Visiting the Great Wall is probably at the top of most tourists "to-do" list when going to China. This astonishing historical monument stretches over 21000 kilometres and has many sections restored and accessible for tourists. Choosing which part to visit is not easy, each has its unique pros and cons - some are closer to big cities, others are popular because of the great photo opportunities. We made our choice after a lot of research and would like to recommend and share this experience with you.
About 130 km northeast from Beijing in the Jinshan mountains is the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China. That's a bit further than the most popular sections of the wall, which means you have to invest more time for travelling, but it is totally worth it.
I will list the great things about going to Jinshanling over other parts of the wall, but first, watch our video to get an idea of what to expect
Ok, so why go there?
- Tranquillity: Because of the distance to Beijing and limited transport options not many people visit Jinshanling - which is great! During our hike, we walked alone for the most part and even when we encountered other hikers they were small groups, not whole busloads. Believe me, the Great Wall is a place you want to enjoy in peace.
- Great variety: It is a relatively short stretch of the wall but it is also packed with watchtowers, beacon towers and passes all this built with different combinations of materials (stone, brick, wood) and in various architectural styles. There are one-, two- and three-storey towers too, some rare decorations and even bricks inscribed by the soldiers who placed them.
- More variety: I know this should be part of the previous point, but I decided to list it separately as it is a truly unique feature. Most of the Jinshanling section is well restored, but there are some original parts left and the best feature - easily accessible "wild" section of the wall that hasn't been touched for centuries lies in the east corner.
- Snap, snap, snap: Jinshanling has been called "Photographer's heaven" and this title is well deserved. As explained above the wall itself offers a great choice of things you will want to take a picture of, this combined with the beautiful flowing mountains around it will keep your camera busy for hours.
How to get to Jinshanling?
If you have a car it is an easy 2-hour drive from Beijing. If not - don't worry - there is a daily bus that offers the best value for money transport between downtown Beijing - read Jinshanling Great Wall (金山岭) - How to get there the easy way.
Our hike - a great day covering the best spots
The park is big and offers many routes to suit different levels of fitness and enthusiasm - first I will tell you about our hike and in the next section I have summarized several other ideas. Let's start with a simplified map of the place to put things into perspective.
As we had the whole day and were really excited to cover as much as possible of the wall we headed to Brick Crenel first. This is the westmost entry point from Mid Gate and we did an extended version of the suggested 4 hours "The 3 Must-sees of the Great Wall" route, including sections west of Brick Crenel and east of East Five-Window Tower. I have also included the times when we reached some points for reference, I would rate our fitness level slightly above average and we had many breaks for taking photos, videos and enjoying the views.
We got our tickets at 10:35, prices were 65 CNY per person for the entrance plus 10 CNY for the shuttle bus, note that those are separate tickets, sold at separate windows, you have to ask for both.
At 10:40 the shuttle bus took us for a short 5-minute drive further into the park. This ride saves you only about 20 minutes walking as it gets less than halfway to the wall, but we decided to pay the small fee and have more time for the main attraction. Walking there is easy as the road is paved and empty, but also a bit boring - no views at all, so the 10 yuan were well spent. The stop is before another ticket check/entrance, we kept going south towards the wall. There is a cable car and various paths that can take you to different points on the wall - see the map.
To my surprise during the short walk to the wall, we couldn't see it almost until the end - the greenery hides the Great Wall from view. At 11:10 we reached Brick Crenel and the real adventure began. First, we took a small detour west towards Taochunkou, but didn't reach it - we were still worried about time and decided to go back and continue east. Great views of the West Beacon Tower here, but this section of the wall is really steep and hiking there takes a lot of effort.
Less than an hour later (12:00) we were at Xiaojinshan Tower, this is an entry point for people using the cable car. Here we did some calculations and realized we have plenty of time to do the hike we planned, so we relaxed and slowed down our pace a bit.
Another hour passed until we reached the Flower Tower at 13:00 - one of the unique features of the wall there - not many towers had decorative elements back in the day, even less were adorned with flowers and animals carved into the door frames. Just before the Flower Tower is a very steep section with smooth stones, a real challenge for the unprepared.
At 13:45 we reached the exit point used by most tourists - the East Five Window Tower. There was a large Spanish speaking group of students cheering themselves for reaching the end, but for me, this is where the best part began. East of the East Five Window Tower lays a large unrestored section of the wall. We went three towers further this way, the path there goes on the wall, then trough the shrubs around the towers, then climbs back on the wall, then on the other side and so on. For the whole hour we spent there not a single soul came this way - we had the original part of the wall all to ourselves.
It was fun "hunting" for the inscriptions - this section is called Inscription Wall because some of the bricks have texts edged into them by the builders a long time ago. After the last tower, we reached the path disappears, leaving the old wall crumbling alone, almost impossible for tourists to reach. We had a quick lunch there at the last reachable tower admiring the perfect view of the untouched for centuries wall amidst lush greenery - a great end to our hike of the Great Wall.
Happy and satisfied we had reached the final goal we went back to East Five Window Tower and took the path to East Gate. It is one kilometre long and took us about 20-25 minutes, plenty of stairs and it is all downhill.
The bus was waiting at East Gate, also there is a nice restroom with water, paper towels, soap and free drinking water, much-appreciated refreshment after the hike and before the bus ride back to Beijing.
Hiking and walking routes at Jinshanling
The park is large and offers many ways to spend your time there. The first four in the list are the recommended itineraries I got from the official map (with our comments), the rest are our suggestions. Please plan your hikes according to your physical abilities and the time you have.
- The Essential Great Wall (2 hours): Mid Gate -> Brick Crenel -> Shalingkou Tower -> Mid Gate: This should be a fairly easy walk covering the most popular section of the wall with plenty of good views.
- Great Wall for Photographers (2.5 hours): Mid Gate -> Brick Crenel -> Xiaojinshan Tower -(cable car)-> Mid Gate: I kind of agree with this one, sure there are enough photo opportunities along this short walk, but I would recommend doing it in the opposite direction - using the cable car uphill to save more energy.
- The 3 Must-sees of the Great Wall (4 hours): Mid Gate -> Brick Crenel -> East Five Window Tower -> East Gate: This is the one we used as a base, follow our route and go at least a little bit west after Brick Crenel, you have to double back, but there are some unique views. More importantly - if you have time and energy go east of East Five Window Tower - the "wild" section of the wall is worth every step.
- Great Wall for Fitness Enthusiasts (4 hours): West Gate -> Taochunkou -> Brick Crenel -> Mid Gate: This will be a serious workout as both the path to Taochunkou and the section of the wall there are steep. This is not a very popular area as the bus doesn't go to the West Gate. Ideally, have a car with a driver to drop you off and pick you up.
- End-To-End (7 hours): West Gate -> Taochunkou -> East Five Window Tower -> East Gate: If you are in great shape and want a full day serious hike that's the best Jinshanling has to offer. It will require some planning and definitely can't use the bus as the time is not enough, but if you hire a car with a driver and go for an early start they can pick you up at the end of the day from East Gate. Bring plenty of water and some food. If you lose your breath after climbing five flights of stairs this is not for you, but if you decide to go for it and can't finish the hike there are exit points along the route.
- Minimal Effort (2 hours): Mid Gate -(cable car)-> Xiaojinshan Tower -> Shalingkou Tower -> Mid Gate: A short stroll along the wall after taking the cable car uphill is a good option for people who can't walk much but still want to see some great views.
- Zero Effort (1.5 hours): Mid Gate -(cable car)-> Xiaojinshan Tower -> -(cable car)-> Mid Gate: Just going up the wall is still worth it in my opinion, whatever is preventing you from hiking the wall you can go up and down with the cable car and still have a fulfilling experience.
- The Old, The New and The Wild (4 hours): Mid Gate -(cable car)-> Xiaojinshan Tower -> Inscription Wall -> East Five Window Tower -> East Gate: Save time by using the cable car and enjoy the new and restored sections of the wall, then when you get to East Five Window Tower continue east for three more towers into the "wild" area. Almost zero tourists around and the untouched wall make this a truly unique place.
What to bring for a hike of the Great Wall at Jinshanling
- Weather-appropriate and comfortable clothes - keep in mind that the temperature may be significantly lower than in Beijing, also up on the wall there is no protection from wind and the sun.
- Good hiking shoes - decent trainers as a minimum, hiking boots are a better choice, leave the flip flops and heels at home. I saw a man wearing leather loafers and he was struggling big time, the wall is steep at some places and he was literally crawling on all fours. Good grip and stability are essential for a safe and comfortable hike - even when dry some stones are slippery, others wobble.
- Hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, umbrella - depending on the weather, but better to be over-prepared than unprepared.
- Water and food - restaurants can be found inside the park, but on the wall, options are very limited. Locals have set up small stands in some of the towers selling drinks and snacks along with souvenirs, but if you are not bringing enough be prepared to pay highly inflated prices. Can't blame them for this though - carrying stuff up the wall is not easy and when you get there you will agree with the high prices too.
- Cameras, tripods and all your photographer's gear - this is one of the best spots for taking pictures on the Great Wall, make sure to capture some high-quality memories and don't end up with a dead battery.
- Mobile phone and cash - be prepared for everything. This is not a tour bus and it will not wait for you - if you miss it you have to find another way to get back to Beijing.