We were in Beijing in the middle of summer and on the 11th of August it was expected to reach 34ºC. So our group decided to go hiking up and down the Great Wall for a few hours in the middle of the day :).
I guess I should really say walking Part Of The Ming Great Wall because there isn't really “a” Great Wall, there's a number of sections in various places, which were built at different times by different kingdoms trying to keep out different other kingdoms or rebels or hordes. Most linked up together with natural barriers like cliffs and hills into a line, but those lines were in quite different places in the different eras.
Almost none of the first wall that would be thought of as the Great Wall, which was built by Qin, first emperor of China, not only because that was a very long time ago but also because it was mostly just a rammed earth wall, and so relatively quickly eroded.
We went out to Jinshanling, which is part of the Ming Dynasty's Great Wall, which is probably what most of us would think of as “the” Great Wall. It is big (recent discoveries extend the claimed length to well over 6000km), made of stone and brick, and comparatively modern, the Ming Dynasty running from 1368 to 1644 CE – construction of the Jinshanling section started around 1570 CE.
The sections of the wall nearer Beijing have been considerably restored and so are not 100% original, which in addition to being covered in inconsiderate tourists (graffiting and carving into the bricks) are total tourist traps (do you really need to luge back down at the Great Wall?).
Annoyingly, the development is slowly progressing outwards as companies get the rights to take over and “do up” the wall, meaning as the years go by you have to go further and further out to find some real stuff.
Jinshanling was worth the ~2h drive, with relatively few tourists, a manageable number of annoying hawkers, and numerous stretches of genuine, broken-down old sections that make hiking along it just hard enough to be interesting. It is not suitable for non-agile people but not difficult if you watch where you put your feet.
The hardest exercise is right at the start, when you climb up the hill to the ridge that the wall runs along. This is probably a good thing because it's a good path through head-high foliage and so relatively sheltered from the sun.
We were already very hot by the time we got up there – but a friend who'd been in winter said that it was snowing. So you will need to take the seasons into account in your planning.
At the last minute Luther and I invested in a pair of those slightly silly conical hats, and it turns out they are awesome – much less hot than a regular fabric hat. The bamboo weave seems a good breathable material, but more importantly the ring that sits on your head provides a standoff keeping the conical bit away a couple of centimeters, which lets air circulate around the inside – and that is gold.
On the top it's very exposed and although the humidity seemed to diminish the direct sun it was pretty hot. But this section had a lot more guard towers than I had expected, so in fact you didn't have to go far at a time before there was a shady, cool place to rest. (I was armed with a silly hat and I just wanted to keep going.)
Until I went there I had no idea how 3D the wall is – following the ridgeline means it goes up and down continually, and also makes for epic photos.
(Most of the towers there are in pretty good condition, not really broken down except that you can't get up to the top because the ladders are gone. Some though are ruins, with walls collapsed and the upper stories gone entirely. There are signs in English in each telling you which one you're in and dating it.)
As well as being up and down a lot it's also nothing like a straight line. There are side spurs leading off from T-junctions, and the part we walked along curled almost completely back on itself in an S curve.
Another thing I was surprised by was how green the hills around it are. Some of the area down the valleys was cultivated by local farmers, but most of it was unmanaged bush and conifer forest, which was nice – good change from our previous stops in crowded Xi'an and Beijing.
It definitely lived up to expectations. Hire a driver to get out there rather than a package bus tour (…of the tea shops), wear walking shoes, take fluids (the team sweated a LOT), buy more there (or even better, go in spring or autumn when the temperatures are a bit more under control).
I didn't realise until I looked at the map but by the time you've got to Jinshanling you're more than half way to Chengde, which is another popular attraction. We didn't have time to go there, but would have liked to – would be cool to work that into an itinerary if you can.
After our days in Beijing and at the Great Wall we went far south to Huangshan.