Beijing Active Adventures
Beijing itself is brimming with adventures, and the surrounding countryside offers some great escapes. Beijing's vast size can initially make walking seem like a futile way of getting around, but between the ringroads and flyovers there are still pockets of hutong that are well worth exploring on foot. Outside of the city, the hills and mountains to the west and north respectively offer some great hiking opportunities, most notably along sections of the Great Wall. Several organizations in Beijing offer hikes in the surrounding countryside. Beijing Hikers (+139-1002-5516, www.beijinghikers.com) is a walking club that meets every Sunday at Starbucks in the Lido Hotel at 6, Jiangtai Lu in Chaoyang. Walks cost ¥200 and are graded from one to five according to distance and difficulty. They also operate monthly weekend trips (¥600). CnAdventure (+010-8621-6278, www.cnadventure.com) runs day-hikes to the wall for as little as ¥110 (without entry tickets) and Cycle China (+010-8402-4147, www.cyclechina.com) also runs great hiking tours that cost ¥200-500 depending on the route and the number of people in your party. If you're going to be spending a lot of time here and want to explore the area's full hiking potential, then it might be worth picking up Hiking Around Beijing by Seema Bennett, Nicky Mason and Huilin Pinnegar (Foreign Languages Press, 2005).
Walking the Wall
Various sections of the wall run within 100 miles of Beijing and the less visited parts provide some fantastic hiking opportunities. By definition, once you get to the wall, you will do some walking, but the short stretches at Badaling or Mutianyu barely constitute a hike. Although it is becoming increasingly popular, the rugged hike between Jinshanling and Simitai remains my favorite. For more solitude, Jiankou is closer to the city and you might just have the whole place to yourself if you make the rough hike from here to Mutianyu (four-five hrs), which can be arranged through Cycle China.
Jinshanling to Simatai
Jinshanling and Simatai are two restored sections of wall that are both worthy of a trip in their own right, but when you link them in an exhilarating hike the effect is mindblowing. The scenery here is some of the most rugged anywhere along the wall and, while stunning, this makes for some serious legwork. The walk takes a minimum of two hours, but more likely three or four, and offers fine picnic spots so it's worth bringing some supplies. Although you can buy drinks along the way make sure you bring some water and start the walk well hydrated—it can reach 100°F here in summer and the wall is unforgiving in its gradient. This section of wall is getting busier all the time and sees adventure tour groups and organized hikes. But, if you choose to come individually, or walk at your own pace, you should still have magical moments of solitude, especially in winter. Most people choose to walk from Jinshanling to Simatai rather than the other way round as it's easier to find transport back from Simatai. But, if you have a driver, then it makes little difference. There's also the option of staying at Simatai's hostel or, for the hardy, camping on the wall itself at Jinshanling, which allows you to catch sunrise on the wall and then start the hike early before it gets too hot.
A Helping Hand?
When I first started doing this hike (not too many years ago), there was one old farmer who used to sit in the middle watchtower, smoking tobacco rolled in bus tickets, waiting for hikers who might pass by and maybe buy a battered can of coke from him. These days things have changed a little and hikers may be hounded by the legions of "approved" drinks, t-shirt and souvenir vendors who will follow you for the entire walk if they think there's a buck in it for them. Unless you want a shadow for the whole route either make it very clear at the beginning that you won't buy anything, or buy a couple of drinks at the start. However, while being pursued along Communist China's Great Wall by a capitalist farmer might not be your ideal perceived experience, some visitors enjoy the chance to commune with a local, and your "guide" will also show you a couple of points where you need to leave the wall and help you over any tricky bits.
The walk itself is fairly straightforward. Once you've bought your ticket (¥30) at Jinshanling follow the path straight for a while and then turn left just before a toilet block. You'll see the wall ahead of you and the path soon starts to climb steeply up to it. Ten or 15 minutes later you should be on the wall, where there are drinks vendors and you can see all the way across to Simatai, which looks alarmingly far away. You'll pass through the first of 14 watchtowers on the walk and then you just need to follow the wall up and down, up and down, up and.... The wall is crumbly in places and the steps range from enormously high to rocky remnants, so take care. There are also a couple of points where you have to leave the wall as it is impassable—there are obvious tracks leading off to the side of the wall, but if you're away from the wall for more than a few minutes you've gone wrong. As you approach the end, you'll pass through a watchtower where you'll be asked to buy a ticket for Simatai (¥40), which feels like an indignity unless your poor, tired legs have the energy to make it up the scarily steep section across the water in front of you. From here, descend away from the wall and proceed across the bridge (¥5) and along the far side of the reservoir (which is mighty inviting for a swim in spite of the signs forbidding it) to the car park where there are some cafés and drinks stalls.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication