Travel Story How to see the Great Wall of China without the crowds

Huangyaguan's section of the Great Wall is known for being less developed and considerably less crowded than the better-known sections closer to Beijing.

In the carpark at the Great Wall, a woman’s voice blares from a loudspeaker. She’s speaking in Chinese but she is — according to our local guide — encouraging visitors to “look after the environment, love one another and buy tickets at the ticket office”.

Nearby, a Chinese family stand around their sedan. Dad is lighting a cigarette, the sleeves of his beige cardigan pushed up to his elbows, burgundy cowboy hat threatening to topple from his head. Beside him, grandpa is more soberly dressed but also smoking. A round-faced little boy stands, bored, fiddling with a wooden walking stick and conical bamboo hat.

Besides our group, they’re the only other visitors to the Great Wall at Huangyaguan, or Yellow Cliff Pass, a couple of hours north-east of Beijing.

Numerous sections of China’s most famous architectural feat can be visited from Beijing and from the nearby cruise port of Tianjin. The most popular portion, known as Badaling — famously visited by US president Richard Nixon in 1972 — is about 80km from the capital’s centre. Some sections even have cable cars and other novelties; when I visited the wall at Mutianyu five years ago, I descended via toboggan.

The Great Wall at Huangyaguan is, by contrast, known for being less developed and considerably less crowded than the better-known sections closer to Beijing. As our local guide tells us, it’s about 3km in length, and said to date back more than 1400 years to the Northern Qi Dynasty, though it was later reinforced during the Ming era, when much of the Great Wall as we now know it took shape.

Indeed, it may surprise some visitors to learn the Great Wall is not a single, continuous structure in a uniform style but a branching series of fortifications built over thousands of years. 

The wall at Huangyaguan closely resembles the stone-and-brick archetype familiar from postcards and pictures — complete with watchtowers with crenelated parapets, reproduced on the rather pleasing castle-shaped rubbish bins punctuating the walkways. But materials such as rammed earth and wood were used elsewhere and at other times, while ditches and natural features including rivers and mountains were also incorporated into the network of defences. 

Partly for this reason, it’s more difficult than you might expect to pinpoint the wall’s exact length. Reclamation by nature and disagreements over what constitutes the Great Wall and what’s merely an old wall also play their part. Our guide mentions the commonly cited length of 6700km but the official government figure puts it at more than 21,000km.

Huangyaguan may have the benefit of fewer crowds but there is a price to pay. This segment is renowned for its views — somewhat obscured today by the haze that plagues the Beijing region — and is set over a mountain pass so notoriously steep that one section of 300-odd steps is known as the Huangya Sky Ladder. Despite this, I soon notice the Chinese family setting off ahead of me, now joined by a grey-haired grandmother who powers up the stairs with a walking stick.

As our guide tells us, Chinese people generally don’t refer to the Great Wall by that name, referring to it as “the Long Wall” or “Ten-Thousand Li Long Wall” (“li” being a traditional Chinese unit of distance equivalent to half a kilometre). 

It hasn’t always been the source of national pride it is today. Long associated with cruelty and suffering — partly due to the big number of workers who died during its construction — it fared poorly during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, when its materials were reused for roads and buildings. In the 1980s its restoration became a patriotic endeavour, inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to “Love our country and restore our Great Wall”. 

Preservation of such a huge structure is clearly a challenge, and some poorly executed modern restoration efforts have been criticised for “Disneyfying” the wall. Others have been shockingly clumsy: photos surfaced a few years back, for example, of a botched repair to a stretch in Suizhong County that appeared to have been essentially concreted over.

But the wall at Huangyaguan — which was restored in the 80s — retains at least the air of authenticity. As you might expect of such a venerable structure, the steps can be wildly uneven: some narrow, some short; others wider or uncomfortably high. Coupled with the undulating topography, it makes for a challenging hike.

“The good news is it gets worse,” a member of our group calls out on his way back. I stop to catch my breath under the guise of browsing a display of souvenir baseball caps and snow globes and “I Climbed the Great Wall” T-shirts that punctuate the path. Before me, the wall stretches further upwards. Ahead, the grandmother powers on.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises. They did not review or approve this story.

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