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Monday, December 9, 2013

Hiking the Great Wall of China from Gubeikou to Jinshanling with Great Wall Adventure Club

Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China
We’re back from China and I’m ready to share all of our travel experiences.  I’m starting with our absolute favorite, once-in-a-lifetime experience, hiking the Great Wall of China with Great Wall Adventure Club.

While we had only been in China for one day before our Great Wall trek, we were already grateful to have a day away from the crowds where we could enjoy nature, solitude, and the beauty of China’s Great Wall.

When planning our travels to China I knew hiking the Great Wall was going to be the biggest highlight.  I also knew we did not want to visit one of the more touristy sections, like Badaling, with its hoards of crowds.  I had heard horror stories of tour busses unloading masses of tourists, most of whom walk up the wall, take a few photos with hundreds of other travelers in the shot, some in high heels, then return to the bus, and I knew that wasn’t for us.  Plus, areas like Badaling have been completely redone, while we wanted to see rugged, untouched portions of the wall.  We wanted to spend an entire day hiking the Great Wall’s lesser visited sections so we could quietly enjoy it in all its medieval glory.

Gubeikou Great Wall
One of our first views of the Great Wall and its crumbling watchtowers.
The Great Wall stretches for thousands of miles through the northern region of China from east to west, separating China from Inner Mongolia.  The wall was constructed throughout many Dynasties, with the first portions of the wall being built over 2,000 years ago.  Separate walls were built and then linked together to discourage marauders.  Many sections of the wall are now nonexistent, due to their age, disintegration, and the removal of bricks and stones to be used as building materials for other construction.  Our guide told us only 10% of the wall is remaining.  Most of the wall near Beijing was built during the Ming Dynasty starting in the 14th century.  While the Great Wall can be visited from many regions of China, most visitors come from Beijing.

I searched for companies that offered hiking trips to some of the lesser visited areas of the Great Wall of China and found Great Wall Adventure Club.  (And thank you to Great Wall Adventure Club for being so kind to provide us with a media discount!  Read all the way to the end to see what they are offering for my readers.)  Can I tell you a secret?  When I visited Great Wall Adventure Club’s website for the first time, I saw the picture of the Duggar Family of 19 Kids & Counting, which is one of my guilty pleasure (yet wholesome) reality shows, and it did influence my decision to choose Great Wall Adventure Club, even though the family did not do one of the more challenging hikes of the Great Wall.  My first hiking route choice was Jinshanling to Simatai, but the Simatai section is closed until May 2014.  Great Wall Adventure Club’s website suggested choosing the alternate Great Wall hiking route of Gubeikou to Jinshanling.

We were picked up at our hotel in the morning by our guide for the day, Cheney Wu, and a driver.  The drive to Gubeikou from Beijing takes a little over two hours and includes passage through China’s countryside, allowing a glimpse of what life looks like outside of the big city.  We had almost arrived at our destination when we saw a peek of it in the hills, the Great Wall of China!

Cheney Wu Great Wall Adventure Club
Romeo and me with our fantastic Great Wall Adventure Club guide Cheney Wu.
The hike started with a steep trek up the hill to reach our first portion of the Great Wall.  Even with our very first steps along the Great Wall we were blown away by the sheer magnitude and beauty.  As the first section of the Great Wall we would be trekking was very old and in somewhat disrepair, we could see the three components of the wall, which consist of dirt and rocks and stones in the center, bordered by stone walls, and covered by stone pavers. 

Charlie Imes Great Wall
One of the more broken-down sections of Gubeikou.
Also a shout-out to our friend Charlie Imes (Rome is wearing Charlie's band's t-shirt)
who found the incredible China package deal for us which made this post possible.
Portions of Gubeikou were originally built during the Qi Dynasty, almost 2,000 years ago.  It was later rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty, over 400 years ago.  Cheney Wu explained Gubeikou was the Winding Dragon portion of the wall, and behind us was the Great Wall covered hill called Wohushan, meaning Crouching Tiger.  This of course reminded me of a request made by a friend that I take a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon picture on the Great Wall.

Great Wall Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Me doing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kung fu.
Great Wall Crouching Tiger and Winding Dragon
The Great Wall doing Crouching Tiger (far hill), Winding Dragon (forefront).
The wall undulates and weaves its way along the hills, rising and falling steeply, punctuated by tall watchtowers along the way. 

A section of the Gubeikou wall is part of a military base, so the hike actually leaves the Great Wall for about an hour and continues through the valley below, still providing views of the wall above, and passing an abandoned house and farmland which is still used to grow corn.  Even though the farmers have moved away from the area to live closer to the road, they still hike in to use the farmland.  We passed a couple farmers gathering up bundles of old corn stalks and carting them away on metal wheelbarrow-like contraptions.

Farmers in the Valley along the Great Wall of China
Corn farmers in the valley along the Great Wall.
After walking through the valley, there are two ways to return to the Great Wall, this time to the Jinshanling part.  One is walking through a small village in the valley where souvenirs can be purchased, which we skipped, and the other scrambles directly up to and follows along the edge of the wall on a skinny trail until returning to the wall.

This hike is very physically demanding as there are many steep steps leading up to watchtowers.  There are also some treacherous areas while hiking next to the Great Wall when coming back up from the valley as the path along the wall is very narrow and drops steeply below.  The hike is not too dangerous, just enough to be interesting and require attention and caution.

Steep Sections of the Great Wall of China
One of the steep climbs along the Great Wall.
While the Gubeikou portion of the wall showed the Great Wall in all its original, untouched glory, the Jinshanling section showcased stupendous views of the wall snaking along the hillsides for as far as the eyes can see.  During our hike the only people we saw other than Cheney Wu and the two Australians, Emily and Tate, who had joined our hiking tour were the two farmers, a man who had walked up from the village, and a guard at one of the watchtowers.


Our Great Wall trekking adventure ended at the visitor point of entry of Jinshanling.  It was not until then that we saw any other tourists.  Even then we saw probably no more than ten. 

In the village at the base of the Jinshanling entry we ate a country-style meal at the restaurant of a local farmer.  We were fed a fantastic lunch including sweet and sour chicken, stir-fried cucumber, fried rice, baby bok choy, and more.  I actually can’t remember everything we ate because we were all blown away by how good the sweet and sour chicken was.  The dish was the exact opposite of what I have had stateside.  We couldn’t get enough.  After our meal we headed back to Beijing, tired, but still in awe of our day trekking the Great Wall of China.

For a day of hiking the Gubeikou to Jinshanling route of the Great Wall of China with Great Wall Adventure Club, wear a good pair of hiking shoes and carry a backpack to hold water, snacks and other belongings.  Even if it’s hot, wear pants, as you will be walking through brush occasionally.  We hiked in November when it was cold, approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  I wore thermal bottoms under my jeans, a tank top, and a wool sweater.  I also brought a down jacket, which was unnecessary.  I wore gloves part of the time, mostly when hiking through shady areas.  Your guide will bring water for you to carry, but bring snacks to eat during the hike, as lunch will not be eaten until after the completion of the hike.  We purchased packaged dried mangoes and banana chips for our snacks.  There are no restrooms along the trail, and during the winter the restrooms at the head of the trail are closed, so women may want to bring tissue and an extra Ziploc bag.  The hike takes four to five hours.  

Great Wall Adventure Club offers multiple tours of the Great Wall, including one-day hikes of varying difficulty and also multi-day treks.  Prices are listed on Great Wall Adventure Club’s website and prices decrease if more people join a tour.  However, groups are kept small.  I am very excited that not only did Great Wall Adventure Club provide us with a media discount, they are also offering a 5% discount to all of my readers!  Just use the promo code traveltheworld when you contact them.

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Katherine Belarmino is the author of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. She works full-time in a non-travel related job, but she and her husband Romeo take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.