Photo Essay: How to Climb the Great Wall of China

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If you're planning a trip to China in the foreseeable future, you're probably also planning a visit to the country's biggest star: The Great Wall.

The Great Wall is the most-visited attraction in the massive country of China, and when you first catch a glimpse of it snaking along atop the hillsides like some sleeping serpent or dormant dragon, it's not difficult to understand why.

The Great Wall – really a series of walls connected together – was originally built to protect the northern China border from invasion. It was built, rebuilt, and then restored over many centuries, and is estimated to stretch over 5,500 miles in total length.

I visited the Great Wall in 2007 during my college marching band's performance tour to China. We visited the most popular restored portion of the wall, Badaling, roughly 50 miles northwest of Beijing. The Badaling section was built during the Ming Dynasty, and was the first part of the Great Wall to open to tourists in 1957. These days, it sees millions of visitors per year.

My Great Wall experience was unique compared to most. Not only was I visiting the world wonder with my college marching band, but we actually performed a concert ON the Great Wall. I crashed my cymbals to everything from traditional Chinese songs to Kelly Clarkson's “Since U Been Gone” as a crowd of curious tourists from around the world grew around us.

Yup, that's me in a band uniform on the Great Wall!

After our performance, we had a couple of hours to explore the Wall on our own. How would I sum up the Great Wall? Three words: Long. Steep. Mezmerizing.

Though there is no “right” or “wrong” way to climb the Wall, there are certainly some things to keep in mind before your trek.

How to climb the Great Wall of China

Before you go, perfect reciting the phrase “Bu yao” (pronounced “boo yauw”), which means, literally, “No want.” You can use this phrase with all the pushy vendors at the entrance to the Wall, who will try to sell you everything from T-shirts to DVDs to artistic drawings. My advice? Just say no. Believe me, you don't want to be lugging anything extra with you on this climb!

The crowd pre-performance, including some vendors.

Be sure to dress for the weather, but wear layers if you're visiting in the winter months. It may seem chilly on the Wall at first, but I guarantee you'll be breaking a sweat once you reach some of those watch towers. Bring some water, too, while you're at it.

Stretch out those calf muscles before your climb. Better yet, do a warm up. Trust me.

Yes, your calves will be screaming.

Watch your step. Even here on the restored Badaling section, the footing can be questionable. The steps are never the same height two stairs in a row, and the fact that millions of people have climbed this section means that some of the stone has been worn away completely, leaving odd dips and holes just waiting for you to sprain your ankle in them.

As you climb, try to imagine this site hundreds of years ago, when soldiers would actually patrol sections of it. (Those guys must have been in SHAPE!)

Head up to some of the highest watch towers you can see. Along the way, even though you'll be paying attention to where you're putting your feet and trying not to pass out from the steep climb, make sure to take in your surroundings. They're pretty awesome. See how far you can trace the wall snaking off into the distance.

Once you reach the highest watch tower, be sure to spend some time there — both catching your breath and taking some artsy photos.

On the way back down, be careful not to fall!

Every now and then, turn around and look back at where you came from. Now you can really appreciate the steepness of those steps.

Be sure to get at least one cheesy photo of yourself as a souvenir. Believe me, Mom and Dad will want to see it.

And, as the light begins to fade behind the mountains and you descend to the bottom of the Wall once more, make sure to get one last photo of the majestic Great Wall as it curves off into the distance.

And when you get home, be sure to cross it off your bucket list. Because, let's face it, who doesn't want to climb the Great Wall of China??

Have you climbed the Great Wall? If so, what was your experience like? And, if not, is it on your bucket list?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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43 Comments on “Photo Essay: How to Climb the Great Wall of China

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  1. Great tips all around! What a cool experience to actually play with your marching band on the wall. It looks like you had the same chilly weather that we had. Your photos really capture just how steep the wall is. This section is certainly more busy than the Mutianyu section that we visited, but I would think that both sections are special in their own different ways. I wish I had the time to do both while we were there. Cheers.

      Thanks, guys! It was indeed a pretty surreal experience to play a concert ON the Wall. Sometimes I still don’t quite believe that happened.

    Sadly I missed the Great Wall (and Beiing) entirely when I was in China. Spent 2 moths traveling around the southwest. Someday I’ll get there… Nice pics and tips!

      Ah, too bad you missed it! How did you like the southwest of China?

      Hopefully someday you’ll make it to Beijing! It’s an interesting city.

        I LOVED Southwest China and spent 2 months there! It’s such a fantastically diverse region. I try to focus on smaller towns rather than hitting the giant metropolises.

        I definitely know I’ll make it to Beijing sometime cuz one of the things on my bucket list is the Trans-Mongolian railroad!

          I only went to Beijing and Shanghai, which was fine (since I was only in China for a week), but I would have liked to see some of the countryside, too.

          I think I preferred Beijing to Shanghai, just because I felt like it was almost similar to Rome in that you can find a really modern building sitting right next to some sort of ancient structure. I love when cities have that amount of history to them.

            Absolutely! That’s one of the great things about cities! Interesting as to your thoughts about Beijing v Shanghai. I left from Shanghai so I made it there (and wasn’t an enormous fan). My first top was Hong Kong…now THAT is an impressive city!

    What an amazing place to perform!!!!!! I love the GW so much I went twice and would go again in a heartbeat.

      We also performed on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, and at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Talk about some once-in-a-lifetime experiences! I would definitely go back to the Great Wall, as well. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to!

    Great photos! China isn’t high on my list of places to go overall, but climbing the Great Wall sounds amazing.

      Honestly, China was never high on my list, either. But actually going there kind of changed my mind. I think I’d definitely go back someday. But it IS kind of an overwhelming country, for sure. Especially the big cities… they’re so HUGE! China clearly has a “go big or go home” mentality. That, and more than a billion people.

    I love the great wall we did the junshaling section – didn’t really meet anyone apart from people running a random marathon, made me feel extremely out of shape.
    Climbing the great wall is easily one of our favourite days so far since traveling 🙂

      I remember reading your Great Wall post! I wish I could have seen one of the less-restored, less-touristed sections, but I’ll take what I can get! Hopefully I’ll make it back to China some day.

    Great photos. The great wall has to be one of those places that people must visit before they die. The amazing man power that went into building that wall is unbelievable.

      I know, right? Just to imagine the (literal) blood, sweat and tears that went into building the Wall… it’s pretty crazy! Like I said, I feel like it’s probably on most people’s bucket lists. But I think it deserves to be!

    I made it here in August, 2007 and did the same Badaling section you did I think. When I was there, it was HOT in China, and the climb definitely took a lot out of us. I joined up with a small group of people from my hotel and we did the tour together…eight of us started and only three of us made it to the top! Definitely th worst part for me was that each step was different…no way to get into a rhythm as you climb. Definitely worth it though! I just wish I had better photos of the whole thing…

      I’m actually really glad that it was a bit chilly when I did the climb. Plus, I think the cooler weather helps with the smog… Glad that you pushed through to the top though! It’s definitely worth it, in my opinion.

    Is it on our bucket list? For suh… we won’t get there until the very end of our RTW trip though.

      It’s a great bucket list item. What a great thing to save for the end of your RTW, too! I’m sure you’ll love it.

    2012! It’s been on my whole fam’s bucket list for nearly 30 years. We are finally, hopefully, going to make it next year…

    What a cool experience! I would have died if I went all the way to China and then saw an American marching band on the Great Wall! I’m sure you made some people’s day–and confused plenty of others!

      Hahaha, yeah, the whole marching band thing was a pretty surreal experience. But it’s definitely a story to tell! I think we confused a lot of people, though. But the Chinese loved us!

    NiHao, Amanda, you captured some great angles on your climb that reflect how steep it really is! I love the extreme angle photos the best. The day I was there (in MAY) it was FREEZING when we reached the first tower! I bought one of those “I Climbed the Great Wall of China” Sweatshirts and even managed to negotiate the price down a bit. I was never so happy to get a warm cup of coffee at the Starbucks as you enter! Not to be too “American” but was craving Starbucks twice in my 10-day trip to China. BTW-Did you know that China has more Starbucks locations than the USA? Little known fact. 🙂

      Ni hao, Marianne! I’m glad you liked the photos. I would have liked it if it had been a bit clearer… but it was still a great day for the Wall! I climbed in November, and it was chilly but pleasant. And the steep climb definitely warmed us up fast!

      I had no idea China has more Starbucks (Starbuckses?) than the US. Makes sense, though, with all the people they have there!

    Boo ya means no want? Now that made my day!

      Hahaha. Welllll, it’s pronounced a *little* differently… but close enough!

    It’s definitely on my bucket list! I hope to go to China sometime soon, as one of my best friends is moving to Shanghai – a perfect occasion to go and discover the far east.

      Definitely a good excuse to go over there! Shanghai is cool, too, but if you want to see a lot of the ancient-meets-modern, Beijing is where it’s at! I hope you make it to China soon!

    Great tips! Sometimes people don’t realize just how much walking is required at some tourist sights. Have you been to the Castle of the Moors in Sintra? Whoo! It’s a doozy.

      Thanks, Kim! Yes, some sites are definitely more of a workout than you’d expect!

      And no, I’ve never been to Sintra. But that castle looks awesome! Also love how you used Monty Python music in that video… awesome!

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