Asia Bucket List China Travel

Hiking the Great Wall of China

Take out your bucket list. Have a look-see. Now, what’s the best thing you’ve checked off that list so far? For me, it’s something that I learned about in fifth grade that recently became a reality: walking the Great Wall of China!

I decided I was going to visit China for my anticipated summer vacation. Am I nuts for tackling the Wall during the hot summer months? Yes, probably. But I wasn’t particularly interested in visiting China in the winter, which can be super cold and snowy.

If you’re interested in visiting the Great Wall during off-season (winter), prepare yourself for some frigid temps (read: dress warmly).

History

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

Spanning from east-west, over 21,000 km in length, the Great Wall of China was originally built during the Qin Dynasty by the Chinese people to defend themselves from invasions and unwelcome visitors in the north. But with any war, many things were destroyed, including the original Great Wall. It was later constructed during the Ming Dynasty.

Much of the Great Wall remains today, with many restored sections that are accessible for tourists to explore. If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure, then you’ll want to look into the unrestored/wild sections of the Wall.

Choosing a Section of the Great Wall

Lots of greenery at the Great Wall.

Lots of greenery at the Great Wall.

Before the trek, you should first decide how much of a “hike” you want to do. The less of a hike it is, the more “touristy” it will be. Sections like Badaling and Mutianyu are less strenuous, however, they can be littered with tourists. It doesn’t make for a picture-perfect view when you’ve got bodies in your photo and selfie sticks making cameos left, right and center.

Jinshanling

After going back and forth about where to go, my friend and I decided to conquer Jinshanling – the section of the Great Wall that is partly restored but still has many natural qualities to it.

Jinshanling starts off easy but as you continue the trek towards Simitai (another section of the wall that is completely wild), it becomes more strenuous. You’ll see more steep and uneven stone steps, crumbling watch towers and far less people. For the last hour of our hike, we saw maybe one or two other groups passing through.

Getting to Jinshanling

I felt overwhelmed with how to get to the Great Wall. Should we go with a tour group, use public transportation, or hire a driver? Each option has positives and negatives: price, number of stops, English translation (or lack thereof), etc.

A few days before departure, I found Beijing English Driver – a car service that caters to non-Chinese tourists. I emailed and within half an hour, I received a reply for pick-up and to confirm my address. I was already impressed with Miles (the owner) and his company.

Our lovely driver, Bruce

Our lovely driver, Bruce

Private Driver

We’re happy we chose a private driver to take us to and from the Great Wall. Our driver, Bruce, spoke fluent English and we were able to have conversations with him. We had a spacious SUV and the seats fully reclined so we could take naps to and from our destination. I cannot praise this company enough for their excellent door-to-door service!

Depending on how many people in your party, the rates differ. Because it was just my friend and I, the rate was a bit more than a tour; but I liked that we were not on anyone’s schedule but our own. I would recommend hiring a driver if it’s within your budget!

How Long to Jinshanling?

It takes 2.5 hours to get to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. We left at 6:00am (cue gasps) but we were able to avoid the car-to-car traffic that would happen only one hour later. On the way back from the Great Wall, we did approach traffic, but that’s something we cannot control.

How Long is the Trek?

The time it takes to hike the Great Wall will be different based on how many breaks you take. The average time is about 3 hours. We ended up taking 3.5 hours to complete the hike. We took lots of breaks and stopped to have a picnic at one of the watch towers.

Start time: 8:30am
End time: 12:00pm

What to Bring to the Great Wall

  • Water and lots of it. There are vendors that set up throughout the Great Wall but their beverage prices are much higher than the local 7-11. I ended up bringing one 2L bottle and two 500mL bottles.
  • Entrance fee. Each section of the wall has a different entrance fee. Jinshanling’s fee is 65CNY.
  • Snacks/Lunch. DO NOT LITTER! There were garbage receptacles along the path to throw away garbage.
  • Sunscreen/Sun protection. There is NO shade (except in the watch towers) so cover up!
  • Towel. Be prepared to sweat!
  • Camera/Selfie Stick. We put these to good use!

Tips to Prepare

  • Wear breathable, cool clothing and comfortable shoes.
  • Visit during off-season and/or on a weekday. We went on a Thursday in August.
  • Use the washroom before heading up to the hill to get to the entrance of the Great Wall. There are NO facilities on the Great Wall. (Note: although I was drinking plenty of water, I did not have to use the washroom once. Why? I sweated it out!).
  • If you are a foreigner, be prepared for many of the locals wanting to take photos with you. The photo opps happened at the start of our hike. I didn’t mind taking several photos with people but it got to the point that it was slowing down our hike. We had to politely decline and move on so we could START.
  • At the main gate of Jinshanling, you have the option to take a cable car to the top or you can walk the steps for about 20 minutes. Cable car opens at 8:30am.
Another one checked off the bucket list!

Another one checked off the bucket list!

I would highly recommend Jinshanling section of the Great Wall to explore. It was everything I imagined it would be, and more! Jinshanling is a great choice for those wanting a challenge, and to see non-restored sections of one of the Seven Wonders of the World!

Have you been to the Great Wall of China? Tell me about your journey in the comments below!

Some photos in this post courtesy of my talented photographer friend, Lauren Charesse.

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84 Comments

  • Reply
    gobeyondbounds
    November 2, 2016 at 7:54 am

    We have been hearing about the Great Wall of China since our childhood and for us hiking through it would be an experience for life. Thanks for insightful post and great information.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      November 4, 2016 at 4:02 am

      It was an awesome experience. I’m so happy I got to see it in real life! Thanks for stopping by!

  • Reply
    Gina Panozzo
    November 2, 2016 at 3:00 am

    I really like how you warned us about the hiking. It’s so true! The less of a hike it is, the more tourists there will be. Your photos look stunning so good for you for getting away from them and checking another thing off your bucket list. It’s on mine too, so I hope I’ll make it there before I leave Asia.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      November 2, 2016 at 5:13 am

      I wanted to tell people who don’t usually hike / workout that it’s quite the trek. One time I was told that a place was like a ‘walk in the park’ and it was FAR from that…. luckily I can endure intense expeditions! I hope you can make your way over to China, too!

  • Reply
    peterss365
    November 2, 2016 at 1:12 am

    I checked this one my bucket list last year and I too had an unbelievable experience. I had a blast listening to all the people from all around the world express their fatigue in as many languages I felt like a kid, boy we are some lucky people.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      November 2, 2016 at 5:15 am

      That’s so great you got to visit the Great Wall! I hope every does, if they are able!

  • Reply
    chardybaldyosa
    October 15, 2016 at 5:35 am

    This really is the dream! The great wall of china has always been a mystery/ an interesting place for me. How was the locals? Was the place crowded? And wow, I’m surely to take note of your tips, just in case I get to visit the place. 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 16, 2016 at 12:27 pm

      The Great Wall was so fascinating! The locals were really nice and no the place was not crowded because I went to Jinshanling as I talked about in the post. 🙂

  • Reply
    Dominic Barrios
    October 13, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Wow! Walking the walls of Great Wall of China must be really really tiring. What if you decided to go down halfway ? or worse when you need to go to the comfort room? Anyway, the tips you gave are really handy in case we plan to go and visit the great wall.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 14, 2016 at 9:39 am

      It was really tiring… but really fun! Best experience ever! You can’t get down the Wall until you reach one of the entrances. So either you’re in for the long haul, or walk a bit and then circle back to the entrance you came into. I don’t know what people do when it’s the winter time. But as I mentioned, in the summer, I didn’t have to use the washroom once… because I sweated it out.

  • Reply
    donandsuji2013
    October 12, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    hahaha yeah no shade on the wall! funny stuff.
    That is probably the most common bucket-list type places, I’d imagine!
    Awesome you got to go!

  • Reply
    Sam (@followyouroad)
    October 12, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Hi Sam! It’s so interesting. We have the same name, and the same blog theme, and the same travel niche! We must be soul sisters hahaha. I really love that you’ve been to the Great Wall. I’ve seen it in photos having a ton of tourists around, but I also know tips on how to catch it with lesser crowd. I hope to see it for myself soon! Hope to get to know you and your blog more 🙂

  • Reply
    Jenny Holmquist
    October 12, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Wow, what an awesome experience! I didn’t know how much I wanted to visit the Great wall of China until reading your post. Thanks for making it so detailed so we’re all good to go! 🙂 I love to hike, sweat and experience history- so it seems like one perfect goal for me to go there, all the way from Sweden!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 14, 2016 at 9:29 am

      Thank you! I’m glad this post will be valuable for your trip planning! This is the perfect kind of hike for you if you like all of those things!

  • Reply
    Eric Gamble
    October 11, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    YES YES YES!! So China is on my Bucket List but it seems like I may have to divide it into 3 or 4 bucket list items for sure. There is no doubt that walking/hiking the great wall is on my list. So I have several questions:
    1) how much was the driver?
    2) I don’t mind talking in sign language/ charades but I no nothing of Madarin..English was accessible?
    3) Can you do longer hikes like several days and camp nearby the wall?
    You rock by the way! Love that you hiked the non tourist way!

  • Reply
    The Rustic Nomad
    October 11, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Awesome guide and really helpful. Bookmarked it! 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:15 am

      Great! Thanks for your kind words!

  • Reply
    Lindsay @ The Neverending Wanderlust
    October 11, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Awesome!! The Great Wall is definitely on my list and I would totally want to see a place that isn’t nearly as crowded as I’ve seen in some of the photos. Great great tips as well, definitely saving this for when I make it out there!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:15 am

      I really enjoyed the no crowds! Glad you can bookmark it for later travels 🙂

  • Reply
    Mary Charie
    October 11, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Always want to go here! Hopefully next year I will be able to get here! 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:13 am

      I hope you can get there next year, too!

  • Reply
    Scot McKay
    October 11, 2016 at 4:16 am

    Another way to do it is hire a driver/guide and hike the unrestored (and deserted) Jiankou section, which connects after a few kilometers into the Mutianyu section. That way you can see both unrestored and restored parts while taking the toboggan slide down at the end.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:13 am

      Oh that’s a great tip! I wanted to go to Mutianyu so I could take the toboggan!! But… decided on Jinshanling 🙂 Thanks for the tip!

  • Reply
    Lara Dunning
    October 11, 2016 at 2:40 am

    Great information! I would want to hire a driver too, so I LOVE having an traveler savvy tip. Great pics!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:12 am

      Thank you! Hiring a driver was a great call on my part!

  • Reply
    Mr Mike
    October 11, 2016 at 12:16 am

    Great tips! One day I’ll check this one off my bucketlist. Really happy to hear about your English speaking guide, Miles. I’ll need one for sure when I go!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:09 am

      Yes I was really happy to find this English-speaking service 🙂

  • Reply
    ehsanhaque24
    October 10, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Your photography is amazing! I remember the wall so vividly myself. What an experience that was. I just returned back to the U.S. after my year in China. Looking forward to getting back there soon 😀

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:09 am

      Glad you can remember your time on the Great Wall! And thanks! Some of these were taken by my photographer friend, Lauren Charesse.

  • Reply
    Spencer
    October 10, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Great tips, I am bookmarking this for when I finally make it to China. Thank you for sharing.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:08 am

      Awesome! Glad you can use this as a reference!

  • Reply
    Vyjay Rao
    October 10, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    The Great Wall of China is on our bucket list, I am sure it is on most travelers’ list too. Jinshanling is indeed a revelation. I have heard stories of the wall teeming with tourists, but this section seems to be really secluded and worth having an enjoyable experience.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 11, 2016 at 10:08 am

      Yes it’s on many people’s bucket lists! It’s so beautiful and breath-taking!

  • Reply
    Chelsea Brady
    October 10, 2016 at 9:21 am

    You already know how jealous I am of your trip! I will definitely visit the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall when I have the chance to go. Your photos are amazing and I love how it’s just you and the Great Wall. I’d be overwhelmed by all the tourists and disappointed with my photos. This post is so informative! Thank you for outlining all of the details, especially what to bring! I’ve bookmarked this post. Keep them coming, Sam!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 10, 2016 at 10:36 am

      I hope you can go visit some day soon! Jinshanling is amazing – you should go! There were people don’t get me wrong; but there were parts that were super secluded and I loved it! Hope you can use this guide for when you travel to Bejing! Thanks for reading!!

  • Reply
    Matt Collamer
    October 10, 2016 at 5:40 am

    Seems like an awesome trip! I would like to visit the Great Wall at some point, so this was quite interesting to read. I respect the decision to visit the less touristy section…kudos to you!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 10, 2016 at 10:33 am

      Thanks so much! Glad you liked the post 🙂

  • Reply
    Inspired By Maps (@inspiredbymaps)
    October 8, 2016 at 10:20 am

    The Great Wall of China is amazing, definitely a deserving UNESCO site…Good to have a guide so people can make the most of there trip here!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 9, 2016 at 3:58 am

      Absolutely! It was pretty surreal getting to walk along!

  • Reply
    anna
    October 8, 2016 at 10:20 am

    Great tips! I’ve had friends that spent the night on the Great Wall….definitely something I would love to do!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 9, 2016 at 3:58 am

      If I go again, I want to spend a night on the Great Wall, too!

  • Reply
    Nerdventurists
    October 8, 2016 at 10:18 am

    Ahhh so cool! When I went years ago I did Mutianyu, which in those days was deserted. Sad to hear it’s now more crowded, it had beautiful views. This looks goooorgeous though! Good on you!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 9, 2016 at 3:57 am

      Thanks! I was thinking about Mutianyu before we found Jinshanling. I was attracted to that slide that you can toboggan down. Did you do that?

      • Reply
        Nerdventurists
        October 11, 2016 at 9:04 am

        Nooo, but that sounds like a missed opportunity! I went in February, so it was freeeezing. But the mountains were all snowy, which was quite beautiful.

  • Reply
    Alla
    October 8, 2016 at 1:35 am

    Great tips about what to bring, what to avoid and how to deal with the conditions of the Great Wall. Haven’t been there yet, but will definitely keep all of this in mind for the future!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 9, 2016 at 3:56 am

      Awesome! Hope you can enjoy the Great Wall soon!

  • Reply
    SeizeTheGlobe
    October 6, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Excellent tips! I’ve traveled through China, but didn’t make it to the wall–riddle me THAT, Batman. Crazy… I need to get there ASAP.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 7, 2016 at 12:59 am

      Haha! That’s okay! It just gives you a reason to return to Beijing! 🙂

  • Reply
    Caroline @ The Travelling Sloth
    October 6, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Really great experience! I remember visiting the Great Wall back when I was living in China (14 odd years ago) but I can’t recall if we went to the same place as you did.. Mmm, probably not but gotta ask my parents.

    Would definitely love adult me to go back and see it though – great tips and overall guide 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:36 am

      The Great Wall is massive so I can see how you could forget; especially going at a young age! There are some places I need to return to as an adult, because I totally forget and didn’t fully appreciate the place!

  • Reply
    RosiEscapes
    October 5, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    God willing, I will be going next year. I was considering the 2 you mentioned but now I may have to reconsider. Cool shots 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:35 am

      If you are in good health and like a bit of a challenge, I HIGHLY recommend Jinshanling! You’ll have the whole place basically to yourself!

  • Reply
    nycgingeronthego
    October 5, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    I like the idea of going to a less frequented and more natural part of the wall. And private drivers all the way. I recently did that in barbados. Amazing. I haven’t been to China but I would love to visit the wall one day.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:35 am

      What did you do in Barbados? That’s one place I need to visit when I return to that side of the world!

  • Reply
    Soraya @ Hello Raya
    October 5, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Wow this looks awesome! I would love to hike the Great Wall. I totally didn’t know that there were different sections to choose from. Great that you picked the one with less people

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:33 am

      I didn’t know there were different sections, either! The Great Wall is MASSIVE! I’m happy I picked one with less people, despite it being a more strenuous hike.

  • Reply
    Anisa
    October 5, 2016 at 10:40 am

    I hiked on the Great Wall years ago. It was on my bucket list and definitely lived up to all the hype. I would love to do it again!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:32 am

      Awesome! I would love to do it again, too! Perhaps next time I will camp on the Great Wall!

  • Reply
    Megan Indoe
    October 5, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Great tips for the Great Wall! We’ve always wanted to go and have to make it there soon! We would want to do what you did and get away from the big crowds, perhaps even try to hike the entire day! I just saw in the news recently that one section that was recently restored was done all wrong and almost ruined that section of the wall, what a shame!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:31 am

      Wow really? I hope it wasn’t completely ruined! If I ever go again, I want to camp on the Wall!

  • Reply
    thesanetravel
    October 5, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Yes, I have been to the Great Wall. I took an easy and super cheap group tour to Mutianyu and luckily there were no crowds there that time. Your experience sounds great. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:30 am

      Glad you didn’t experience too many people in your way at Mutianyu!

  • Reply
    Toronto Seoulcialite
    October 5, 2016 at 3:40 am

    This is so fantastic! I think I would hire a private car as well considering last time we were on a bus tour which took us to the busiest part of the wall. I was kind of disappointed. It smelled like pee and Starbucks seemed to be one of the bigger draws. I would have much preferred your experience!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:30 am

      Yes private driver allll the way! Of course there are times when a tour bus is better (e.g. visiting the DMZ) but for the Great Wall, I’m so happy we hired a private driver!

  • Reply
    Bonita
    October 5, 2016 at 2:32 am

    I like how you have broken down the experience and made it very practical. This is an item in the bucket list. Definitely saving this post for reference.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:28 am

      Thank you! I wanted to make it as easy to read as possible. I’m glad you can use it as a reference for later 🙂

  • Reply
    Sassy
    October 5, 2016 at 2:18 am

    This is one bucket list item I almost forgot! Thank you for sharing, I will definitely have to plan to go do this in the near future!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:28 am

      Glad I reminded you about it! Hope you can go sometime and experience the beauty of China!

  • Reply
    erikastravels
    October 5, 2016 at 2:06 am

    The Great Wall was a big bucket list experience for me too, though I wish I’d been a bit older to appreciate it more. It is nice to have the flexibility to do what you want and stay as long as you want when you have a private driver. Probably a good idea to leave super early in order to avoid the traffic too!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 6, 2016 at 11:20 am

      There are other instances where I wish I was older to appreciate. I will have to go back to those places and really immerse myself into the culture!

  • Reply
    Elaine Schoch
    October 4, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    I can’t wait to do this! I’m planning on taking my kids when they’re a little stronger. While we’re hiking a lot in Colorado but I want to make sure they’re totally ready before we do this trekk.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 5, 2016 at 1:42 am

      That’s awesome! You all will have a wonderful time!!

  • Reply
    Sean Keogh
    October 4, 2016 at 7:19 am

    The Great Wall of China is high on my Bucket List along with The Great Pyramids and The Taj Mahal. Thanks for all the helpful info. I will remember to read this again when I finally go. One big Bucket List item I’ve already crossed off is Angkor Wat. Like the Great Wall, it’s nearly impossible to take a picture of it without hundreds of other tourists making unwanted cameos in your shot.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 4, 2016 at 7:45 am

      I would LOVE to visit all of those places that you suggested. I’ll be able to visit Angkor Wat when I travel in early 2017! What about going very early? Will I avoid hundreds of people??

  • Reply
    Reese Speaks
    October 3, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    I tip my hat to you for making this journey. It has always been a wish of mine to visit the Great Wall. I’m so happy you shared this adventure. You made it look amazing!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 4, 2016 at 4:51 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words! If you can, you should certainly visit this amazing wonder!!

  • Reply
    Ryan Biddulph
    October 3, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Hi Samantha,

    Looks incredibly awesome. One epic thing I’d really love to do. I heard the visa process was a bit difficult for USA’ers. Not sure how accurate that is though.

    Ryan

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 4, 2016 at 4:56 am

      Thanks for stopping by my page. I hope you can visit the Great Wall someday! I’m Canadian, however, my friend who went with me is American and the process seemed easy for her. It was the same as how a Canadian would apply (must submit proof of airfare and accommodations, and you need to fill out a form). The only difference is the price. Unfortunately, Americans pay about double the price as a Canadian. Not sure why… must be government relations?

  • Reply
    Jenna
    October 3, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    Ahh I’ve been dying to go!!! What an amazing adventure!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 4, 2016 at 4:56 am

      You should go if you can!! Don’t think that Wall is going anywhere so you have time. Put it on your bucket list and make it a goal 🙂

  • Reply
    Pretty Weird Bombshell
    October 3, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    This is one awesome adventure! I think I need more stamina though lol! Definitely bookmarking this travel. Thanks for the share. xx

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 4, 2016 at 4:57 am

      Thanks so much for bookmarking. I hope it can be useful to you when you plan your travels to China!

  • Reply
    Flo
    October 1, 2016 at 5:07 am

    What a great experience Samantha! Great to read a little bit about the less touristy sections of the Great Wall. I went to Mutianyu a few years ago and it was absolutely swarming with people!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      October 3, 2016 at 10:10 am

      It was a great experience! I was thinking about Mutianyu because of that slide (did you go down it?). But my friend and I wanted a more off-the-beaten-path experience.

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