I never dreamed that I would visit a wonder of the world three times in one month. I did just this in October. It’s quite easy to catch a bus out of Beijing to many of the different sections of the Great Wall. There are several tour companies that cater to those without cars. If you don’t feel like leaving the city district entirely, but want to escape the hustle, catching a bus to the west hills is a breeze. Shijingshan, the district where most Aihua schools are and where first year teachers live, borders the west hills with many gorgeous temples among them. Popular hiking spots in the west hills are Badachu and the Fragrant Hills. Hiking in these areas is not so much of a rustic dirt trail endeavor as it is a cultural exploration. What a nice departure from most western hiking to be able to appreciate intricately designed temples, practicing Buddhist monks engaging in their chants and prayers, beautifully manicured gardens, and the smells of many varieties of incense.
The Fragrant Hills is a huge park of several different historic and holy sites. It served as a military stronghold of Mao and his army during the early days of the Communist Party. Badachu translates to eight great sites, of which it contains eight temples and nunneries throughout the west hills. Badachu also features some 600 year old trees. If your feet are hurting from a day of walking around Beijing, or if you’re lazy, you can pay to take a cable-car to the top, afterwards you can ride a toboggan down. Go to the west hills during September and October to enjoy fantastic fall colors! As far as my Great Wall expeditions go, the highlight was visiting one of the oldest sections at Gubeikou also known as Crouching Tiger. The oldest portions were built 1400 years ago and feature construction from 5 different periods including the Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
It’s easy to find a Great Wall tour with as little as six people through a company like China Hiking (at chinahiking.cn). Others like Cultural Exchange Trips run large bus tours splitting the seating between 25 Chinese and 25 foreigners. For less than $200 USD you can join an overnight Great Wall trek and camp tour, with food and camping gear provided. For less that $30 USD it’s possible to take a day trip to one of the many Great Wall sites. There are several Great Wall sites in the Beijing area, all within two hours or less of city center. Whatever you do, don’t go to Badaling: it was built by the Mao regime to boost national pride. I hear it’s a tourist trap these days. Instead, go to one of the many historic spots. Come to Beijing and experience great hiking mixed with amazing culture!