How to Hike the Great Wall of China
TREKKING THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA IS A BUCKET LIST DREAM FOR MANY. ONE TRAVELER VISITED AND SHARES EXACTLY HOW TO RETRACE HER STEPS FROM THE VISA OFFICE TO HIKING THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FROM BEIJING.
There are few places in the world more iconic, or historic, than the Great Wall of China. And rightfully so. The scale of the endeavor, and the long history tracing to its creation, make it the ultimate bucket list destination. If the wall were in the U.S., it would cover the country from New York to California and back. I finally achieved my dream of visiting the Great Wall this past fall, and discovered that the experience far surpassed any conceivable expectations.
I’ve previously shared my other bucket list adventure, experiencing a safari in Kenya—I had quite the travel schedule in the fall of 2018—and I found the hiking Great Wall of China similarly awe-inspiring. Though, while on the plains of the Masai Mara I found myself overwhelmed by the rhythm and beauty of the natural world, on the Great Wall in Mutianyu, I was awe-inspired by the scale of human history—and my own glaringly small position within the timeline of civilization.
In both events, I was humbled by my own insignificance. And not humbled in the social media meaning of the word (often translating into #humblebrag, the term has become as flagrantly misused and abused under the pretense of humility as the word #blessed). But more on social media later.
How to Prepare to Visit the Great Wall
While I’d always dreamed of visiting the Great Wall of China, I had always been slightly discouraged by the logistics. The process of applying for a Chinese visa may seem byzantine, but I’m here to tell you, that like most things in life, it’s better confronted face to face.
Do not opt for the online option.
It’s worth taking a morning out of your life to visit your closest visa office—the one in New York City was very quick, in and out both times, and I received my visa within three days. Note: You will have to provide proof of accommodation, and your booked flights.
Where to Stay: Regarding accommodations, I stayed in the Hyatt Regency Beijing Wangjing in the trendy Koreatown neighborhood of the city. Unless you are fluent in Mandarin (in which case, I am exceedingly jealous), consider staying with a global hotel brand that can deftly answer any questions you may have leading up to your visit, and help coordinate all your activities during your stay. It also doesn’t hurt that the architecture is designed to mimic a beautiful rainforest, adding to the relaxing vibe. It’s an oasis in the middle of the bustling city, and when your senses will already be overstimulated by the sights and sounds of China (not to mention the silences and vistas of the Great Wall), it’s best to prioritize some rest and relaxation.
What to Pack for China
For your China packing list, prioritize health and hygiene on such a long flight by traveling with PlaneAir to sanitize your seating area prior to overnight takeoff. The airlines that operate within China are known for having tinier personal space, so the necessity of a surface sanitizer is more important than ever.
This is also the moment to break out your travel toiletry sets to navigate washing up in public restrooms, where such supplies may not be available. We also suggest packing cubes to keep your must-haves organized on the flight, as well as throughout your trip.
Additionally, there are myriad rules for your carry-on if flying within China, such as: No lighters (to be expected), but also, stricter rules regarding power banks. All my iPhone chargers were confiscated. So either stash them in your checked bag, or prepare methods to save battery while you snap photos upon the Great Wall (low power mode all the way).
Speaking of snapping photos, this may be one occasion that’s almost too gram-worthy for the ‘gram. Yes, nothing guarantees triple-digit likes like a shot of that historic Great Wall. But, while it may be eternally tempting to obsess over the perfect image to share with all your friends (and jealous frenemies) back home, we advise to try to live in the moment as much as possible. Not only is #nofilternecessary when on the Great Wall, the mere contemplation of whether to apply Valencia or Lo Fi in such a setting feels nearly sacrilegious.
You will want to use a backpack like Global Companion 40L to stay hands-free while hiking along the wall. Not that you will just be hiking: You will be able to chairlift up to the top, and toboggan down. Mutianyu is one of the most iconic places on the wall to visit, and is a short trip from Beijing. The morning I departed for the Great Wall, the fog had cleared and I enjoyed a bluebird day up in the mountains, and I was also able to appreciate the foliage visible from the Great Wall of China. Who says New England is the top spot for foliage? Leaf peepers visiting Asia in fall may be inclined to disagree.
Ultimately, however, the Great Wall of China was not comparable to anywhere else in the world, in my experience. I felt transported beyond the self, beyond my own minor concerns, and felt truly grateful to be witness to the living history that is the Great Wall of China.
If hiking the Great Wall is already on your bucket list, book those flights and make those visa preparations now. If it isn’t yet on your list of dream places to visit, update your bucket list to add one more spot. When it comes to this destination in China, Great is an understatement. Experience it for yourself this year and find your unknown.