorers and diplomats into the big, wide world.
Fourth Great Wall
It was not until the battle of Tumu against the Mongols that renewed interest in reinforcing the Great Wall occurred. Between 1569 and 1583, the best-known parts of the Great Wall were built, the Fourth Great Wall. The reinforced wall managed to repel Mongols several times.
The regrouped Jurchens, who re-named themselves the Manchus, retook China in 1644 and formed the Qing Dynasty. From this point on, the Wall slowly started to fade away while stone and rocks were taken from the Wall for building projects and homes. The Cultural Revolution definitely took its toll out on the wall when local people and local governments were encouraged to help dismantle the Great Wall.
It was not until 1984 that Deng Xiaoping started a restoration and protection project of the Great Wall. In 1987, the Great Wall was declared a Cultural World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The geography of Northern China ranges from mountainous in northeast Liaoning and Hebei Provinces, through the grasslands of Ningxia, semi-arid desert of China's loess plateau, and borders the sand dunes of the Tengger desert of Inner Mongolia. It is the area around Hebei and Beijing that most people associate with the Great Wall, but most of the Great Wall lies in the desert regions of the country.
Flora and fauna
Chinese wildlife is diverse, considering all of the different habitats available along the length of the Great Wall. From the rare Siberian tiger in the northeast to the protected and rare Giant Panda, which lives in southern Gansu, Sichuan, and Shaanxi, you never know what you might see on a given day.
Wild mammals can be found in the north, such as the Manchurian weasel, brown and black bears, northern pika, and mandarin vole. Deer species include Sika deer, roe deer and the long-sought-after spotted deer, which has many uses in Chinese medicine.
The birds of the region include various pheasants, black grouse, pine grosbeak, various woodpeckers, mandarin duck, and the fairy pitta, a rare migratory bird. Cranes are especially revered in China. Common, demoiselle, white-naped, hooded, and red-crowned cranes all breed in China.
You can find many tonic plants along the Great Wall, such as the rare ginseng (Panax ginseng). Chinese medicine has had many thousands of years to discover and use these tonic plants for the benefit of mankind.
Northern China has all four seasons and they arrive with a vengeance. Summer and winter temperatures normally reach extremes of over 40°C and –20°C respectively.
See local articles for detailed transportation on getting to specific sections of the Great Wall. Rural Beijing has details on getting to sections in north Beijing.
As the Great Wall of China is rather on the long side, there are a large number of places to visit it. The following list is divided by province/municipality.
The most popular sites can be visited in one day starting from Beijing.
Badaling and Juyongguan
Badaling (八达岭 Bādálǐng) and Juyongguan (居庸关 Jūyōngguān) are nearest Beijing, and these two are among the most crowded sections of the Great Wall. On the weekdays, Badaling is not too crowded, and it is the easiest to reach affordably (i.e. without hiring a taxi).
Badaling entrance fee is ¥40 (discount available for students). Audio tour service ¥15/40 for Chinese/English + ¥200 deposit. There is also a cable car and a "sliding car" (sort of like a roller coaster up or down the mountain) which you can take for extra fees (~¥30/60 one/both way).
The hike is a challenge with plenty of steep hills, so once you get a bit into the wall the crowd thins quickly. It takes ~2-3h to hike the whole wall depending on your fitness/weather/crowd.
In winter, expect to lose 5°C between Beijing and the Wall. This, plus the wind from the mountain, will make you cherish every layer of clothes you have. The vendors will be here to sell everything you may have forgotten, although the price is not reasonable. But the crowd is much lighter in winter, with almost nobody after the first peak. The winter sun and, if you're lucky, the snow will give you amazing views on the walls.
- North of the wall there are other attractions like a touristy town and a zoo, but it seems these are all closed except in peak tourist season.
- Great Wall Museum (Down the "Badaling Pedestrian Street" and up a hill behind the "Circle Vision Theater"). Visit the under-appreciated Great Wall Museum. The walk-through exhibits provide a good overview of the wall's multi-dynasty history, along with many artifacts from those time periods and photo-worthy models of watchtowers, scaling ladders, etc. The bathrooms are also probably the cleanest you'll find at Badaling (there's even a Western-style toilet). Best of all, admission is free! (closed on Monday, 09:00-16:00). Great wall circle-vision theater (40y/pers).
Located near the Badaling Great Wall, the Shuiguan (水关 Shuǐguān) Great Wall is sometimes called the 'Badaling-Shuiguan Great Wall'. It often happens that innocent visitors are guided to the Shuiguan Great Wall instead of their original destination - the Badaling Great Wall, especially during holidays or peak periods. Inform yourself beforehand to make sure you end up at the right place, especially check the admission fees.
The wall was opened to the public in 1995 after repair. Besides climbing the wall, you can also visit the Genghis Khan Palace, the Stone Buddha Temple, Luotuo Peak (Camel Peak) and the Great Wall Stele Forest nearby.
Mutianyu (慕田峪 Mùtiányù) is magnificent. It's slightly further than Badaling, equally well restored (although there are totally wild/unrestored sections to the northwest/southeast), significantly less crowded, and has greener surroundings. It has a gondola (company #1) and a chairlift (company #2) to get onto and off of the wall and a toboggan ride down (company #2). You can hike up to the wall on a footpath; one previous edit to this wiki indicated it's a 15-minute walk, but other sources indicate 40+ minutes, depending on level of fitness. The footpath is free, so it's a good option for the budget-travel crowd.
As of Sept 2017, the entrance fee is ¥45 (¥25 for students only with ID containing a photo; in Sept 2016 I could enter with an European card, age 28). In addition to the entrance fee, you have to pay for the gondola, chairlift or toboggan if you want to use them. There is also a shuttle bus from the entrance complex up to the bottom of the gondola station--well worth the ¥15 (Sept 2017) round-trip. You buy all of these tickets at a new, fancy ticket window right next to the main road, although the gondola and ski-lift/toboggan tickets are sold from separate windows, as they are operated by different companies. The tickets from the two companies can't be used interchangeably. If you can't read Chinese check the picture on the ticket (for example a picture of the bubble cabins), and if you got the wrong one, it's not a problem to immediately get your money back and take it to the other ticket counter.
Once you purchased the tickets, you'll walk along a fancy walkway between shops with hawkers and restaurants (if you see a big Burger King, you'll know you're on the right path) up to the shuttle bus stop. Board the bus, which runs every few minutes, for the 5-minute ride up the hill to the base of the gondola and toboggan/ski-lift.
- 1 Gondola. The gondola brings you up to watchtower #14, more towards the north end of the restored section of the wall, and quite a bit higher in elevation. Run by company #1. The gondola is more modern (compared to the chairlift) with bubble cabins. Adults ¥100 one-way or ¥120 round-trip (with gondola only), children half price.
- 2 Chairlift (Skilift). The chairlift brings you up to watchtower #6, towards the south end of the restored section of the wall and quite a bit lower in elevation. Run by company #2. The chairlift is less modern (compared to the gondola) with two-seater chairs. Adults ¥100 one-way or ¥120 round-trip (with toboggan), children half price.
- Toboggan Ride (The ride starts at watchtower #6). The toboggan down is a curious addition to the area and makes it feel a bit theme-parky, but it's quite fun and quite long (over 1.5 km) with an elevation drop of 100 meters. Just don't get stuck behind a super-cautious slowpoke: the toboggan run is a one-lane affair, and most of the fun is racing down like you're on an Olympic luge track. Getting trapped behind someone too afraid to go more than 10 km/h will make you regret spending the money on the attraction. So make sure to wait 30 seconds before departing after the person ahead of you even if the ride runners and people in line behind you insist otherwise. See Chairlift listing for price information, since they are run by the same company #2. Tickets can easily be purchased separately for the toboggan ride of course - just walk up to the ticket office at the beginning of the ride, then off you go down the wall.
Huanghuacheng (黄花城 Huánghuāchéng) one of the most well built sections of the Great Wall - in fact it was so painstakingly built that the builder, Lord Cai, was beheaded for mismanagement and waste. This section is notable for its picturesque lakeside location.
Gubeikou, Jinshanling and Simatai
Gubeikou (古北口 Gǔběikǒu), Jinshanling (金山岭 Jīnshānlǐng) and Simatai (司马台 Sīmǎtái) are a bit farther from central Beijing than other sections (Jinshanling is actually in Hebei province), but the extra time it takes to get there is rewarded with a very significant reduction in crowding and tourist traps. Services are also limited, however; make sure you bring your own supply of water and extra film. The most authentic part of the wall is at Simatai; the wall here is of original construction unlike Badaling. These three locations are 80 miles northeast of Beijing.
Many published photos of the Great Wall are from this area. 'Jiankou' (箭扣 Jiànkòu), is translated as 'Arrow Nock' in English, because the shape of the mountain is like an arrow, with the collapsed ridge opening as its arrow nock.
There are many famous sections of Jiankou Great Wall, such as The Nine-Eye Tower, an important command post during the ancient wars. It has three layers, and there are nine holes which look like nine eyes on each side. The Beijing Knot (北京结 Běijīng jié) is the meeting point for three walls coming from different directions. The Sky Stair, is a precipitous stair whose angle of elevation is 70 to 80 degrees. It leads to The Eagle Flies Facing Upward, a watch tower built on the lofty peaks. It is so dangerous that supposedly even eagles have to fly facing upward to reach the top. Zhengbei Tower is the right place to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise and the sunset.
- Shanhaiguan - at the Old Dragon's Head, the wall juts out into the sea. To get there from Beijing takes about 3 hours by train.
- Panjiakou Reservoir - sunken part of the Great Wall
- Huangyaguan - worth a visit for its water run-off controls, well-preserved towers, challenging hiking and striking scenery
- Hushan - can be explored from Dandong
- Xingcheng - a Ming dynasty walled town
- Jiumenkou - located 18 km east of "The First Pass Under Heaven' at Shanhaiguan. There you can see the only existing Great Wall section above water, as well as a Great Wall tunnel within the mountain.
- The Outer Wall of Shanxi - Li'erkou to Deshengbu, Juqiangbu to Laoniuwan, and along the Yellow River
- The Inner Wall of Shanxi - Yanmenguan, Guangwu Old City, Ningwu Pass and Niangziguan
- The Eastern Ningxia Wall - Hongshan Castle and Water Cave Gully (Shui Dong Gou)
- The Northern Ningxia Wall - in the area of Helanshan
- The Western Ningxia Wall - Zhenbeibu and Sanguankou
- Wuwei - garrison town
- Minqin - oasis town
- Zhangye - garrison headquarters
- Jiayuguan - Fort at Jiayu Pass, nicknamed "Last Fort Under Heaven"
- Lanzhou - former walled town that now is capital of Gansu Province
- Up with the gondola, down with the toboggan. One suggested itinerary: book a one-way trip up the gondola to watchtower #14 and back down on the toboggan from watchtower #6. It's a little more expensive than a round-trip on the gondola or ski-lift/toboggan, but it's a mostly downhill walk of a little over 1 km with some great views of the wall stretching down the ridge in front of you, so it's easy on the legs and gives you a good feel for the wall.
- Hike to the Wild Wall. From watchtower 6 (the chairlift) head south/east to tower 1. Tower 1 is the tower on top of the hill to your right, as you come off the chairlift. When you hike up to that tower, it appears to be the end.... But only for the timid. Look out the windows. On the south side (where the sun will be), there is a completely wild and un-restored section of the wall. Hang off the window or jump to the old section of the wall, and you are on a fascinating trek into the "no tourist" wall people never talk about. Incredible old ruins of walls, beautiful isolation, wild vistas, and most importantly: your own, real experience. From here you could totally keep walking and exploring the wild wall.
It is reported by a traveler that this hike can be done when taking a tour bus to get to Mutianyu (Option 3), and separating from the bus group once you arrive. The traveler took the chairlift and toboggan combo to get up and down the hill. If you do this, the same section of wall has to be hiked twice.
- Hiking from watchtower #14 to #23. Once you're up on the wall, if you're not afraid of walking through some shrubbery and your shoes have some grip, continue on past the restored section and head to the highest local watchtower (#23). You will be greatly rewarded for your effort! Turn left from the top of the gondola (tower #14) and hike up to tower 23. You'll know when you've passed tower #19, because there will be 450 steps in front of you climbing the steep face of the mountain. At tower #20, you'll probably get lots of applause from a souvenir vendor for having completed the steep climb, and she may even offer to take your picture, after which of course you'll be expected to peruse her collection of memorabilia for sale. Just up from tower #20 is a sign advising "no tourist section," but everyone ignores the sign, and there are even vendors just above the sign coaxing you forward to buy their goods. Climb the steps and you'll soon see signs of the incomplete rebuilding and maintenance of the wall. At tower #21, the wall turns sharply left and the terrain flattens out a bit, and then there's one final small climb up to tower #23, where a man with a sign advising "last snacks for 10km" maintains a presence. Then the exciting part comes: just after tower #23, there's a sign saying "Danger! No visitors," which of course beckons you to continue. Here, the wall's maintenance stops and you get to see the ruins of the actual original wall. The brush is overgrowing the pathway and stones have been worn and lifted, but the pathway is wide enough to continue (mostly) safely (at your own risk, of course). Push through the brush for about five minutes and you'll come to a grand view of tower #24, the first of the completely unrestored towers, with the wall climbing the mountain peak in the distance. Well worth the trip; if you're in moderate shape, expect the round-trip from tower #14 to take about an hour to an hour and a half (plus pauses to catch your breath).
Gubeikou, Jinshanling and Simatai
- Hike from Jinshanling to Simatai. The majority of the wall east of Jinshanling is also unrestored. The hike from Jinshangling to Simatai is roughly 10 km. It is a significant hike in distance but more so in the elevation change, but you will be rewarded with spectacular views and a good day of exercise. Expect to spend anywhere from 2.5 hours to 6 hours on the wall, depending on your fitness level, ambition and frequency of photo ops. When you are half way between the two sections, there are hardly any tourists. In fact, more foreign tourists are seen doing this thorough hike than domestic Chinese tourists. Comfortable shoes and clothes are needed, as you will be hiking on moving bricks sometimes combined with steep climbs. Water and snacks should be in your backpack. But you will find some local vendors selling water and sometimes snacks on the wall. During the middle of this hike, collectors will charge you again because you are entering another part of the Wall. If you are going between sections, there is little you can do about it other than turn back.
- Zip-line. When you descend down from Simatai, there is a zip line available for ¥40. It's roughly 400m, and is over a river. It will take you down to the other side of the river, and includes a short boat ride back to catch your ground transport.
In Huairou, if you miss the bus, there is accommodation to be found near the shops. There is a tourist information office that remains open during normal office hours, though it may seem closed due to lack of visitors. They will be able to help you find accommodation that is licensed to take foreigners, should you need it. The nearby "Yanxi Nightless Valley" area is full of small forest resorts, where you can pay around ¥100 for a fresh, farmed trout. Stay in the valley the night before, then hire a taxi out direct to one of the nearby Great Wall sections in the morning.
Bring a jacket against the wind or cold in the chillier seasons. In summer you will need lots of water, but there are plenty of vendors at the most visited sections. Be prepared for the possibility of sudden, short, but rather violent thunderstorms.
Do not leave any trace of your visit. Even if it is not an uncommon sight, resist the urge to add your name to the carvings in the wall, or take a piece home as a souvenir. If the wall should be damaged by your actions, the authorities may very well take action with fines and other punishments.
Hiking as a recreational sport is not well understood yet in China so the etiquette of crossing state and private land has not yet been established. Remember that the Wall is mostly mud and poorly supported stones, and that you are on your own if you're outside the maintained areas. Even if you are not walking on the wall, you will find few trails to follow and at some parts, the area the Wall traverses are vertical, treacherous and very unsafe. Besides that, it is difficult to obtain clean drinking water and some areas may even have no water at all. Other areas will have manmade obstacles, like roads and motorways that have solid fencing. Villages where you could get supplies may be few and far between. Some may take you miles away from the Wall. Poor cartography is still a problem here since maps of less than 1:450,000 are not easy to get a hold of due to the military applications of such maps. Besides that, guides who know the areas along the Great Wall are few and far between. The last item to think about regarding hiking the Great Wall is that China has no system of mountain/wilderness rescue personnel. You will be on your own should something happen to you.
Scams - Beware of bus scams that may ruin your day. Also try to avoid organized tours to the Great Wall costing ¥100-150. These are advertised by people handing out flyers around the Forbidden City in Beijing for example (the real bus service to the Great Wall only costs ¥20!). Also, the driver might just stop and set you off before your destination.