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I huffed and puffed my way up the mountain step by step, slipping and sliding on six-hundred-year-old rubble. Wiping the sweat from my brow as I took a swig of water under the hot sun, I pushed aside the tree-like overgrowth that made this little stretch of history its home.
I’d been hiking for two hours with not one other person in sight, aside from my boyfriend and a farmer we glimpsed from the side of the wall. With a clear, blue sky overhead and a bit too much wind, I pushed myself forward, knowing there would be stunning views ahead.
Then I saw it.
Just over the edge of the wall in the distance was a bright blue, sparkling lake. I screamed with excitement over the crystal blue water surrounded on all sides by the curving snake of the Great Wall.
This is what I had quite literally risked my life to find.
Get Away from the Great Wall Crowds
Looking to hike the Great Wall without any other tourists? Well, you’re in luck because it’s actually extremely easy. Seriously.
The Great Wall is giant. You can find portions of it scattered as far as Gansu province, where the wall only comes up to an average person’s chest. Apparently, that’s all you need to keep horse riders out of cities and towns.
Of course, if you head to Beijing, you’ll want to see the famous Great Wall, but you also won’t want to be sounded by thousands of local tourists, pushing and shoving for a selfie while vendors shove Mao paraphernalia in your face.
Welcome to Badaling.
Don’t Go to Badaling
Why is it that every single hostel, hotel, tour group, and agency all send travelers to Badaling? Sure it’s the closest section to Beijing, but it’s honestly not worth visiting due to the crowds. Yes, you can take a tourist bus there, but just imagine how many other people are doing the same thing.
It’s so easy to avoid the crowds in China. You just have to break outside of the typical Chinese tour bus route, and you’ll be fine.
Seriously, the only reason I will ever go to Badaling is just to have a first-hand account that will scare all of you away.
Why I Love the Wild Wall
While there are plenty of accessible sections that are crowd free (I’ll cover those later), my favorite kind of Great Wall hike is a wild one.
By wild, I mean unrestored sections of the Great Wall that aren’t officially open to tourists.
Seriously. My favorite type of Great Wall hike is one where I pay a farmer 5RMB ($1 USD) to climb a ladder onto a section of the Great Wall that’s closed.
Is it illegal? Technically. Does anyone care? Not really. Is it dangerous? … Actually, yes.
Today I’m going to tell you the story of my most recent Wild Wall adventure, and then I’ll fill you in on how to have a Great Wall adventure of your own!
Great Wall Birthday Surprise
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend Chris created a surprise adventure to celebrate my 26th birthday. After booking a room at the Orchid, my all-time favorite boutique hotel in all of China, he set up a driver to take us to a secret, wild section of the Great Wall.
Dressed head to toe in hiking gear, the two of us wandered out of the Gulou hutongs where a car was waiting for us. I knew we were headed to the Great Wall, but I had no idea where!
After over an hour of driving, we hit our final destination: the Huanghuacheng Wild Wall.
A Confusing Introduction
Our driver led us up a steep hill into a sleepy village where he pointed us in the direction of the Wild Wall. After a lot of Chinglish chatter that consisted of: “hike to the lake” and “A to B”, we set out in search of the Great Wall.
Alright, we thought, Let’s find the wall, we’ll hike from A to B.
Eventually, we hit a section of the Great Wall with a few Chinese locals posing for photos. I pulled out my phone, checked the GPS map and saw that if we hiked along the wall to our left, we would eventually hit Huanghuacheng Lake. Perfect!
Hike to the lake. A to B. Great!
If you haven’t noticed already, this paragraph is some serious foreshadowing of what is to come.
A Warning From the Locals
Underneath the wall, the trail continued, but we were able to find some hidden stone steps up to the top where a villager and a group of Chinese locals awaited us.
The villager asked for 5 RMB, a standard fee for any section of the Great Wall not officially open to tourists. After taking a few photos with our newfound Chinese friends, we were on our way.
As we started climbing up the steep stone steps, one woman shouted a warning:
Be careful! It’s very windy today. She explained to us with a concerned look on her face. Stay to the left or the wind will blow you off the wall!
The others seemed shocked that we would even attempt such an unrestored section. But having hiked the Great Wall three times before, I knew most Chinese tourists didn’t actually hike the entire thing, especially not unrestored, unopened sections.
We waved away their concern, stopping for one last wave at the group before we headed out of sight. After all, if this route is online it can’t be too unsafe, right?
Hiking the Dangerous Wild Wall
For the next two hours, Chris and I hiked along the Wild Wall, slipping on rubble, climbing up piles of overturned stones, and teetering on sections of the wall so thin that I was sure one gust of wind would blow us right off.
No wonder the woman told us to stay to the left! At least if we fell off that way we wouldn’t break all the bones in our body.
There were points where the brush was so thick that I felt like I was in a forest, not on a wall. There were moments where you couldn’t even see any stone at all. Then, suddenly you’d find a guard post tower right in front of you with no warning at all.
At one point Chris and I had to climb through a window of a guard tower over a 30-foot drop below. All I’m going to say about that experience is that I’m very glad neither one of us died.
Sure, there were scrapes, bumps, and bruises along the way (and a very nasty scar I have on my shin from walking right into a broken root protruding from the ground), but it was worth it!
Great Wall Picnic
After two hours of hiking (and a few breaks for rest and photos), we FINALLY saw the lake.
The Huanghuacheng Lake from the Great Wall above is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my entire life. Having worked for it for a solid two hours made it all the sweeter.
Once we found a good spot with a nice view of the lake, the two of us settled down for a Great Wall birthday picnic.
Sparkling wine, strawberries, smoked salmon, goat cheese, homemade pickles, fresh bread and more were shoveled into our mouths at a voracious speed as we laughed and enjoyed the incredible view.
We celebrated a hike (and birthday) well done, and prepared for the short hike down to the parking lot below.
Or so we thought.
Wild Wall Disaster
As we began our descent down the winding path to the bottom, I knew right away that this wasn’t going to be easy. Every single step I took sent rocks and rubble rolling down the wall and off the side of a cliff.
I couldn’t get my footing. Every step was a cautious tale that left me shaking and exhausted. After twenty minutes of this excruciating ordeal, it felt as if I’d gone literally nowhere.
How is this a recommended hike?!!
Chris had found the driver and hike through Beijing Private Driver, as one of their suggested hiking routes. If a website is offering this route it has to be safe, right? How do other people do this?!!
I needed some refurbished stairs. I needed a rope. I needed something.
How is This Hike Possible??
After a half-hour of pain and desperation, we finally made it to a dirt path surrounded by dense forest. While I thought my woeful tale was finished, my suffering was far from over.
You see, Chris and I had visited the wall in late April. Why is this a problem? Well, I honestly can’t remember the last time it rained in Beijing.
Beijing is dry and dusty throughout the winter and spring, and with no precipitation besides one or two tiny snowfalls, the dirt path was just as bad as the wall, except without the danger of a cliff to fall off of.
Lurching from tree to tree as my feet slipped around like I was walking on a frozen lake in flip flops, I eventually gave up and slid down on my butt instead.
Not a pretty picture.
Just as I couldn’t control my feet, I also couldn’t control my emotions and I started sobbing from sheer exhaustion and nerves. Not only that, I also felt like I had ruined Chris’ birthday present to me. What an awesome girlfriend I am.
Reaching the Bottom
Once we hit the parking lot I literally threw myself onto the pavement. I had never been so thankful to see civilization.
I felt like such a horrible adventurer, but I was alive and that’s all that matters.
Once I calmed myself down, I called the driver, who was beginning to get a bit worried. Last he heard from us, we were finishing up our picnic and were “almost down”. That was an hour ago…
However, once we got him on the phone, we realized he was nowhere to be found.
Where is he?? Did he go to the wrong place?!
Nope. Apparently, we did.
No One Hikes That Section Of The Wall
Remember our driver’s instructions? Hike to the lake! A to B!
Well, apparently we were supposed to turn right on the wall instead of left. Turning right has you hiking towards the large Huanghuacheng lake and the “Lakeside Great Wall” (the more touristy section). Turning left has you hiking towards a reservoir.
Well, personally, I think his instructions could use a little improving, don’t you?
This is the “Secret Great Wall” reservoir I had found a year earlier when Chris first visited me in Beijing. Yes, it did take us three attempts and over a year to actually find and hike the REAL Huanghuacheng route.
When the driver realized which section we’d hiked, he asked some locals how to find us, and they told him no one hikes that section of the wall. NO ONE. None of the villagers have ever even heard of someone attempting it.
Not only does no one hike this section, it’s also supposed to take about five hours to get from A to B. Minus our lengthy picnic, it only took us three. That made me feel a little better.
Our driver was relieved to see that we were okay and called us “heroes” for the entire ride back. I’ve never been so glad to take a shower and finish a flat bottle of sparkling wine in my entire life.
So… Should You Visit this Section?
Minus the crazy descent, this section of the Great Wall was my absolute favorite, and the view of the lake from above made every moment of pain worth it.
Would I do this section again? … Yes, but only after it’s rained a few times.
Do I recommend this section to people visiting Beijing? No.
As painful as it is for me to say it, this section of the Great Wall is not safe. I can’t guarantee your safety if you decide to hike it, and I also can’t guarantee you’ll be able to get down. I do not want to be responsible for any untimely deaths, which is why my conscious will not allow me to give you exact directions and a map of how to get here.
BUT if you REALLY, REALLY want to visit knowing the risks, just contact me and I will try my best to tell you how we got there (after all, we hiked it by accident).
I can’t exactly show you these pictures and then refuse to tell you how to get there, now can I?
How to Have a (Safer) Wild Wall Adventure
Just because I don’t recommend this section doesn’t mean you can’t have your own Wild Wall adventure. There are plenty of incredible sections to hike with almost no tourists in sight!
I can’t guarantee that all of these sections will have incredible lake views, but I can guarantee that they will be awesome and crowd-free!
1. Go to the “Secret Great Wall”
While “the Secret Great Wall” is a round-trip hike, you’ll get a beautiful view of the reservoir near Huanghuacheng. The hike is much shorter than the one I described above, and the wall is pretty decently restored, but you’ll still get the incredible experience of sneaking on the wall.
You’ll pay a villager 5 RMB to climb up a metal ladder, where you’ll have the Great Wall virtually all to yourself. While the hike is short and steep, it’s an ideal place for camping without getting in trouble with the police!
Luckily for you, I have directions and a map to help you find it.
2. Visit the Huanghuacheng Wild Wall
Looking for something different? Head to the section of the Great Wall we were supposed to hike. I can’t give you any notes from personal experience, but I can say that there is a lake…. you know, that one we were supposed to find before we got on the wall.
If you want to visit, contact Beijing Private Driver and ask them to take you to the Huanghuacheng wild wall. Just be sure to hike to the lake BEFORE you get on the wall.
3. Go on an Adventure Tour
One of my friends recently did an overnight camping adventure tour on an unrestored section of the Great Wall with Beijing Hikers. All of her camping gear was supplied by the company, and they helped to make sure no accidents happened by suggesting safer ways to get around obstacles than most of us could ever possibly find on our own.
If you want to explore the wall with a few adventurous travelers, I definitely recommend checking out their upcoming hikes. I’m tempted to try a camping adventure with them myself!
4. Hike Gubeikou
Want to visit a wild section of the Great Wall, but not a fan of group tours or breaking the law? I always recommend Gubeikou to Beijing visitors.
Gubeikou is an unrestored section of the Great Wall that’s officially open to tourists for just 20 RMB! While you can’t hike from A to B, you do get a really nice round-trip hike that lasts a few hours.
Just because Gubeikou is open to tourists doesn’t mean there are many there. On my entire Gubeikou hike, I ran into one group of European travelers and a few Chinese tourists right at the start of the wall. That’s it. I’d literally never even heard of Gubeikou until about a year ago and I’ve lived in Beijing for two years!
5. Hike Jinshanling to Simatai
Finally, if you’re looking for a stunning, partially restored section of the Great Wall, I highly recommend Jinshanling. Just like Gubeikou, Jinshanling is officially open to tourists, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see many.
Jinshanling is the furthest of the bunch from Beijing, so expect your car ride to take over two hours one way. Despite the long trip and difficult hike, the views are definitely worth it! Many people say that this is the most beautiful section of the Great Wall.
Jinshanling is the first section of the Great Wall I ever hiked when I was a study abroad student in Beijing five years ago. I’ll also be bringing my parents here in the fall when they visit!
6. Head to Mutianyu
If you want to head to an accessible Great Wall section and don’t mind a small crowd, I suggest Mutianyu. This section isn’t too far from the city, and you can even get there via public bus from Dongzhimen! It’s the perfect section for hiking the Great Wall with kids, and if you head there in the winter or a weekday you might even have it mostly to yourself!
This section isn’t super physically intense and even has a cable car and a SLIDE you can ride off the wall. Both the entrance and exit are at the same end of the wall, so you can hike until you get tired, and turn around when you’re ready to head home.
6. Hike Jiankou to Mutianyu
This is BY FAR the hardest hike I’ve ever done on the Great Wall… and I did it with my parents! What you need to do is take a car to Jiankou, which will drop you off at the bottom of a mountain. Then you need to hike up a winding trail for approximately 1 hour, which will lead you to the Great Wall. Here’ you’ll pay a farmer to climb a ladder.
Once you get up the ladder, you can go right or left. Right is pretty dangerous and you’ll need some climbing gear. Left is challenging, but mostly safe. You’ll hike along this section for about 2-3 hours until you hit Mutianyu.
What I didn’t realize is that you actually have to hike the entire length of Mutianyu to get off the wall. I was so exhausted I could barely walk, so make sure you take rests, bring snacks, and give yourself plenty of time.
Oh… and definitely take the cable car or slide off the wall. Your legs will thank you.
It’s Easy to Avoid the Crowds
Overall, it’s very easy to avoid the crazy Great Wall crowds. All you have to do is skip Badaling!
Whether you decide to stumble your way onto an incredible off-the-beaten-path adventure or strap up your hiking boots for the views of Jinshanling, just pick one of the hikes above and you’ll be sure to have an incredible, crowd-free experience.
Heading to the Great Wall? Which section would you choose?