This post is part of I <3 BJ, a Departful series by Alex Rathy highlighting some of the great spots in and around Beijing, and their unique history.


Words like “epic,” “legendary,” and “awesome” get tossed around pretty flippantly these days; from suave, womanizing TV characters with overly dramatic pauses to annoying people on Facebook who go out drinking and take hundreds of staged photos in which they try really hard to look like they’re having a good time, these words have been co-opted en masse, hijacked and robbed of their original meaning, true power diluted down to a shot of Jagermeister.

With that said, it’s hard to think of another word to describe the Great Wall of China other than “awesome.” One look (but not from space!) at the structure is enough to leave one completely in awe, full of wonder and amazement at the ingenuity and spirit of mankind and quite likely with a big, shit-eating grin that will take days to wipe off.

This is the feeling that overtook me as I gazed upon The Great Wall at Jinshanling. It was the first time in my life when I was truly and deeply moved by something, overcome by a mix of emotions that words could simply never hope to do justice. It made me feel at once both very small and very big – small as a lone person traipsing along its impressive expanse as Hebei and Inner Mongolia stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see, and big as someone connected to all people, people who had begun building the Wall over 2700 years earlier. Their blood, sweat and tears (and quite often their very bodies) were as much a part of the construction as the stones, wood, brick and earth they used, making the Wall feel like a living organism hiding the histories of countless who will be forever connected to it and all people who step upon it.

In actuality, The Great Wall is a vast and intricate series of walls that runs from Lop Lake in the west to Shanhaiguan in the east, stretching over 8000 kilometers mostly along China’s traditional northern border. Started as a series of fortifications during the Warring States Period as the states of Qin, Zhao, Yan, Wei, Qi and Zhongshan sought to strengthen their borders, the focus was turned outward when Emperor Qin Shi Huang conquered the opposing states and unified China in 221 BC. After that time, the internal walls were destroyed and new walls were built (and the old northern walls repaired) to protect against raids from the northern Xiongnu people. Very little of the original Qin Walls survive to this day, as erosion and time took their toll on the rammed earth structures.

It was in the 14th century under the Ming Dynasty that the Great Wall concept was re-kindled, and the modern Walls that most are familiar with were built. Considerably stronger (stones and bricks were used rather than earth) and more elaborate, the Ming Walls were indeed made to keep out those Goddamn Mongorians, who were always tryna tear down their Shitty Wall. Later, the Ming Walls helped hold off intrusions by the Manchus at the beginning of the 17th Century for almost 50 years, before they broke through and marched to Beijing, establishing the Qing Dynasty which lasted until 1912 and the birth of the modern Republic of China.

The Great Wall at Jinshanling, 125 kilometers northeast of Beijing in Luanping County, Hebei Province, was started in 1570 and is one of the Walls constructed during the Ming Dynasty. Connected to the Simitai Great Wall, Jinshanling is approximately 10.5 kilometers long and contains 5 passes and 67 towers. Considered by many to be one of the best (and most naturally) preserved sections of the Wall, Jinshanling takes visitors up and down steep inclines and through dark and hauntingly beautiful towers, where one can look out on the hilly northern Chinese countryside a great distance on clear days. Usually, those visiting Jinshanling can continue their trek on to Simitai and experience the Stairway to Heaven; unfortunately, Simitai has been closed for repairs for the past few years and is not scheduled to re-open until sometime in 2013 or 2014.

Jinshanling is not for the faint of heart; missing rocks and smashed pieces make footwork tricky, and the severe ups and downs require an above-average level of fitness. Nevertheless, its distance from Beijing and higher difficulty factor mean that, thankfully, it hasn’t been overdeveloped a la Badaling – on good days, you can find yourself alone with just your thoughts, away from large groups, vendors and other riff-raff. A handful of souvenir shops, one restaurant at the entrance and a dozen or so old ladies selling water and other cold drinks are the only things connecting you to the modern world. If you walk on ahead far enough and close your eyes for a moment, you can almost feel what it must have been like to be here hundreds of years ago. It’s a feeling I can only describe as…

…wait for it…

…awesome.

How to get to Jinshanling

There are several options to get to Jinshanling from Beijing. The easiest would be to ask your hotel or hostel about a package trip. Almost all places of lodging run trips to Jinshanling daily, providing you with a chartered bus there and back, an English-speaking guide, and lunch at the restaurant after your hike. For the more adventurous, you can try to negotiate with a taxi driver to take you, wait for you and bring you home (much more expensive, but perhaps not so bad if you go with 4-5 people to split costs and could give you more time to explore) or do some research and ask the staff of your place of lodging about how to get there by public/local buses (not easy, but could be a lot of fun if you love the process of travel itself).

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Alex Rathy

Alex Rathy

Alex is a writer, ESL teacher, baseball enthusiast and Hunter S. Thompson fanatic currently based in Sydney, Australia. He has previously lived in Canada, the U.S., South Korea and China and has traveled extensively throughout Asia. He enjoys hiking, spicy food, dance parties in the jungle, questionable hairdos, Vonnegut novels and has been known to appreciate a good hammock on occasion.

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.

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