The unknown Great Wall

The Great Wall. There’s little doubt that it is China’s most famous sight. Stretching almost four thousand miles across China, it meanders snake-like over mountains and valleys and over vast steppes and arid deserts. Some sections of the wall are in ruins; others are barely visible, all but obliterated by time. Still other sections have been restored.

There is more than one Great Wall, built over a period of almost 2,000 years. The earliest parts were constructed between 453 and 221 B.C., when rival war lords built walls to keep each other at bay. In the third century B.C. (221-206 B.C.), Qin Shi Huang Di, the first emperor to unify China, erected walls as did his successors, the Han emperors, who ruled China for over 400 years (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), extending the walls westward.

However, much of what we now call the Great Wall belongs to the 14th through 17th centuries when the Ming Dynasty emperors ruled.

Crowded Badaling & Mutianyu

The Great Wall conjures up dozens of adjectives, among them majestic, immense, awe-inspiring, beautiful, crowded. Crowded? It’s probably the first adjective that comes to mind if, like me, you are among the hordes of tourists who visit the two best-known sections of the Great Wall: Badaling and Mutianyu. Each is relatively close to Beijing; Badaling at 40 miles from the capital is about an hour’s drive, while Mutianyu, 55 miles from Beijing, is about a half hour farther.

Over the past 20 years I’ve visited both Badaling and Mutianyu a number of times but always in the company of thousands of others. It’s not just tourists who descend upon the Great Wall; the locals love it too, coming in droves. Wall-to-wall people on the Great Wall make it difficult to walk or — more often — climb until you’ve gone a considerable distance along the wall and the crowds begin to thin out.

On our most recent trip to China in June ’04, however, we “discovered” two restored sections of the Great Wall that are — for the moment, at least — empty of both tourists and locals, or nearly so. Both are located about 75 miles northeast of Beijing and only six miles apart from each other. In fact, according to the elderly caretaker we met at one of the sections, the wall here is currently the best-preserved part of the entire Great Wall.

Empty Jinshanling

Jinshanling was the first of the two sections we visited. Built during the reign of Emperor Hung Wu (1368-1398), the first of the Ming Dynasty emperors, Jinshanling is approximately 12 miles long and is richly studded with watchtowers. There are about 100 of them, or about eight per mile.

These watchtowers usually stood about 30 feet high and consisted of two levels, the lower one used for weapons and provisions and as a garrison for soldiers, the upper level as the lookout. The towers were not built to cookie-cutter design. Some were circular, others oval or square. Their roofs varied as well; they could be flat, domed or vaulted.

One wonders what poetic soul named them long ago. Many bear names like Peach Spring Tower or Fox Head Tower, although there are the more prosaic ones like Warehouse Tower as well.

Jinshanling is extremely picturesque — picture-postcard perfect. One of the reasons is its location in the mountains over which it winds. This also means that there are few flat portions to walk along. Most of this section is steep, requiring stone staircases to climb up and down, up and down. Literally and figuratively breathtaking.

But Jinshanling’s greatest charm is that it is devoid of visitors, at least for now. In contrast to the hordes of human ants who labor up and down the inclines of the wall at Badaling and Mutianyu, we were the only ones hiking Jinshanling. It felt weird to have this spectacular section of the Great Wall all to ourselves — like something out of “The Twilight Zone.” It also felt exhilarating to share the mountains now and then emerging from the mist and the ancient stones with absolutely no one else.

There’s an admission charge of 30 yuan, about $4 at the time of our visit. From the parking lot where our driver waited for us, it’s a long walk of about 30 minutes to the wall. There’s a van by the new cable car (not running when we visited). It’s better to have the van take you to the foot of the wall, saving your energy for hiking the wall itself. The van grossly overcharges for the 5-minute ride (40 yuan, more than $5), but it does wait to take you back to the parking lot after you’ve finished your walk.

Uncrowded Simatai

Simatai was the second section we visited. We could have hiked the six miles from Jinshanling to Simatai — if we were younger, if we were in good physical shape, if we had the time and if we knew we wouldn’t die along the route from exhaustion. Discretion is the better part of valor, and our driver delivered us to the entrance where it cost us another entry fee of 30 yuan.

Simatai, also built by Emperor Hung Wu at the end of the 14th century, runs about 3½ miles and is rich in watchtowers, 35 of them, densely packed at one to every 300 to 500 feet. (Generally, watchtowers were placed about 1,500 feet apart along other sections of the Great Wall.)

Here, too, many of the watchtowers bear lovely names: White Cloud Tower, Fairy Maiden Beacon Tower, Eyes of the Cat Tower. . . Some of the portions between the towers also bear evocative names. One is called Ladder to Heaven. To see it is to believe it. It is very steep, as is much of Simatai, making the going slow and, if it is raining, treacherous. But you don’t have to risk life and limb to experience Simatai since there are other portions which, though steep, are not as dangerous.

We were not totally alone at Simatai as we were at Jinshanling. There were others hiking the precipitous stairs and steep inclines, but their numbers were only a fraction of what we encountered at Badaling and Mutianyu. It was possible at Simatai — as at Jinshanling — to savor the Wall and the views from it without feeling pushed along by the human tide.

It’s a long walk from the car park to the first watchtower at Simatai — about 45 minutes uphill and about 25 minutes coming down. There’s a cable car to some of the watchtowers, but it wasn’t working when we visited. Also, there was no van to take visitors even a portion of the way to where the path upward becomes rocky.

The hike, however, is worth the effort. There are views over a reservoir and, once you finally reach the nearest watchtower and begin the climb along the Great Wall itself, the scenery is magnificent even if you come on a misty day as we did with mountains emerging in and out of the clouds. Like walking in a Chinese scroll painting, commented my husband, Paul.


On the way back to the capital we stopped at yet a third section, Juyong­guan, that we had never visited before, much closer to Beijing at only 36 miles. It’s lovely in its setting among temples and courtyards. The views here are spectacular since you can see so much of the wall as it winds up and down the nearby hills. Few people were here when we visited. No one could tell us why, considering its proximity to Beijing. We once again enjoyed the solitude.

If you like to travel in a pack, walk the Great Wall at Badaling or Mutianyu. If you want to savor one of this world’s greatest travel experiences at a leisurely pace and almost alone, go to Jinshanling and/or Simatai. Just don’t tell too many others or the crowds will follow.

If you go. . .

We stayed at the Peninsula Palace Hotel, considered one of Beijing’s finest. The hotel made our travel arrangements for the day excursion to Jinshanling and Simatai. We specified that we didn’t need a guide, only a car and driver, which cost us $180 for the day.

The trip takes approximately 2½ hours each way, depending on traffic, with about 1½ hours spent each at Jinshanling and at Simatai plus another hour at Juyongguan. It’s possible to reach Jinshanling and Simatai on one’s own, but the trip is long. We wanted to spend our time at the Great Wall, not traveling to it.

The Peninsula Palace Hotel (for reservations, call 212/903-3073, e-mail or visit, located a 5-minute cab ride from the Forbidden City at 8 Goldfish Lane, Wangfujing, is part of the exclusive Peninsula group of hotels. It is consistently voted by travel magazines and their readers as one of the top hotels in Beijing. With reason.

Its guest rooms are exquisitely decorated, with many rooms offering plasma TV sets and DVD/CD players. Club Level rooms have use of a spacious lounge serving buffet breakfast, afternoon tea with cakes and fruit, and evening cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, all complimentary. Our duplex suite, with two full bathrooms and three plasma TVs (one in the master bathroom), was the ultimate in understated elegance.

Rack rates start at $350, but inquire about special offers as we did.

For great dining, we didn’t venture far. Two of Beijing’s best restaurants are right in the Peninsula Palace. Huang Ting, built to resemble the courtyard of a Chinese nobleman’s house, serves superb Cantonese cuisine, including dim sum at lunchtime.

Jing, recently named one of “the top 75 hottest tables in the world,” features a blend of Western and Asian cuisine prepared in open kitchens. Of our seven nights at the Peninsula Palace, we dined out only once. The other six nights — three dinners at Jing (I love watching chefs scurrying around cooking), two at Huang Ting and one night ordering room service (to watch “The Last Emperor” — what else? — on one of our plasma TVs).