Trekking the Greatest of Walls


There are many ways to explore what is arguably the world’s most famous landmark – the Great Wall of China - none of which have to involve a tourist bus.

A little-known part of the Great Wall of China near Huang Hua Shan is located about a two-hour drive from Beijing. Here the structure winds through diverse landscapes rich in history, offering a variety of routes for hikers of all levels.

Known as ”the 10,000 Li long city,” the Wall is not just a historic monument, but also helps maintain a distinct culture in mountain villages. Climbing onto the Wall here takes strenuous effort, and is not recommended for out-of shape hikers. The Beijing Hikers tour company, established in 2001, offers a variety of treks to historic grave mounds, caves, villages and rugged mountains in the capital region.

The phoenix and the dragon entwine

Our hike begins on the lanes of Zhuang Dao Kou, a village that for centuries served as an army base. In the early morning hours, elderly residents sell items like berries, nuts and sunflower seeds to visitors.

Amidst the old houses, at a fork in a mountain path, stand two entwined 300-year-old trees. Known as ”The Phoenix and the Dragon”, they are symbols of the village’s good fortune and wealth. Zhuang Dao Kou was once one of the mountain range’s most affluent villages, but like so many other rural hamlets, it has fallen into a state of disrepair.

According to legend, this section of the Wall was commissioned by General Cai Kai, who was beheaded after facing accusations of shoddy construction work. Later an imperial official visited the area and determined that the Wall here was, in fact, exceptionally strong. As an apology, the Emperor ordered a plaque to be attached to the general’s segment of the Wall with the characters ”Jin Tang” attesting its strength and durability.

Shielded by the Wall

From the Wall, our trip continues along a 300-year-old trail through gardens and fields toward the village of Yao Zi Yu, which is encircled by the Wall. Most of the Wall near Beijing dates back to the era of Zhu Yuanzhang, a monk who became the first Ming Emperor (the Ming Dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644). Fear of the Mongols spurred him to reinforce a part of the wall that originated from the Qin Dynasty era. Most of this newer part of the wall would be constructed of tightly packed earth and reinforced with a shell of bricks or rocks. Old kilns where these bricks were fired can still be seen around Beijing.

As we climb onto the Wall that surrounds the small town, a handsome array of grey roofs spreads out before us. Windowsills are ornamented with rows of yellow maize cobs, while golden Chinese characters decorate doors.

City-dwellers tired of Beijing’s frantic bustle and pollution represent a source of potential income to residents of mountain villages. The province has begun to view tourism as a valuable phenomenon for the countryside, and has begun to fix up centuries-old villages in order to attract visitors.

Many roads lead to the Wall

Both foot-trekking and cycling are active ways to see the sights along the Wall near Beijing. There are bicycle routes that run through villages and rural landscapes and rise eventually into the mountain valleys, where one can climb onto the Wall itself. Besides single-day treks, Beijing Hikers offers expeditions lasting several days and visits to popular tourist areas such as Mutianyu.

The Wall can also be approached on horseback as the Mongols did (although in a slightly calmer fashion). Beijing’s PTP Club organises hikes on horseback that are suitable even for beginners. At the end of the ride, a visitor can climb an unrestored part of the ”wild Wall.” During the toughest parts of the ascent, one can channel the words of a Mao Tse Tung to cheer on him-or herself: ”if we fail to make it to the Great Wall of China, we are not men.”

Text by Minna Närhilä
Photo by iStockphoto
A version of this article was previously published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (February 2010).

Published August 3, 2011

Category: Local features