Of all of the sites to visit and experience throughout Asia, the Great Wall of China may very well be the most worthwhile. At the very least, it is certainly the most famous. One of the modern Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Wall has stood for centuries as a reminder of the Chinese defense system constructed to protect the nation from various invasions. Today, the Wall is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world and, despite the false rumors that it is the only man-made structure on earth that can be seen from space, is bigger and grander than can be imagined or understood by photos and videos. Though visiting the Wall was one of the last things I did during my year teaching in China and traveling throughout Asia, I can confidently say that I saved the best for last.
Understanding the different parts of the Great Wall of China
By now, you surely understand that the Wall is indeed massive. The total length of the Wall is an incredible 21,196.18 kilometers, or 13,170.70 miles (for reference, the distance between my home near New York City, USA and my home in Shenzhen, China is about 8,000 miles). Beijing is the most common starting point for a visit to the Great Wall; the capital city is home to 526 kilometers (327 miles) of the Wall.
Many people do not realize that the Wall is separated into distinct sections, each with their own features and highlights. The most commonly visited sections are as follows: Badaling, Mutianyu, Simatai, Jinshanling, Jiankou, Huanghuacheng, and Juyongguan. Badaling, situated nearest to Beijing, is by far the most popular to visit and as such frequently hosts swarms of overcrowding tours. Personally, I would strongly recommend avoiding this section, especially if you happen to be visiting during a popular tourist season, a weekend, or a Chinese national holiday. Mutianyu is the next most popular and can occasionally have huge crowds, but pales in comparison to Badaling.
I personally opted to visit Jinshanling because I felt it had a bit of everything I was looking for: the section is half restored, half natural; it is far enough away from downtown Beijing (two hours by bus; Badaling and Mutianyu are each about an hour and a half) that you’ll encounter only very few people; and it is home to some of the most scenic views of the entire Wall. The only potential “catch” at Jinshanling is that walking/hiking some stretches of it can be quite physically demanding. However, I felt up to the challenge and embraced it. If you have doubts about your ability to handle steep inclines and other obstacles, you may want to consider a different section.
My personal experience at the Great Wall
I was fortunate to be accompanied by a new friend I met while waiting for the bus to the Wall, Maurice, a math professor at Texas A&M University. We swapped stories both about our travel experiences and our careers in education. I was most appreciative of his company because, if not for him being there, I may have called it quits about halfway through our four-hour trek. His energy and determination motivated me to continue ignoring the pains in my feet and legs and instead take the next step forward. Ultimately, we reached the end of our trail well ahead of schedule and grabbed lunch with another girl who had been on our bus but hiked a different trail. Worth noting, she had hiked the Mutianyu section a few days prior; while she maintains that Mutianyu was well worth the visit and had nothing but praise for the section, she insisted that Jinshanling was everything Mutianyu was but much better.
One of the downsides of traveling as much as I have over the past year is that you develop an indifference toward visiting new places, as you become desensitized to the excitement of it all and trips merely become “another flight and a few days away.” This sentiment has been shared by nearly everyone I’ve met over the past year. However, for me, the Great Wall was the biggest (no pun intended) exception to this side effect. I was overwhelmed with excitement about actually finally being there and completing the trek. I can say with full certainty that walking the Great Wall is the most amazing and rewarding experience I’ve ever had in all of my travels and it was the perfect way to cap the past year of exploring Asia.