Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China can be visited at many places along its length of several thousand kilometers. Its condition ranges from excellent to ruined, and ease of accessibility varies straightforward to quite difficult. Note that different sections also each have their own admission fees, e.g. if you want to hike from Jinshaling to Simatai then you probably have to pay twice.
The Great Wall, as we know it, is actually a series of several walls built at different times by different emperors. The categories below are non-exhaustive, and all refer to wall systems rather than single monolithic walls.
First Great Wall
First Great Wall was ordered built in 214 BC by Qin Shih Huangti after he had finished consolidating his rule and creating a unified China for the first time. The wall was designed to stop raids by the Xiongnu raiders from the north. 500,000 laborers were used during the 32-year building period to create the First Great Wall.
Although the wall worked at keeping out enemies, it did nothing to stop internal pressures which lead to a regime change in 206 BC and the new leadership of the Han Dynasty. The first Han emperor, Gaozu, was quick to see the benefits of the wall against the raiders and ordered more wall to stretch out as far as Zhaoxiang, Gansu.
Second Great Wall
Over 70 years later, the Han Dynasty were still fighting the raiders since the Great Wall had been left to deteriorate and the raiders had breached it in several places. In 130 BC, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty embarked on a program of extending, rebuilding and fortifying the original First Great Wall. After the emperor finished adding more regions under his rule in 127 BC, he ordered a major expansion program that created the Second Great Wall, outposts in Zhangye, Wuwei, Jiuquan, Dunhuang and Yumenguan in Gansu and Lopnor and other outposts in Xinjiang. The Great Wall was extended down the Hexi Corridor through which the Silk Road traders would travel on the way to and from the West.
When the Han Dynasty fell apart into the three kingdoms of the Wei, Shu and Wu, the northern Wei kingdom decided to continue maintaining the Great Wall so that they could keep out the Rouran and Qidan nomads from the northern plains. Despite the constant maintenance, the Wall kept being breached by the Rouran nomads. Additional walls were built inside and outside of the Great Wall by the different kingdoms. Eventually the Wei kingdom merged with the unifying Sui kingdom and was overthrown by the Tang Dynasty in 618 AD.
Nothing more was done to the Great Wall until the reign of the Liao and Song dynasties. The Liao Dynasty controlled the north while the Song Dynasty controlled the south. The Liao were troubled mainly by a tribe in the northeast region of China called the Nuzhen (known as Manchu in Mandarin) so they built defensive walls along the Heilong and Songhua rivers. These failed to stop the raiders from coming south.
Third Great Wall
In 1115, the Nuzhen established the Jin Dynasty and since they were from the north themselves, understood that the Mongols were right behind them. The Jin emperor ordered the construction of a Third Great Wall to be built in Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The walls built had the characteristics of having ditches running along the walls full length.
Despite the impressive fortifications built, the Mongols overthrew the Jin in 1276 and established the Yuan Dynasty. During the Yuan dynasties rule, the Wall fell into deep disrepair and in 1368, the Chinese Ming Dynasty walked right in and took control.
The Ming Dynasty, after getting rid of the Mongols, determined that they would never be taken again by outsiders. The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu, re-established manning of the Great Wall, fortresses and garrisons were built along the wall, and the fort at Jiayuguan was built in 1372 at the western end of the wall. The second Ming emperor, Yongle, turned his focus outward from the empire and sent out explorers and diplomats into the big, wide world.
Fourth Great Wall
It was not until the battle of Tumu against the Mongols that renewed interest in reinforcing the Great Wall occurred. Between 1569 and 1583, the most well-known parts of the Great Wall were built, the Fourth Great Wall. The reinforced wall managed to repel Mongols several times.
The Manchu retook China in 1644 and formed the Qing Dynasty. From this point on, the Wall slowly started to fade away while stone and rocks were taken from the Wall for building projects and homes. The Cultural Revolution definitely took its toll out on the wall when local people and local governments were encouraged to help dismantle the Great Wall.
It was not until 1984 that President Deng Xiaoping started a restoration and protection project of the Great Wall. In 1987, the Great Wall was declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The geography of Northern China ranges from mountainous in northeast Liaoning and Hebei provinces, through the grasslands of Ningxia, semi-arid desert of China's loess plateau, and borders the sand dunes of the Tengger desert of Inner Mongolia. It is the area around Hebei and Beijing that most people associate with the Great Wall, but most of the Great Wall lies in the desert regions of the country.
Flora and fauna
Chinese wildlife is diverse, considering all of the different habitats available along the length of the Great Wall. From the rare Siberian tiger in the northeast to the protected and rare Giant Panda which lives in southern Gansu, Sichuan, and Shaanxi, you never know what you might see on a given day.
Wild mammals can be found in the north, such as the Manchurian weasel, brown and black bears, northern pika, and mandarin vole. Deer species include Sitka deer, roe deer and the long-sought-after spotted deer, which has many uses in Chinese medicine.
The birds of the region include various pheasants, black grouse, pine grosbeak, various woodpeckers, mandarin duck, and the fairy pitta, a rare migratory bird. Cranes are especially revered in China. Common, demoiselle, white-napes, hooded, and red-crowned cranes all breed in China.
You can find many tonic plants along the Great Wall, such as the rare ginseng (Panax ginseng). Chinese medicine has had many thousands of years to discover and use these tonic plants for the benefit of mankind.
Northern China has all four seasons and they arrive with a vengeance. Summer and winter temperatures normally reach extremes of over 40 degrees Celsius (105+ °F) and -20 degrees Celsius (-4 °F) respectively.
You may use the Beijing Transportation Card (Yikatong) while going to the Great Wall : see the details about the card on in the Beijing "Get around" section.
Badaling and Juyongguan
Reach the bus departure point by exiting from Exit A of Jishuitan subway station, Line 2. Walk east for 450 meters, around 5 minutes, past all bus stops until you reach the Deshengmen arrow tower on your left. Bus 877 leaves exactly North (behind) of the tower. The station is right behind the stop for bus 919.
Ignore any scammers that may approach you as you walk to the bus. Be wary of men in blue jackets posing as transit workers. They will walk all the way up to the bus door (and in front of real transit workers) to direct you to an overpriced shuttle or tax so you must buy a ticket on the bus. ¥12.
The train has very large viewing windows, allowing you breathtaking views of the scenery and the Great Wall even before you arrive at Badaling. Upon arrival at Badaling station (most passengers alight at this stop) make a left turn and walk 800 m to the Great Wall entrance.
Update July 2018: The North Railway Station is under construction and the S2 trains leave from Beijing Huangtudian instead. See Train Beijing-Badaling schedule. There are a lot of persistent taxi drivers who will tell you that there is neither bus nor train to Badaling (or that if you take the next one you will have only very little time there). The Public Bus subsection above is still accurate.
Get to Mutianyu is a little bit more complicated, but if you follow these directions, you shouldn't have problems arriving there. To get there, you can take the 916快 bus from Dongzhimen bus station which you can get by followig the signs in the train station (there is two 916 buses, be sure to take the express bus). After around one hour on the bus you need to stop in 怀柔北大街 (there is a screen in the bus that shows the different stops, you can figure it out looking at the letters on the screen or asking the driver). Once you are in that stop, you have to cross the street and take the H23 or H24 bus to 慕田峪环岛 (4 RMB), you can also take a taxi (50RMB) or minivan (5 RMB to 50 RMB), but the prices will depend on your bargain skills and the amount of people willing to take the taxi or minivan with you.
You can also stay on 916 until the final stop, and then hire a minivan from there, but it will be more expensive.
Be aware that it is possible that taxi drivers in league with the bus driver (who may be on the bus from Dongzhimen) will try and get you to come off the bus at the wrong stop in order to ensure that you take their taxi (fees until ¥400!). Also beware of people that offer to help you at Dongzhimen, that are in league with the taxi drivers and will point you to the wrong bus (980, for example), and you will end up having to backtrack to Huairou and pay double for the taxi (Great Wall Trek China Expeditions is known to do this). There are also scammers who dress up like they work for the bus system as ticket collectors. For bus 916 there should be no ticket collectors, just ignore anyone but the bus driver, and put 12RMB into the box by the bus door.
The last buses to Beijing Dongzhimen from Huairou city are the 936 at 17:00 while the service of the 916 ends at 19:00. Without the Beijing transportation card (that you can purchase at any metro station) the price is ¥16 but with the electronic card expect to pay less than ¥5.
You can also get to Mutianyu via a hike from the Jiankou section of the wall. Some offer self-guided tour packages including transportation from Beijing to Jiankou and pickup from Mutianyu to get back to Beijing.
As the Great Wall of China is rather on the long side, there are a large number of places to visit it. The following list is divided by province/municipality.
The most popular sites can be visited in one day starting from Beijing.
The hike is still a challenge with plenty of very steep hills, so don't get disappointed if you took the cable car up and see a huge crowd - once you get a bit into the wall the crowd thins quickly, and even on a weekend you can find yourself alone on a whole section of the wall. On weekdays, there are much less vendors chasing you on the wall; they stay in the little town area. In addition, there are sun bears that you can feed carrots to for ¥3 in the little town.
Make sure you wear the proper shoes such as tennis shoes or sneakers. The stones the wall is made of have been polished by millions of tourists like you, and are very slippery. If you wear flip-flops, you'd be looking for a disaster. Walking barefoot or in a thin sole shoes would be very uncomfortable because the stones get very hot in the sunshine.
Don't take the ¥100 tours that people offer you outside the Forbidden City or at Tian'anmen Square - you only get 2 hours at the Wall, and then you go to the Ming Tombs (read: big hill) and have to eat lunch; in addition, they can cancel the bus on you, they don't leave until the bus is full, and you have to stay with your tour group (with the loud mega phone and all) in order to get back to the city. Full walk path is: tower/path closed <> Guizhou pavilion for the stele <> (cable car/?closed) <> tower <> path to exit / great wall museum <> (sliding car, ?stairs) <> 6th tower <> 8th tower (top; cable car nearby ~100 m) <> tower <> 10th tower in the north (stairs) <> tower/path closed.
The cable car before the entrance costs ¥85 one-way (they can also sell you the Great Wall entrance ticket at the booth). As well as taking out a good bit of uphill, it puts you right into a quiet area of the wall. Once you get off the cable car a left turn will lead you to the regular entrance. But a right turn will provide a pleasant walk along the wall for a while until the path becomes closed.
It takes c. 2-3h to do the whole wall depending on your fitness/weather/crowd.
In winter, expect to lose 5°C between Beijing and the Wall. This plus the wind from the mountain, you will cherish every layer of clothes you can have. The vendors will be here to sell everything you may have forgotten, although the price is not reasonable. For the good part : the crowd is then much lighter, and almost nobody go after the first peak. The winter sun and, if you're lucky, the snow will give you amazing views on the walls.
If, after exiting the cable car, one turns to the left and hikes up stairs for about an hour, one can reach the unrestored, "wild" wall. As of March 2017, a 60cm high wall at tower 20 has been built in order to discourage passage. Signs will tell you that visitors are not admitted to this area of the wall. You should not go beyond this point. A man may ask you for money to allow passage, however he is not an employee of the facility. You should not pay him to go beyond this point. The terrain gets rougher, there's bushes growing in the way and some parts are so destroyed, one has to actually climb to go on. Please note that mobile phone reception drops off sharply here and there's only very few to no people around, so in case of an emergency, you'll be on your own. Good hiking gear advisable. Frozen and slippery in winter. Loose Rocks.
If you are further interested in this unrestored "wild wall", the ideal way to experience it is a hike from the Jiankou section to Mutianyu. Allowing a more in depth exploration of the untouched overgrown decrepit walls and towers, it also enables you to go down the stairs of the restored section instead of the long arduous climb up. Some offer self-guided tour packages including transportation from Beijing to Jiankou and pickup from Mutianyu to get back to Beijing.
Because several English-language guidebooks now recommend Mutianyu over Badaling as less crowded and less overdeveloped, a few tour companies (notably G Adventures and Intrepid Travel) have switched to Mutianyu as their preferred Great Wall segment for their China tours. If at all possible, try to book an escorted group tour with a Mutianyu visit as an integral component. That will provide the most convenient and seamless experience, since small tourist motorcoaches with the appropriate paperwork can take you directly from a Beijing hotel to a small parking lot very close to the cable car base station. The driver will wait with the motorcoach while your tour guide takes your group up to the Great Wall, then when you are all done, you get back on the motorcoach and go directly back to Beijing.
Entrance fee is ¥45 (Sept 2017), ¥25 for students only with ID containing a photo. In addition, the cable car to the wall costs more than the wall entrance: ¥100 for adults (one way), or ¥120 for a round trip (¥45? for children). The total price is 180RMB for admission, shuttle bus to the ski lift both ways, ski lift and toboggan ride, as of Sept 2017. This option is overall the best, you should save your walking energy for on top of the wall, which is very long.
Alternatively the 20-30 min. climb uphill through steps in the forest is free. However the climb is fairly steep, and does not offer views until you reach the great wall itself. If you're not afraid of walking through some shrubbery, and you've got some grip on your shoes, continue on past the restored section and head to the highest local watchtower. You will be greatly rewarded for your effort!
There are two different cable cars in Mutianyu which are operated by different companies. One is a cable car to get to a high part of the great wall, the other is a chair lift to another point on the wall where you can toboggan down. They start at roughly the same point at the entrance to the area, however they operate in different directions. A recommended itinerary if you would like to try both is to buy the entrance ticket (¥45), a one way ticket up the cable car (¥65) which takes you to one section of the great wall, walk on the wall for about 1km in the direction of the second cable car, and take the toboggan down back to the entrance (¥45). Return tickets are significantly cheaper than buying a single trip, however, the two tickets cannot be combined, i.e. you cannot buy a return ticket going up one cable car and coming down the other.
Note that the walk on top of the Great Wall involves significant amount of climbing steps, which vary from short steps a large part of the way, to some sections with quite steep steps.
Do not miss the stone museum just past the main ticket office on the right, which features beautiful caves with lighted rock art. Entry is free.
If you miss the bus, there is accommodation to be found near the shops in Huairou. There is a tourist information office that remains open during normal office hours, though it may seem closed due to lack of visitors. They will be able to help you find accommodation that is licensed to take foreigners, should you need it. The nearby "Yanxi Nightless Valley" area is full of small forest resorts, where you can pay around ¥100 for a fresh, farmed trout. Stay in the valley the night before, then hire a taxi out direct to one of the nearby Great Wall sections in the morning.
The Schoolhouse (a restaurant and lodging company in Mutianyu) also offers a schoolbus that goes to and from the Kempinski Hotel in Liagmaqiao area of Beijing to their restaurant that is a 10-minute walk from the Wall on Saturdays and Sundays. It departs Beijing at 09:00 and the Schoolhouse at 16:30. The cost is ¥110 for a one-way trip or ¥132 for a same day round trip. Reservations must be made online at The Schoolhouse website by 18:00 on the Thursday before you want to take it. If you are worried about taking a public bus but don't want to pay for a whole tour, this can be a good reliable option.
It's far less crowded than Badaling and Mutianyu.... mostly before more difficult to access and less renovated To get there, go first to Hairou (see the Mutianyu description there above to go there) bus station (bus 916), then take the bus (number 936) to "Shuishangcheng" (litterally "Wall above water", other name of Huanghuacheng Great Wall). To get the second bus stop, turn left out of Hairou bus station up to next light crossing, turn left again (about 300 m) until you get to the bus station. The bus are not very frequent (every hour). Huanhuacheng-Shuishangcheng is the last stop. to go back to Hairou, the bus leaves every hour (10:30, 11:30....) up to 5:30pm. It says there is a direct bus from Dongzhimen to Shuangshangcheng on the WE, but it will leave only if enough people (more than 10). Difficult to count on it so. Arrived at Shuishangcheng, you can access to the reservoir trough an entrance gate (¥45 each), where you can see the wall. However, to climb on the wall, you can also go to the parking in front of East entrance, then take a small trail at the left of the toilets (without passing the entrance gate so): you'll be able to access the wall without paying the entrance fee.
There are many famous sections of Jiankou Great Wall, such as 'The Nine-Eye Tower', an important command post during the ancient wars. It has three layers, and there are nine holes which look like nine eyes on each side. 'The Beijing Knot' is the meeting point for three walls coming from different directions. 'The Sky Stair', is a precipitous stair whose angle of elevation is 70 to 80 degrees. It leads to 'The Eagle Flies Facing Upward', a watch tower built on the lofty peaks. It is so dangerous that even eagles have to fly facing upward to reach the top. 'Zhengbei Tower' is the right place to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise and the sunset.
This portion of the Wall was opened to the public in 1995 after repair. Besides climbing the wall, you can also visit the Genghis Khan Palace, the Stone Buddha Temple, Luotuo Peak (Camel Peak) and the Great Wall Stele Forest nearby.
Bring a jacket against the wind or cold in the chillier seasons. In summer you will need lots of water, but there are plenty of vendors at the most visited sections. Be prepared for the possibility of sudden, short, but rather violent thunderstorms.
Do not leave any trace of your visit. Even if it is not an uncommon sight, resist the urge to add your name to the carvings in the wall, or take a piece home as a souvenir. If the wall should be damaged by your actions, the authorities may very well take action with fines and other punishments.
Hiking as a recreational sport is not well understood yet in China so the etiquette of crossing state and private land has not yet been established. Remember that the Wall is mostly mud and poorly supported stones, and that you are on your own if you're outside the maintained areas. Even if you are not walking on the wall, you will find few trails to follow and at some parts, the area the Wall traverses are vertical, treacherous and very unsafe. Besides that, it is difficult to obtain clean drinking water and some areas may even have no water at all. Other areas will have man made obstacles, like roads and motorways that have solid fencing. Villages where you could get supplies may be few and far between. Some may take you miles away from the Wall. Poor cartography is still a problem here since maps of less than 1:450,000 are not easy to get a hold of due to the military applications of such maps. Besides that, guides who know the areas along the Great Wall are few and far between. The last item to think about regarding hiking the Great Wall is that China has no system of mountain/wilderness rescue personnel. You will be on your own should something happen to you.
Scams - Beware of bus scams that may ruin your day. Also try to avoid organized tours to the Great Wall costing 100-150 Yuan. These are advertised by people handing out flyers around the Forbidden City in Beijing  for example (the real bus service to the Great Wall only costs 20 Yuan!). Also, the driver might just stop and set you off before your destination.
Walking safely don't run around as you may trip which may result in an injury as the steps are uneven.
Badaling Take bus 919 back to Beijing (¥12) or the train from either the Badaling or Qinglong Qiao stations (¥14). The last bus 919 leaves at 17:00. There are plenty trains going to Badaling station. Very cheap and super easy from Beijing station.
For other sections hopefully you've come with a tour that is picking you up from that section. Taxis back to Beijing can be quite expensive (even from Badaling, it will probably be over ¥100).
Ming Tombs Many tour operators or private drivers will combine the wall and the Ming Tombs in a day trip. The Ming Tombs are nothing special and are quite plain. Tourists usually skip them unless they are Chinese history buffs.