The Great Wall snaked ahead as far as we could see, following the most difficult path across mountains with impossibly steep ridge lines. We were trekking atop 2,200 years of history, where numerous dynasties defended the borders of modern day China. Many phases eventually left almost 10,000 kilometers crossing the country. It was built to stop invasion from barbarian nomads, and close to 500,000 people had died during its construction. The very wall that had faced the Mongols now made our trail through wild North China.
Northern China is a misunderstood area. It is home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, a place where ancient and modern converge, and where enormous populations live beside vacant landscapes. This is where we came to explore the wild north of this incredible country, including remote sections of the Great Wall and Beijing City. This was the last stop from our month long trip through China, which follows our time in Guanxi, Yunnan, Sichuan and Shaanxi Provinces. Check out our China Photo Gallery to see all of our favorite memories from this trip.
Trekking the Great Wall of China – 4 Days
Spanning across China, it isn’t difficult to find areas of the Great Wall which are far from the tourist hot spots around Beijing. We took a side trip northeast near the Mongolia border to embark on a trek along the more wild and remote sections. The trek, spanning four days, followed both unrestored parts and well preserved and picturesque areas of the wall. We stayed in local guesthouses along the way which served hot food and cold Chinese beer, all welcome after a long day of trekking.
Day 1 – Gubeikou
For the first afternoon, we did a round trip hike up an unrestored section outside the small town of Gubeikou. The wall climbs a steep embankment to several watchtowers high above. Much of the structure is in its original rock pile form before a series of refortifications took place over the centuries. The hike was steep and at times somewhat unstable, but delivered a wonderful view of the surroundings and distant sections of our upcoming treks. The total round trip was around three hours, including pictures.
Day 2 – Gubeikou to Jinshanling
The second day covered over 12 kilometers, mostly on the top of the wall other than a portion restricted due to its proximity to a military base. The views of the wall bobbing along the rolling hills were epic! The structure is still in fairly good condition, and improves throughout the hike. We got an early start and minimized stops, as the May heat was in the upper 30ºC. We stopped in Jinshanling, where we spent two nights.
Day 3 – Simatai
We took a morning transfer to Simatai where the wall climbs along the edge of astoundingly steep and jagged cliffs. These landforms create nature’s own Great Wall and didn’t seem to need the additional fortification. This section was listed as one of the 25 most scenic places in the world in 2012, although wide scale development near the base of the mountain has significantly impacted the views. There is an optional cable car, which was welcomed as the heat had reached around 40ºC. The top has a section which can be hiked although portions were closed for repair.
Later we drove back to Jinshanling to start our afternoon hike. This is a fully and impeccably restored portion of the wall, which is the most scenic section we visited. Despite a significant push for development and tourism in this area, we saw very few people and had this breathtaking portion all to ourselves. We set off in the mid afternoon and hiked round trip for a couple of hours, making sure to end at the General Tower Command Post for sunset (shown on maps.me as Gu Bai Kou Zhang), which is where the picture used in the header of this post was taken. While all areas we visited were incredible, the wall and views in this section took the green bean cake.
Day 4 – Simatai
For our last morning on the wall, we transferred back to the Simatai area and climbed round trip to the Wang Jing Tower. This was not an official hiking area, but simply a small private nature path straight up the mountain starting from the middle of nowhere. Wang Jing, meaning Watching Beijing, is said to have views of the city on a clear day. The hike took around 2 hours, climbing nearly 600 meters to a precarious vantage on the cliff. Afterwards, we drove to Beijing City for our last days in China.
Beijing Itinerary – 4 Days
Smoggy, crowded, hot, bustling, dirty. All words we would have associated with Beijing prior to our visit. We were prepared to hate this disgusting metropolis, but found it to far exceed our expectations for cleanliness and order and was actually rather pleasant. As with everywhere we visited in China, this city has enacted a major keep it clean campaign to include proper trash disposal, recycling programs and improving air quality. Leading up to the Beijing Olympics, the government made a major push for clean air, moving factories out of the province and restricting vehicle use. Today, the smog is no worse than we have seen in many large cities, and the wide scale use of hybrid and electric vehicles was quite a surprise.
No first time trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the infamous Tian An Men Square. Sitting outside of the Forbidden City, it is one of the largest city squares in the world with the capacity to hold nearly one million people. During our visit, it seemed to be filled with almost that many tourists. As with every single place in China, Big Brother kept a watchful eye.
The throngs of people from the square were all herding their way into the City walls, beneath a ginormous portrait of the infamous former Chairmen Mao. Despite being historically important and very well preserved, the Forbidden City failed to impress compared to other more architecturally striking palaces in Southeast Asia.
Afterwards we wandered on to Jingshan Park on the south side, opposite side from Tian An Men Square, where a short but brisk climb offered a view of the Forbidden City and surroundings.
We filled our last day in town with the Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace. The Temple of Heaven complex, built in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, contains unusual round temples which signify heaven.
While all things we did in Beijing were nice, none compared to the serenity of the Summer Palace. The grounds, which cover an impressive area in the city, wrap a large man made lake and adjacent hill which was built with the earth excavated from the lake. The buildings and gate area get rather packed with tourists, but a few hundred meter walk will afford vacant pathways meandering beneath weeping willows and over picturesque arched bridges. The pathway around the lake is roughly 8 kilometers.
A surprise addition to our trip was the Chaoyang Acrobatic Show. Recommended by our guide, this is the Cirque du Soleil styled show we had expected. With high wire acts, acrobats and ladder tricks, the hour long performance passed in minutes. One of the highlights, the motorcycle cage, crammed in a nail biting six drivers.
Despite endless things to see in Beijing, the best by far is the food culture. Peking duck, steamed buns, dumplings … mouthwatering options abound on every corner. A few places we particularly enjoyed were Qing-Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop (which serves, well, you can probably guess), Laoliu (a cook yourself Mongolian BBQ with home brewed beer), and Jinzhou (a Chinese style BBQ, also with home brewed beer). Qing-Feng is near Jingshan Park and both BBQs are near Dongfeng Hotel.
Food – 5 out of 5
Culture – 3.5 out of 5
Scenery – 2 out of 5
Off Track – 1 out of 5
What to Do in Beijing: Tour Tien An Men Square and the Forbidden City; Hike to the viewpoint at Jingshan Park; Stroll around the Summer Palace gardens and lake; Visit the Temple of Heaven complex; See the Beijing Acrobatic Show; Eat eat eat.
That’s the last portion of our amazing time in China! You can see other portions from this trip, including the beautiful Longji Rice Terraces, trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge and the wonders of Xi-an. When we talk about our favorite memories from our world trip, China is always near the top. (Don’t believe us? Just check out our Colombia Photo Gallery to see why.)
You can see other posts from our adventures, including our Great Ocean Road trip, Getting Lost and Found in Vietnam and South African Safari. And take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see inspiring pictures from dozens of countries.
Do you have an interest in long term travel? Check out our Trip Planning posts, where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.