Last week, I did a 2 day/1 night hike on the Great Wall of China near Beijing that included 10 miles of hiking on the Wall, several meals, transportation, lodging, and a massage. My brother and I paid $370 per person.

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Hiking the Great Wall was one of my best travel experiences ever. The history, the scenery, the outdoor exercise, and spending time with my brother were a potent combination.

I went with Great Wall Hiking (which gave me no discount and doesn’t know I’m writing this review), and I enjoyed the tour immensely. I wish it had been cheaper, and there may be similar options out there that are cheaper. I’ll give my experiences to help you plan your Great Wall adventure if you head to Beijing. (See also How the 72 Hour Transit Without Visa Works in Beijing, China and Award Space Home from the Great Wall.)

  • What was the itinerary?
  • How was the service?

My brother and I went on the “Magic Great Wall Hiking- Two-day Jiankou to Simatai West” tour, which started at 8 AM with a hotel pick up and ended the next day at 3:30 PM with a hotel drop off. The tour is a private tour with cheaper prices depending on group size.

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Great Wall Hiking also offers one day tours, but we correctly surmised hiking would be a highlight, so we were happy we’d chosen a two day tour.

I booked the tour about one month in advance. I had to put down a $50 deposit via PayPal per person and give my hotel’s location for the pick up. The company was very responsive via email before the tour.

On the day of our tour, our guide, Robert, was sitting in the hostel common room right at 8 AM. We kept him waiting for a few minutes as we finished packing up, which he didn’t seem to mind at all–one of the perks of a private tour.

Right outside was a comfortable Volkswagen and driver. We sat in the backseat the entire trip. The car had plenty of legroom for two big guys because our guide and driver kept their seats far forward. We left all of our bags, except one backpack for the two of us, in the car during the entire trip. That was safer than leaving them at our hostel.

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 9.22.39 AMAs soon as we got in, Robert gave us a printed itinerary and explained our schedule for the morning. The entire trip, communication was perfect.

Robert’s English was heavily accented, but otherwise basically flawless. We never had trouble understanding him, and he never had trouble understanding us.

The first stop was the Olympic stadium and pool. Both are well-known for their architecture.

We swam in front of the Water Cube…

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…and chicken danced (Arrested Development style) in front of the Bird’s Nest.

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This was just a 15 minute stop during which we walked around the buildings. It was worth the stop, but it wasn’t any sort of highlight. After the stroll, we headed to Subway to pick up sandwiches for a picnic lunch on the wall.

The $370 covered almost everything, including all meals. We each ordered our footlong subs and got some chips. Robert encouraged us to get cookies too. That’s totally minor, of course, but it highlights that there was no cheapness and no nickel-and-diming on this tour. I really appreciated that.

Our driver was outside the Subway, ready to go when we were. He was always right where he needed to be on time.

The drive to the starting point of the first day’s hike was about 90 minutes and I dozed during most of the drive. We were dropped off in the town of Jiankou and hiked about 45 minutes through the woods to the wall.

The view from the watchtower where you arrive is stunning and a great start to the trip.

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We had lunch on the first watchtower and then began about a four hike on the wall. The first day is 10 km (6.2 miles) and about five hours hiking total.

The first half of the first day is on “wild wall,” which means original wall that hasn’t been rebuilt in the last few decades for tourists.

Wild wall is wild. There are trees in the middle of the path and missing stones, though it’s not hard to walk because enough hikers come through to blaze a trail.

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This first half of day one on wild wall was my favorite part of the trip. The views were stunning, and the other hikers were few. There was one particularly fun U-shaped part, where we went straight up and straight down

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My brother had a little trouble with the down hill and took it slowly because it really is rather steep.

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About half way through day one, we got to some of the rebuilt wall. The difference is night and day.

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The restored walls are nice too because they look more visually appealing and perhaps look more like they would have 500 years ago.

On the restored section, we saw more hikers and sellers as we approached Mutianyu.
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The towers near Mutianyu are well restored, which makes it easier to get on top of them and check out the views.Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 2.31.53 PM

Some cannons are also put in place, though I couldn’t get them to fire!

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Once we got to Mutianyu after five hours of hiking, we had a few options to get down. You can walk down for free, or you can pay 60 yuan ($10) for a ride down in a cable car or 80 ($13) to toboggan down. This was the only thing not included in the tour’s price.

We tobogganed down, and it was a blast. You get to work up speed and take some fun turns. Based on the photos by the track, Michelle Obama seemed to enjoy tobogganing also.

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We drove 15 minutes from Mutianyu to Simitai Village, which according to Robert is a fairly new village set up by the government to serve tourists. We stayed in Mr. Li’s guest house, and we got one room with two single beds and a hot shower–nothing luxurious, but totally adequate and clean.

Robert asked us what time we wanted dinner and gave us the menu to select dishes. We selected a few and he pushed us to pick more, again no cheap-ness at all.

Dinner at Mr. Li’s guest house was delicious. We had chicken, pork, beef, and rice. As we finished the food, Robert tried to get us to order more, but we were stuffed.

He asked us when we wanted to have breakfast. We chose 7 AM for an 8 AM start toward the wall. Some people head to wall by 5 AM for sunrise, but that sounded terrible to us. If you do wake up that early, make sure the forecast calls for clear weather.

Breakfast was another full meal of vegetable noodle soup, eggs, and fruit. The food stay at Mr. Li’s guest house was awesome.

After breakfast, we drove to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, another restored section. There was a light rain in the morning that cleared quickly.

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This hike was 5 km (3.1 miles) and three hours, eventually taking us to partially restored and unrestored sections.

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At the end of the hike, we got our certificates of completion and walked down 1,400 stairs to meet our driver at about 11 AM.

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At this point, we drove about 90 minutes back to Beijing for lunch and a massage. The lunch was at Xiabu Xiabu, a chain of hot pot restaurants throughout China.

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Hot pot is Sichuan meal in which you boil meat and vegetables in your choice of broth at your seat and then eat the food mixed with your choice of paste.Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 10.17.23 AM Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 10.17.29 AM

It’s delicious, and again Robert was pushing us to order more and more food. We were stuffed after the meal. Afterwards, we walked across the street for a 90 minute massage, split about 50/50 between body and foot. It was relaxing, and my brother really enjoyed it because he said his legs were jello after walking 10 miles in two days.

After the massage, we were dropped back off at our hostel and we paid the balance of the tour’s cost. We could pay $640 or 3,840 yuan ($625), so we chose the latter. We tipped our guide and driver, the company recommends a 2:1 ratio but no amount, and headed inside for a much deserved nap.

Overall

I loved the tour, I loved Robert, and I loved the experience.

Robert had taken pictures on a nice camera the entire time and gave us two thumb drives with almost 100 photos. Every picture in this post, except the hot pot lunch, is one he took. We each took some pictures on our own camera, but Robert’s were better. The photos were probably the best part about taking the tour because we’ll have them forever, and there are a lot of shots and angles we didn’t get on our own.

As we drove to the hostel at the end of the tour, Robert gave us a questionnaire about the service that was meant for his bosses. (We returned it in a sealed envelope.) The questionnaire made me realize that our experience with Robert was not a fluke.

There were literally questions as specific as whether we were offered sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer (we were!) and about the quality of the snacks (Snickers, Oreos, as much water as we could handle). Great Wall Hiking clearly takes its uniform service standards quite seriously.

My only question mark was whether I got the best deal I could have for that quality of service. It’s very likely there is another company offering a similar quality tour on all levels for less money. If you’ve had great experiences in Beijing, share them in the comments.

Difficulty Level

I’m a 27 year old in pretty good shape, and I found the tour easy. I was tired by the end, but didn’t struggle at any point. I wasn’t sore on day 2 or the next day.

My brother is 35 and in moderate shape, and he definitely found it a lot more tiring. He was sore on day 2 and for a few days after. He didn’t have any trouble with any of the actual hiking but went very slowly on some steep downhill stretches.

For some people, I can imagine the hike would be too difficult, but most people should be able to manage fine. If this tour would be too difficult, you can do easier sections of the wall like Mutianyu or Bataling.

Modification?

The route home passes the airport. I would have preferred to take this tour on our last two days and be dropped off at the airport on the way back to have had more time in Beijing city itself. Based on the level of responsiveness from Great Wall Hiking, I’m sure this would be possible, probably with a discount since you’d be skipping the massage and lunch.

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