It’s 13,171 miles (21,196 kilometers) long. It was constructed over 2,300 years ago. It receives over 10 million visitors per year, and its most famous section (Badaling) has played host to over 300 heads of states and VIPs.
It is, of course, the Great Wall of China.
The aptly named wall, which encircles the nation, is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, alongside stellar company such as Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall is one of the top tourist destinations in China.
But what does one actually do while there? Chances are you won’t have time to traverse the entire route (which would take about 177 days), and if all you do is walk up and snap a few photos, you’re probably going to leave rather unsatisfied. So before your visit, make sure to check out these options for how to best experience the Great Wall.
Sure, crossing the entire stretch of wall would take almost half a year (and seeing as almost a third of the wall has disappeared or decayed, the task would be nearly impossible), but hiking still remains one of the best methods of exploring the Great Wall. Whether you’re looking for a multi-day adventure or a quick, hour-long jaunt, the Wall provides a spectacular, mountainous route for exploring China’s diverse countryside.
With rolling hills and intense ridgelines, the Wall doesn’t always present a leisurely stroll, so make sure to pack durable boots and plenty of water. It can often grow so steep that you’ll find yourself on all fours, but even the strenuous sections are worth the effort. The sprawling fields and forests provide magnificent views around every corner, and we recommend packing a lunch so you can stop and enjoy a picnic whenever inspiration (or fatigue!) strikes.
Snaking through the Chinese countryside, the Great Wall provides the perfect vantage point from which to experience this vast wilderness. On some of the wilder sections, such as Jiankou, where much of the wall is overgrown with grass and shrubbery, you can even pitch a tent and camp out under the stars. If you can, aim to embark upon your overnight journey during the early autumn, when there are still few clouds in the sky but the chill has yet to creep into the mountain air. As you gaze over the edge and listen to the sounds of the night, you might even start to feel like an ancient Chinese sentry keeping watch.
Held annually in May, the Huangyaguan Marathon presents a steep and scenic route for the most intense challenge-seekers. The race bears similarities to endurance treks of the West, providing glimpses into the lives of the local villagers as volunteers line the route to hand out snacks, cups of waters, and words of encouragement. The path itself, however, is only for the most committed thrill-seekers, as competitors have to navigate steep, twisting sections, and are often forced to drop down on all fours and scramble up the stony steps. But, if pushing yourself to the limit and traversing 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) in a few hours is your cup of tea, what better route than the famous Great Wall?
Standing at the edge and peering into the valley below not enough of an adrenaline rush for you? How about jumping off the Wall itself?
At the Simatai section of the Great Wall, true adventurers can sign up to leap off the side of the wall and paraglide gently to the forest floor 1,000 feet below. There’s nothing quite like the sensation of dangling from a parachute and soaring above the Chinese countryside. Once you land, you can either shed your chute and move on, or hike back up and do it all over again.
Not only is the Simatai section ideal for paragliding, but it’s also the only portion of the wall illuminated at night. As the sun dips below the horizon and darkness falls on the surrounding countryside, the stretch of the wall between the fifth and sixth watchtowers lights up with the help of hundreds of lanterns. The view of the brightened Gubei Water Tower in the valley below, alongside the illuminated stretch creates a truly magical atmosphere. There’s no better time to take an idle stroll along the meandering landmark.
What goes up must come down. Because the Great Wall is perched atop a mountain ridge, you often have to hike up about an hour to reach it. But, at the Mutianyu section, you don’t have to hike back down — instead, you can hop in a toboggan and roll swiftly down to the villages that lie below.
Running year-round and only halting during extreme weather conditions, the Mutianyu Toboggan allows you to zig-zag down through the valley. And, with a lever to control the speed, each rider can decide how fast and intense they want to make their journey. Ready, set, ride!
Header image by Jeremy Scott.