China marks the first stop on our 60×60 tour (60 countries by the time Kim turns 60, in case you’re wondering). To mark the start of the journey and our birthdays in style, we decided to spend our birthdays taking a Great Wall of China tour.
Here’s a short video of our day:
Kim and I have seen a lot of the world’s great monuments, buildings, ruins, cities, rivers, and famous places. The Great Wall of China Tour exceeded all of our expectations. It really takes your breath away when you see this massive structure in the distance on a steep mountain ridge.
The effort and energy to get tons upon tons of rock, brick, and mortar up a steep mountain that no one in their right mind would attack. It’s an imposing sight now, one can only imagine how many would-be attackers were turned back just by the sight of it.
Then there’s the organization and supplies necessary to station thousands of troop along the Great Wall. And this wasn’t just for a few weeks, or months, or even years, they did this for centuries.
The Best Great Wall of China Tour
I’ve been able to visit several sections of the Great Wall and Jinshanling and Gubeikou sections have been the most spectacular. Our very best tip is to choose a Great Wall of China Tour that fits your needs.
For a little more than $100 USD a person, you can have a private car and driver, and a very well informed tour guide who speaks excellent English (a rarity) all day. Normally, we aren’t “tour” people. We like to see and do things our way. At the end of the day, however, choosing a Great Wall of China Tour was doing it on our terms.
The reason we chose this Great Wall of China Tour is that it included two sections and a sunset. Kim likes to chase sunsets, after all.
Here is a link to the exact tour we chose: Private Great Wall of China Tour at Sunset
Our guide, Tony Son, picked us up at our hotel at 10 a.m. (right on time!) and dropped us off around 7 p.m.
The only drawback to our Great Wall of China Tour is we didn’t get the promised sunset shot because the pollution levels were high. Although, Tony’s personality made up for it. It turned out to be a really fun and engaging day – a real plus since it was Kim’s birthday.
His knowledge was priceless. We aren’t big tour people, but sometimes having someone with the knowledge around really enhances the experience. We learned a bunch of details that we would have normally missed out on. Specifically, such as where to find the stamped bricks, something we would have completely missed.
Additionally, this tour includes lunch at a local farmer’s “restaurant” – a definite plus. I use quotes because it is more of a family’s home with an enclosed patio with tables. The food was excellent. Kim, who dislikes tofu, loved this family’s tofu soup and of course, it was a mom and pop kitchen. We ate far too much because it tasted so good.
The History of the Great Wall of China
One of the Seven Great Wonders of the World, the Great Wall of China is the universal symbol of China.
The Great Wall is not a single unit nor was it built at one time. Construction began in the 7th Century BCE and ended 1878 – a span of 2,500 years.
Throughout history, China’s territory expanded and contracted. Many Great Walls emerged to reflect the changing borders. This results in multiple Great Walls paralleling each other and other oddities such as sections in the center of modern China.
About 2,200 years ago, many disparate sections were connected under China’s first Emperor, Qin. Qin is also famous for the construction of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’ An.
The various walls which make up the Great Wall stretch East to West from Shanhaiguan at the Bohai sea to the Dunhuang in the Kumtag Desert, a distance of 21,000 km (13,000 miles). Dunhuang was considered “the door to the Silk Road”.
Construction of the Great Wall
The Great Wall consists of different materials because it was built over a long time span and in different environments. The earliest sections and those constructed in desert areas were made primarily of compacted dirt and in some sections stacked rock. Later, with the invention of mortar, bricks were used.
The Chinese have always been big on quality control and to make sure each brick met construction standards they were stamped with the manufacture date, the factory it was made in, and the individual who made the brick. You can still see these stamps on many of the bricks.
The Great Wall takes your breath away when you see it, but I find this kind of detail and connection to another person through the centuries equally amazing.
The Great Wall of China, Jinshanling
Our Great Wall of China tour started at the Jinshanling section. Jinshanling (Jin = gold, shan = mountain, ling = peak) is a newer portion of the Great Wall.
Construction took place about 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This section of the Great Wall has two parts, a restored part and one that is not. Both parts are walkable, although some diversions are necessary.
It’s the place to see the authentic crumbling Great Wall and the restored Great Wall, what it looked like in its heyday. The Jinshanling section has 67 watchtowers each about 150 meters (500 feet) apart and if you want a strenuous walk or run, you can traverse the entire section. Tony, our guide, said it takes about 6 hours to walk.
The north side of the wall was, in the past, Mongolia and the south side China. The people living north of the Wall are to this day ethnically Mongolian. Today, all of this area is in Hebei Province (He- river, Bei- north) ~700 km (~450 miles) from the current Mongolian border.
The Great Wall of China, Gubeikou
The Gubeikou (Gu = ancient , bei = north, kou = gate) section of the Great Wall is about twice as old as the Jinshanling section and has not been restored. Its construction began in the Northern Qi Dynasty around 550 BCE and is various states of ruin.
Here there is both less and more to see. There is less of the wall due to erosion, but more history to see because of it. You can see the different construction techniques used over the centuries.
Repairs to Gubeikou began in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was clear where the original rammed dirt section abuts the unshaped rock and brick sections. If you like ruins and using your imagination to reconstruct the past, you will love Gubeikou.
The walk to Gubeikou is steep but short or, as previously mentioned, six hours from Jinshanling over the Great Wall.
More Great Wall of China Tours
Other tours we considered when trying to decide on which tour to take are:
- Small Group: Forbidden City and Mutianyu Great Wall of China Day Tour
- Explore the ancient Great Wall of China in Three Days
- Private Tour: Great Wall of China at Juyongguan and Ming Tombs from Beijing