For me, the Great Wall of China exists as two separate entities – the touristy, restored sections and the more authentic, un-restored parts. As I am sure many of you will agree, I enjoy the latter much more. Having spent time on the all-singing all-dancing restored sections, I was pretty underwhelmed by the obviously in-congruent new brick and the crumbling mortar. As such I decided to find ways to explore the remoter parts, the areas which still carry an imprint of the impressive history enacted on their bricks. In the following guide I will tell you my three favourite unrestored sections, as well as providing directions how to get to them. Please note, some of these sections are not officially open to tourists. As such I urge you to think carefully about your own safety and the impact on these sections of the wall from tourism before you go. I’m not saying don’t go – after all I did and I loved it. Just give it some consideration and make sure you follow all the usual respectful codes of behaviour – don’t drop litter/food, try not to disrupt any brickwork etc.
Favourite Section#1 – Simatai
For me, this section was the perfect juxtaposition between old wall and new, where section of – surprisingly tastefully – restored sections run seamlessly into old crumbling parts. In this first picture I am standing on a new section, with the part in front of me having almost completely collapsed – and anyone who knows me knows how I adore this juxtaposition of old and new life.
Unfortunately for us, when we walked from our amazing guesthouse (details below) and reached the wall the gate on our side was locked. Given that the wall continues famously for many hundreds of miles, we didn’t fancy our chances of being able to walk around it. We therefore had to resort to a slightly unusual access method – which I really wouldn’t recommend imitating!
Once recovered from the indignity of emerging onto the wall like a worm coming out of the soil, we were rewarded with stunning panoramic views of old and new wall and the light from the sunset highlighting everything in a soft orange light. We were on a raised part of the wall, looking down on an ancient, untouched section that dipped down across the valley. If we turned 180 degrees we were looking up at a newly restored section which was serviced by a cable car and after sunset was lit up by strobe lighting. For me, this was the perfect meeting of old world and new – and despite the cable car and the lights was actually one of the better restored sections I’ve visited.
How to get there
From Beijing use the underground to get to Wangjing Xizhan bus station （望京西站）. To get there take subway line 13 to Wangjing Xizhan (望京西站) and use exit B. Walk east 200 meters. You can also take subway line 15 to Wangjing Xizhan. After exiting the station go south 150 meters.
Once there, take the bus to the Jinshanling Service Area （金山岭服务区). It is on the right after entering the bus station and the name is written in English. Buses leave Beijing approximately every 30-45 minutes between 7 AM and 4:30 PM. They return schedule is similar (both time & frequency). The price is around 32 RMB (21 if you have a bus card). This is subject to change. The trip takes around 1 hour 40 minutes, depending on traffic. Pickup and drop off at the Jinshanling Service Area, as well as the ride to the Great Wall at Jinshanling （金山岭景区）from the guesthouse is included in the price of the room (see below).
Where to stay
Simatai Guest House/Dongpo Restaurant. This place costs 300RMB per person and this included collection and drop off at the Jinshanling service area as well as dinner, breakfast and transport to a really cool section of the old wall on the morning of the second day. For us they provided breakfast at 3.30am so we could be there for sunrise, and then waiting for 4/5 hours whilst we wandered around and took photos. After this they even took us for second breakfast (which we paid for) as the owner stopped to pick up some food and we were hungry! Can’t think of a better way to see the wall than this.
It can be difficult to contact them as they don’t have online booking and don’t speak English. We found the best way was to get our hotel in Beijing to call for us and make the arrangements. Advanced booking isn’t really necessary as they are seldom full.
Favourite Section #2 – Gubeikou
Since much of the wall around Simatai that was previously accessible directly from the Guesthouse is closed for refurbishment (rumour is they are building a big hotel…), the kind people who run the place will now drive you a fair way to this unrestored and wild section of the great wall. Ticket price is 25RMB and is the only thing not included in your trip. Since we wanted to be on the wall for sunrise this meant breakfast at 3am and leaving the guesthouse with all our bags at 3.30. But I think the photos show you that it was so worthwhile! We had the entire wall to ourselves, stretching for miles into the distance. It is an untouched section which dips down to meet the forest below in sections. But due to its remote location, it is well preserved. There are multiple guard towers like the one above where you can peek through the arched window or climb on top to view the mind-blowing vistas.
This is a very remote section and difficult to get to by public transport, unless you are willing to walk for hours. I would recommend doing it with this small guesthouse as it is easy to do and the intimate nature of the family you will stay with means the ‘package’ only adds to the experience. However, if you don’t want to stay, you could hire a taxi from Jinshanling service area to go there and back in a day trip from Beijing (though you might be struggling for time to get back for the 4.30pm last return bus).
Favourite Section # 3 – HuangHuaCheng
This third, and in no way least, section was probably the strangest we visited. The main part of the wall at HuangHuaCheng is gaudily restored with modern grey brick, crumbling mortar and a fairground feel around the man-made lake. The village that has grown up around it is full of make-shift motel-like hostels and small but good restaurants. It has a bizarre ‘thrown-up to meet the tourists’ vibe, but certainly when we were there, tourists were few and far between.
Take a small detour from the main gates, through the car park and up a small track going up hill (turning a blind eye to the ‘closed to tourist’ signs if your conscience allows you) and you will be on one of the best sections of the wall I have seen. Scrambling up over piles of rubble, using ropes left by previous visitors to balance on precipitous ascents and emerging onto a (slightly crumbling) guard tower to gaze upon the expanses of wall – old and shrouded in mystery on one side, new and covered in tourist ants on the other. Magical. Once again we had the whole wall to ourselves in the two hours we were there, and met only one local out for a walk in our descent.
Please note, this is not suitable footwear for climbing this section of the wall. I was lured out of bed at 3.50am with the promise of a ‘quick stroll around the village’ to watch the sunrise. But when faced with the prospect of climbing this wild section of history, who can resist?!
Getting there and away
Take the 916 Express service from Dongzhimen Bus Terminal out to Huairou Station (12RMB; around 1 hour, traffic depending; runs 5.50am-7.50pm; last bus back to the city is 6.50pm); from there, take the H21 local bus service (7RMB; around 70 minutes; runs 5.40am-6.20pm) to its terminus – the Huanghuacheng car park. The last bus back to Huairou leaves at 7.20pm.
As a general rule, H buses are infrequent and can be unreliable, so taking a car from Huairou is a fair option; you will receive a flurry offers on exiting the bus at Huairou station, but do not pay more than 100RMB for a round trip. We waited around an hour for the bus from Huairou, but got one straight away on the return journey. Please note – we got told to get off the bus early on the way there, resulting in a long walk (though we did discover a great restaurant so silver lining!) – the stop you want is the very last one in the bus station.
Where to stay
The hotels in HuangHuaCheng are much of a muchness. A quick look on a booking site and you will find somewhere to suit your taste and budget, from a cheap hotel like we used to a plush 5 star villa with spa and pool. We personally stayed in the HuangHuanChen Beijing Waterside hotel which was great. Really cheap, owner was lovely and the breakfast (15RMB per person) was delicious. It had a nice courtyard garden where they grow their own vegetables. I would recommend this for a budget traveller, but I’m sure the other places are similar.
Hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful. Do let me know your thoughts – have you been to any of these places, or are you planning to visit? If you use this guide to explore do let me know how you get on!