Mao Zedong said, ‘He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.’ The Chairman might have been overstating things a tad, but we can say that climbing the Great Wall is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience (unless you happen to climb it twice). Snaking from Manchurian ruins in Liaoning, through Beijing province, and ending in a few wind-scoured remains in the Gobi desert, it’s the undisputed emperor of China landmarks. There are obviously dozens of Great Wall of China tours running out of Beijing (and Shanghai), but our local guides come with a few extra perks. English speaking, expertly trained, and with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Wall and its history – there’s no-one better in the business.
Our Great Wall of China tours
Nearly all of our China tours include a day trip to the Great Wall, whether it’s a quick highlights trip through Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai or an 18-day odyssey through the mountains of Tibet. The tough bit is picking your favourite.
Which Great Wall section should you visit?
Experts reckon it would take about 18 months to walk the entirety of the Great Wall of China. So obviously you have to be a bit selective. The Wall is divided up into a number of sections, each differing in views, history and condition. Which section you visit depends on which of our China tours you choose (and sometimes on weather and seasonality). Here are our three favourite spots:
The Great Wall’s most popular section, which means it usually draws the biggest crowds. Having said that, it’s popular for a reason. While local tourists usually head for Badaling, China tours flock to Mutianyu every year to soak up the soaring green mountains and expertly restored stonework. It’s a good section for children and the elderly too, being only a 120-minute drive from Beijing and with a cable car up to the famous Watchtower 15 (a real lifesaver for tired legs). There’s even the option of a Great Wall toboggan ride.
A little quieter than Mutianyu is the remote Jinshanling. Stretching for 10km over some of the most breathtaking scenery in China, its 67 watchtowers are probably the ones you’ve spotted in your ‘Great Wall of China’ Google image searches. Jinshanling is a little further from Beijing than some other Great Wall sections (usually a 2-3 hour drive), and its stonework is probably not as well-preserved as Mutianyu, but it’s got a rough and rugged beauty all of its own. Try to visit in a shoulder season like March or November to cut down on crowds.
One of the more unique sections of the Great Wall, Huanghuacheng doesn’t make it onto many itineraries. Although we’re not sure why. With it’s wild, crumbling battlements and stunning lakeside scenery it’s a refreshing change from the ‘classic’ Great Wall panoramas. Seasonality is a big deal here too: visit in the spring months (March, April or May) and you’ll be greeted by a carpet of yellow wildflowers covering the slopes of the nearby mountains. There’s even the option of a tranquil boat ride on the nearby lake. Definitely an original pick during peak season.
Best time to visit the Great Wall of China
This varies a little depending on which section of the Wall you’re due to visit, but generally Spring is a lovely time to visit Beijing. The weather in March or May is warm and fresh, and you should only need a light jacket to be comfortable on your Great Wall tour. Summer (June – August) is the most popular time to visit the Great Wall, but it’s the hottest too: temperatures can average around 30°C, which means sunscreen, sunglasses and a water bottle are trekking must-haves. Autumn (September – November) is a little cooler, but still a great time to visit. The real one to avoid is Winter (December – February) where temperatures usually drop below freezing. Most Great Wall tours won’t even run during this time.
Our Great Wall Marathon
Want to do the Wall in style? Next year we're launching a very special, one-off Expedition – a marathon along the Great Wall of China. You'll run with other travellers (and plenty of fit locals) along one of the most beautiful stretches of the Great Wall, fuelled by many dumplings and a healthy scoop of determination. There's only one departure and it's filling up fast. Get in quick!
How to get there
This is where the whole ‘China tour’ thing comes in handy. Your group leader will meet you in your hotel lobby in the morning and you’ll be whisked by private transport to a nearby section of the Great Wall. Depending on which tour you choose, the drive should take between 90 minutes and a few hours. An early morning start is important – visitors begin to clog the more popular sections of the Great Wall by midday (another reason a shoulder season might be a good idea). After exploring the Great Wall for a few hours, your private vehicle will be waiting to take you back to Beijing.
What to pack
Walking the Great Wall on a China tour requires a basic level of fitness. You don’t need to be springing from watchtower to watchtower like a mountain goat, but the ability to walk steadily for a few hours is pretty essential. With that in mind, pack some comfy shoes. Runners or sneakers are a good idea –they’ll support your ankles and knees while navigating uneven stone stairs. Sunscreen and a hat are a good idea too, especially in Summer when the temperature can really spike. Bring a small canteen for water (try to avoid buying plastic bottles) and obviously a spare SD card or two for the camera – trust us, they fill up quick here.
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