Exploring the Great Wall of China


A watchtower on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China
A watchtower on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China (in Chinese known simply as “long wall”) is 21,196 km (13,171 mi) long. It’s ancient and enormous; some sections date to the seventh century BCE. It’s been alleged that you can see the Great Wall from outer space, but this has been debunked. Our Context Travel Great Wall day tour visits the Jinshanling section of the wall, but there are a few others that are open to the public. Here, we break down where they are and what they offer.

This section of the Great Wall, 80 km (50 mi) outside Beijing was, in the late 1950s, the first to be opened to the public. Badaling was built in the early 16th century during the Ming Dynasty  and runs 12km ( 7.5 mi), its highest point a cool 1,015 meters (3,330 ft) above sea level. It has been entirely restored and is the showpiece of the Great Wall, but it makes Spring Break at Disney World look like a yoga retreat. Tour buses clog the parking lot here, disgorging their massive tour groups. Vendors hawk souvenirs like Great Wall T-shirts and panda hats. There’s a cable car going up and down and a bobsled going down. It’s chaotic to say the least.

Roughly the same distance from Beijing as Badaling, Mutianyu is a better option for those without much time. It was the Mutianyu section that Michelle Obama and her daughters visited in 2014. It’s still a bit crazy here, with lots of vendors, but tour groups stick to Badaling so you won’t need to elbow for space. Mutianyu is older than Badaling, dating back to the mid sixth century, but it was rebuilt in the mid 16th century, and that’s what you see today. This section stretches 2,250 meters (7,380 ft.) and has 22 watch towers. It’s surrounded by forest and it’s not unusual in the winter to see deer and other creatures come right up to the wall. There is a chairlift (for two), a gondola lift (for four), and a toboggan run. For lunch, we recommend The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, housed in the former classrooms of the then-village primary school.

Blue skies over the Great Wall of China

After being closed for ages due to ongoing restoration work, this section was opened in 2014. Simatai, about two hours from Beijing, was originally built during the Northern Qing Dynasty (550–577) and then rebuilt in the late 14th century during the Ming dynasty. This section of the wall runs just 5.4 km (3.3 mi), but it has 17 watch towers from which the views are fantastic. You can hike up or take an open-air gondola. It’s also possible to hike between Simitati West and Jinshanling; this is about 8km and will take several hours, and you should be sure to pack food and drink.

Our Great Wall day tour takes place on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, whose name means “Gold Mountain Ridge”. While it takes almost two hours to drive here from Beijing, it’s worth it: Jinshanling is wild, rambling, and untouched. Built in the late 16th century during the Ming Dynasty and standing 700 meters (2,300 ft.) above sea level, the Jinshanling section runs 10.5km (6.5 mi) and has a whipping 67 towers (plus three passes and three beacon towers). Though Jinshanling has undergone some restoration to make it safe for visitors, it’s still quite crumbly, and sections get quite steep; from the highest watch towers, the view is striking and expansive. There is, of course, a cable car to haul you up to the wall’s highest point, and from here it’s a more leisurely walk, just you, your docent, and the sounds of your camera clicking away.