Journey to the Great Wall of China

Updated on February 20, 2018
Hanavee profile image

Brian Gray obtained his degree in Language from Lee University and has been a published author and professional writer since 1985.

Often Compared to a Dragon That Lies Along The Mountain Tops, the Great Wall Is Breathtakingly Beautiful

If You Are in Beijing, You'll Want to Have Your Picture Taken With Mao

Getting to China

There are many routes that one can take to Beijing, but my favorite is to fly to Paris, spend a few days acclimating to the first bout of jet lag, then fly on to Beijing from there. Once in Beijing, you are going to be twelve hours ahead, so your body will need some time to acclimate. No matter which route you choose, it is a very long flight; it took me about seven hours to arrive in Paris, then another ten hours to fly from Paris to Beijing. But, the long flight time is a small price to pay for the adventure of a lifetime. If you go, however, here are some words of advice. You are not going to find coffee, cream, and sugar in China, but you can get plenty of hot, boiled water in every hotel, no matter how far from Beijing you are. If you are a coffee drinker and you think you can go without for an extended period, I will relate this story.

My friends and I were way out in the hinterlands, far removed from any Western hotel that might accommodate us in Beijing. It was our second week, and I had come prepared. I ordered several thermoses of hot water from the hotel. Once they arrived, I began to make a cup of the best freeze-dried coffee I could find in America, along with some wonderful instant creamer and sugar. I merely opened the door to my hotel room. Within less than two minutes, I could hear the doors to the rooms of my friends opening, and one by one, they followed the scent to my room, excited to see that it really was coffee they smelled. I laughed and told them to help themselves. Point being, you will crave some of the things you love back home. Bring them with you, if you can.

The water in China is not safe to drink - anywhere, anytime, period. This is why the hotels offer free thermoses of hot, boiled water. You can also purchase bottled water. You will need that for anything to do with water that might touch your mouth, such as brushing your teeth. Do NOT make the mistake of thinking that only drinking the water from the tap can harm you. Dip your toothbrush in that, and you are living life on the edge.

In the Westernized hotels in Beijing, you will think that you are pretty much back in the U.S., with some major differences. For one, the television is censored, and you will be reminded of that from time to time if you are watching the television when it blurs and goes fuzzy. And, you will see the note over the sink that says, "Water Not Safe To Drink." That brings the point home. Nonetheless, there is a McDonald's nearby, as well as other American fast-food restaurants. You may think when you first see these, "Who comes all the way to China to eat at McDonald's?" You! Trust me, after one week without sugar, fat, and salt, the three main ingredients of the American diet, you will run to McDonald's. Laughable, but true.

In the Westernized hotels, you WILL have a Western toilet. Why do I say this? Because that is the last time you will see one when you go out sightseeing. The Chinese think nothing of this, but the typical toilet in a public restaurant is simply a hole in the concrete floor in the bathroom. You figure the rest.

Take nothing for granted. If you get a sore throat while you are in China, you cannot go to the local drugstore and buy Chloroseptic throat lozenges. They don't exist there, so you definitely want to think of the small things that can really come in handy when the unplanned happens. Above all, do not over-pack. You will end up buying so much "stuff" when you are in China, that you will need the luggage space to get it all home...literally.

Enough with the primer tips.

On the First Day, See the Sights in Beijing

The Forbidden City Is at the Top of the List

When you arrive in Beijing, you are not going to be able to rush right off to see the Great Wall. That takes planning, but it also takes rest. You are going to have major jet lag, and you will have been on a plane for such a great length of time, my best advice is to go tour the Forbidden City, the ancient palace of the emperors of China. Called the Forbidden City, because the penalty for trying to see beyond its walls was death, not to mention that entrance was only by invitation of the Emperor, this awesome wonder of China is now a museum that is open to the public. You will be dazzled by the fact that each gate opens into an even larger courtyard and what appears to be another palace. The Forbidden City, with walls that are forty feet thick and forty feet high, with massive doors that are literally one foot thick, really is a series of walls and palaces that just keep getting more spectacular as you go further in. The movie, "The Last Emperor of China," was filmed here, and for obvious reason.

I'm Standing in Front of the Second Gate of the Forbidden City

A Quaint Taxi Ride in Deng Feng

Something You Have to Do While in China

I had always seen these taxis in documentaries, and there was no way that I was leaving China without a ride in one. My two Chinese friends, Dina (above left) and Hai Chen (above right), made sure that I was able to get a cab and went with me on some of my side business trips. My ride uptown in the city of Deng Feng was two renminbi...sixteen cents. Dina, a very sweet and charming girl from Deng Feng, acted as my interpreter when I needed someone who spoke Chinese fluidly (my Mandarin being what it was), and her friend, Hai Chen, was studying English, so Hai Chen tagged along each day just to get the opportunity to practice her English. Fluency in English could open a lot of doors for someone enterprising enough as these two were.

Chinese Currency

You Can Only Obtain Chinese Currency in China

With most currencies in the world, if you are visiting a certain country, you simply go to an exchange before you leave the U.S. and purchase the currency you will need. However, China does not allow its currency to be sold outside of China. While this was true when I visited in 1999 and 2001, I am assuming that this is still the norm. You can exchange U.S, currency at the Beijing airport as soon as you arrive, or at your hotel. One thing these photos do not show you is that the currency decreases in size as you go down in value. It is also very colorful, which made me decide to bring a set back with me.

At the time I was there, one hundred renminbi was the equivalent of $12.50 U.S. While there are some bargains in Beijing, the best deals for shoppers are always outside of Beijing. One thing you have to get used to real quick, there are no price tags. Everything is negotiated. You ask how much, and they start at the top. You are expected to come back with an offer at the bottom. The game goes back and forth until you both agree on a price somewhere in the middle - whatever the "middle" really is. Trust me, it is a game for poker faces.

Grinding Grain

Sights Along the Way

I decided that the most fabled portion of the Great Wall, Simatai, was the place I wanted to visit most. Situated approximately 80 miles north of Beijing next to the town of Gubeikou, the Great Wall at Simatai is the most genuine of the Great Wall tourist destinations, since the Badaling portion, closer to Beijing, is the most visited site in China, meaning that you are going to see handrails, lighting and more. To see the Great Wall the way it was for centuries, you need to go to Simatai. Another reason to visit the wall at Simatai is that the mountains there are so high, and the views are stunning.

Although the distance is only about eighty miles, the drive will take about three hours. Don't ask me to explain. It's just the way things go in China. But, along the way, you will be so captivated by the unfamiliar sights, you won't be concerned about the time. In the photo above, the locals are spreading grain on the highway so that passing vehicles will grind it.

A Local Mode of Transport

A Roadside Stand—Yes, That Is Meat

This Young Lady Is Having Her Bike Repaired—Love Her Shoes!

My First View of the Great Wall at Simatai

The First View of the Great Wall Is Exciting

The anticipation grows as you start seeing the mountain ranges in the distance during your journey to Gubeikou. From miles away, you are sure that you see something resembling the Great Wall, but it is not until you are nearly there that you turn a bend in the winding road, and there before you are the mountain peaks and the stunning sight of towers and walls running like the back of a giant dragon along the tops.

Hiking to the Mountain Top

The Great Wall at Simatai Is NOT in a Valley!

One thing you will learn very quickly upon arriving at the base of the Great Wall at Simatai is that this section of the wall is known for its extreme steepness. The elevation at the highest point, the Wanjing Tower, is 3,281 feet, and the only way you are even going to get onto the Great Wall to walk to that tower, or any of the towers, is to hike up a very long, arduous, winding trail. Your lungs will soon let you know that you are glad you do not smoke. People brag about how many towers they managed to reach, since the distance between towers is not actually the reason that many people reach so few, but the climb. Some of these towers, following the inclination of the mountain peaks, will change from perfectly level to so steep that it is like climbing a ladder. Bragging rights is about six or seven towers. I did seventeen.

Only the Most Determined Will Reach This One

Some Stretches Are Virtually Level

The Views From Such Altitudes Are Impressive

The Great Wall Recedes Into the Distance for as Far as the Eyes Can See

The photo above shows one of the towers at the higher elevations of Simatai. Soldiers were garrisoned in these towers to man the wall against invaders.

Every View From Up Here Is Stunning

Another Picture You Have to Take When You Have Come This Far

Yes, I Climbed All of It

Looking at the Watching Sea Tower behind me, when you come this far, you have to keep going until you reach the top. If you are not fit cardiovascularly, you will not make it to this point.

The Steepness of Simatai Is Not Exaggerated

Further Challenges

A View of the Mountain Peaks

At the Very Top of These Peaks Lies the Great Wall and Towers

Look closely, and you will see the Great Wall and its many towers resting on the very tops of those mountains in the distance. That is where you have to hike to if you are ever going to say that you climbed the Great Wall at Simatai. I have done it twice.

An Outer View of One of the Many Towers

Interior View of the Towers

So Many Towers to Explore

In Some Places, the Wall Has Fallen Away

A Rare Sight—Inside the Great Wall

The Mystery of What Is Inside the Great Wall

I have heard stories for many years of what is inside the Great Wall, itself, some even suggesting that there were bodies buried inside the Great Wall to make it stronger. While hiking, I came upon a section that had just collapsed, exposing the interior. No bodies, but a very rare opportunity to see a once-in-a-lifetime view inside the wall's structure.

In 2010, the Great Wall at Simatai was closed to tourists so that the government could do some much-needed repairs. In 2014, it reopened.

The World's Highest Restaurant

A Unique Dining Experience

Some enterprising locals decided to open a small restaurant (for lack of a better word) on the top of the Great Wall. After all the intense hiking, the high elevation and the very hot temperatures, this little oasis was a welcome sight. They even served egg rolls.

The Restaurant Just Ahead

I've Got the Best Seat in the House

No Restaurant in the World Can Beat This View!

A Daring Ride!

A Cable Ride Like None Other

The photo above is from my ticket stub, the ticket which allows me to ride a very thin cable from the top of the mountain peak to the point you see in the distance on the other side of Mandarin Duck Lake. This lake forms between two mountain peaks, and rather than hike all the way back down, I decided to give the cable ride a shot. You literally jump off a platform on a cliff high above the gorge. Not for the faint of heart. That cable is thinner than your little pinky!

Yes, That Speck on the Cable Is Yours Truly

A Chance Photo

One of my friends was hiking back down the trail when he happened to look over and saw me whizzing by in the air. He took this photo of me near the end of the ride. You can see that I have my camera in hand. I filmed all the way down. I wonder how often they check that cable?

Record the Moment—Proof That You Were at Simatai

The Marker Reads: Si Ma Tai Chang Chuan, the Great Wall of Simatai

After such a long flight from the U.S., after so much planning, so many details to work out, logistics to account for, and the extremely arduous task of climbing that mountain, then conquering seventeen towers, I was NOT going to miss the opportunity to stand by the marker that the locals had erected for anyone who wanted to record the moment with the Great Wall of Simatai in the background. There would be much more for me to see in China. I traveled to some of the most exotic locations, and saw wonders that few have seen. But, I treasure this journey more than many others, because it is truly a unique experience that few will ever get to enjoy. Like walking on the moon, you just have to be there to totally appreciate the adventure. I sincerely hope that this article gives you at least some of the thrill of actually being there. If so, then sharing these photos and memories with you will have been an even greater pleasure.

Questions & Answers


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      • Hanavee profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Gray 

        13 months ago from Pennsylvania


        It was a pleasure meeting you yesterday, and thanks for taking the time to read this article. You are quite right about standing there and having countless thoughts go through my mind while surveying the awe-inspiring and historical landscape.

        By the way, you sound like a writer. I might have to encourage you to put pen to paper...or finger to keyboard.

        Thanks for your immeasurable help yesterday, and, yes, I got the problem straightened out...I bought a new phone.


      • profile image

        David Eisenbeil 

        13 months ago

        Hi, Brian! It was nice crossing paths yesterday! I hope you got your phone issues sorted out! Thank you for telling me about your article. I thoroughly enjoyed it! It seems like an awe-inspiring place! I can just imagine the whispers carried on the wind as you stand atop, eyes closed, imagining the lives that made it all happen and the stories that shaped the region over the centuries! I'll have to add this place to my list, even though the bucket is already overflowing!! :-) Thanks, again, for sharing!



      • Hanavee profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Gray 

        3 years ago from Pennsylvania


        Something we both share, a lot of fond memories of a great place to visit. I guess we can count ourselves as among the lucky ones. Nowadays, it seems that travel has become too risky, so I am glad I went when I did.


      • profile image


        3 years ago

        Great story and great photos. Reminds me of when I went to the Wudang Mountains (Crow's Ridge)/Wudangshen. I, also, went on a cable ride up to the Golden Bell Temple 5,000 feet up (I'd rather ride a ferris wheel). I had a wonderful time.

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        You're very welcome Brian.

      • Hanavee profile imageAUTHOR

        Brian Gray 

        3 years ago from Pennsylvania


        Thank you for those kind comments. Always a pleasure.


      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Brian, this is a great travelogue with excellent photos on your trip to the great wall of China. Very visual and descriptive about the wall, too. Voted up for awesome!


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