I have had ample time to explore China, having lived in Beijing for nearly 12 years.
I've been to more than 100 towns and cities on the mainland, as well as countless villages.
In retrospect, my frequent visits of different sections of the Great Wall of China were the driving force for my desire to travel the rest of the nation and to see the many sections that are outside of Beijing's borders.
The Great Wall was built more than 2,500 ago. Its origins date back to China’s Spring and Autumn Period, which lasted from 770 BCE until 476 BCE. In the following ages, as rival dynasties or factions tried to assert their control, various sections were added.
The work eventually stopped in 17th century.
The wall is not one continuous structure but stretches over 21,000 km, passing through 15 provinces and 97 prefectures, as well as 404 counties.
While certain sections are extremely popular with tourists, others have fallen into disrepair, obscurity and even oblivion.
The following destinations will make your trip even more rewarding, whether you are visiting the Great Wall for the very first time or 50th time. Check out the video above for some dramatic aerial footage.
Turtle City Yongtai
The Great Wall of China is more than just a brick-and-mortar bulwark. In some places, even towers perched on steep mountain peaks or fortress towns, as well as wide rivers, can be considered sections of the 'wall'.
Turtle City was built during the Ming Dynasty (1365-1644) to be part of the Yellow River Defense Line on the Great Wall. It was completed in 1608, and at its peak, it housed around 2,000 infantrymen, and 500 cavalry units.
This fortress city, located in north central Gansu Province's Sitan Township, is situated in Jingtai County.
The garrison town's unique shape is what gave it its name, even though there aren't any turtles.
The west and east gates act as the flippers. The oval wall of the town is its body. Its north gate is its tail. It's worth visiting as it is one of the best preserved and authentic walled towns in China.
It is best to stay in the county center of Jingtai. You can easily visit the ancient city by cab in 30 minutes, depending on when you want to take photos.
Try the spicy vegetarian dishes Jingtai Cold Mixed Noodles and Five Buddha Tofu when you are in Jingtai. For adventurous foodies, a stroll through the sprawling Jingtai County People's Square night market, with its more than 50 snack stands, is recommended.
Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province. It has an international airport, and there are high-speed trains from most major cities in China. Driving to Yongtai Turtle City takes approximately 2.5 hours (195 km) from downtown Lanzhou. The drive from Lanzhou Zhongchuan Airport is only 1.5 hours.
The Great Wall is made up of two sections, Mutianyu & Jiankou. Together they stretch 25 km along the mountaintops of Beijing.
The Great Wall was built by millions of men over centuries, according to historical records. You can understand the significance of this statement if you stand on the wall at Mutianyu, or Jiankou.
Climbing either of these two sections is sure to change your life.
The best part of the "tourist wall" is Mutianyu. It was restored in the 1980s and is very commercial, but it's also stunningly beautiful. Cable cars are available for those who don't want to hike.
Jiankou, located west of Mutianyu is known colloquially as the "wild wall" - there's no need for a ticket and it's not commercialized. As of 2020, the local government has begun to discourage hiking at Jiankou due to safety concerns.
Mutianyu, Jiankou and other countryside areas are only a 90 minute drive from the center of Beijing (without traffic). If you have time to spare, it is highly recommended that you spend a night out in nature.
You can reach Jiankou via Xizhazi Village. If dates are right, you may be able spend a couple of days at The Barracks with William Lindesay and his family, a world-renowned Great Wall Historian.
The Brickyard offers a comfortable and convenient option for accommodation in the Mutianyu area.
The gray brick wall contrasts with the vibrant colors of nature in fall and spring. Autumn foliage and cherry blossoms in spring make for stunning backgrounds for photographs.
There are several locations near Mutianyu where you can ski and skate next to the Wall.
The restrictions on applying for temporary licenses have been relaxed in China since September 2019. This means that renting a vehicle as a tourist from abroad is now possible. (International driving licences are not recognized in China.
The Dongzhimen Wai Bus Station offers a Mutianyu Special Tour Bus or you can hire a vehicle with a driver.
Booking a private vehicle or renting a car is the best way to get to Jiankou. As Xizhazi, a small town, has few buses, it may take five hours by public transportation to reach the village. It will only take 90 minutes to drive there.
The ruins of an 1876 Gothic church, built under the guidance of a German Missionary, can be found in the village of Bataizi.
In its 150-year history, the church has suffered numerous damages and repairs. The bell tower is still the only remaining part.
Bataizi is a great place to spend an afternoon or morning. The juxtaposition of the Great Wall's ruins and the Great Wall made from rammed earth makes it a special place.
Father Pan can answer your questions about the long history of Catholicism in the village if you know Chinese.
Datong, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the Yungang Grottoes will enhance your experience.
The late summer is the best time to visit Bataizi. You'll be able to see the Great Wall in contrast with the lush green hills.
Bataizi is located 80 km west of Datong - one of the province's most important and famous cities. Zuoyun County, about 35 minutes away from Bataizi, is just 22 kilometers.
Datong can be reached by high-speed trains or planes from many other Chinese cities. A taxi ride from the downtown area of Datong to Bataizi will cost approximately 300 yuan ($43).
You can also take the bus to Zuoyun county and then jump in a taxi.
Luxury seekers in Datong will be interested in the five-star Yunzhong Traditional Courtyard Hotel. Zuoyun County only has one hotel which can accommodate foreigners, Zuoyun Jinshan International. Both hotels can be booked on popular hotel booking websites.
Laoniuwan is also known as the Old Ox Bend Great Wall
Locals claim that Laoniuwan, where the Great Wall meets the Yellow River, is the place where they meet.
The Laoniuwan Fortress, built in 1467. The most famous tower on the Great Wall of this area is the Wanghe Tower, literally meaning River-Watching Tower, which was constructed in 1544.
Laoniuwan Village is located in Pianguan County in Xinzhou City in Shanxi Province, just across from Inner Mongolia.
It's best to travel in the late summer or early autumn, so you can avoid dangerous mountain roads caused by spring rainstorms or uncomfortably freezing temperatures in places with poor infrastructure.
There are very few places along the Great Wall where it meets water bodies. This is one of the most spectacular.
It is recommended that you take a boat along the river. Enjoy the beauty of Yellow River Gorge and marvel at the ancient architecture.
Public transport is not an option for getting to L aoniuwan. Renting or booking a car will allow you to travel from Datong via Bataizi to Laoniuwan, allowing you to visit two of the Great Wall's most beautiful locations in a single trip.
Pianguan, located about an hour away, is the closest city. Pianguan has neither a train station nor an airport. Arriving by bus is the only way to get there. Shuozhou is 140 km from Laoniuwan and will have an airport open later this year.
The construction of the Great Wall at Simatai started in 1373. It was periodically expanded and strengthened throughout the Ming Dynasty.
It is difficult to reach, but the Fairy Tower at Simatai is one of its most famous towers.
You can also enjoy the Fairy Tower's incredible view from Wangjing Tower, which is only a few hundred metres away. This is a hike that can satisfy even the most experienced of hikers. It doesn't require any safety equipment like ropes, ladders, or other essentials.
This section of the wall will provide stunning views at any time of the year, just like a trip to Mutianyu/Jiankou. I would suggest waiting for a day with clear skies (usually, visibility is best the day following a rain or snowstorm), since the views from Wangjing Tower are unobstructed.
You will be amazed at the Northern Barbarians' alleged determination to reach the Capital. The mountains are almost impassable by foot, never mind on horseback, and have sheer cliff faces either side.
This is a world-class hike and a fascinating history lesson.
Hobo Farm offers five-star accommodations. They also have a fantastic restaurant serving Western and Chinese cuisine. Yatou's Homestay offers 4.5-star accommodations at a more affordable price. You can find both on the major hotel booking websites.
How to get there: The Fairy Tower, as well as the Wangjing Tower can be reached via Tangjiazhai Village in Beijing's Miyun District.
Depending on the route you take, Tangjiazhai is located 140 kilometers away from Beijing. The most efficient way to travel is by booking a car in the city.
From Beijing Station, you can take the high-speed rail to Miyun District and then switch to a taxi or bus.
This single-wall section was built during the reign Emperor Jiajing (1507-1567) and stands at seven meters high in some places.
The town of Dushikou is located in Hebei Province, just across the street from Chicheng.
Dushikou's piled-stone wall is unique. Many other sections of Great Wall near Beijing were built using kiln fired bricks.
Dushikou is at its best in summer, especially July and August when the grasslands surrounding the town are at their peak. Cool evenings are ideal for outdoor bonfires and barbecues.
In Dushikou, you can find comfortable and clean farmhouses. If that's not your style, there are a variety of hotels in Chicheng (45 minutes away).
This part of Hebei, which is close to Inner Mongolia, has a lot of specialties like lamb skewers or roast leg of Lamb. Local oat noodle dishes are also delicious.
The drive from Beijing to Dushikou was shortened by nearly two hours thanks to the infrastructure constructed for the Winter Olympics in 2022. You can take the bus from Liuliqiao Transport hub in Beijing to Chicheng and then take a taxi for 45 minutes to Dushikou.
Public transport will take an extra one to two hours compared to private cars.