There are primarily three locations on the Great Wall of China with easy access from Beijing. These viewing locations are Badaling Great Wall, Juyongguan Great Wall and last but not least the Shuiguan Great Wall. I visited two of these locations on the same day, as a result I can say that the Shuiguan location is the least touristy option and also the most rewarding. Additionally, both of the other locations are within easy driving distance from Shuiguan Great Wall.
Strategic Location of the Great Wall
In ancient times, the city of Beijing was exposed to Mongol invaders coming from the north. As a result, it was necessary to maintain firm control of the Guangou Valley and Juyong Pass. Although Beijing is no longer under threat from a Mongol invasion their lasting legacy still exists. Fortunately, all three Great Wall fortifications are easily accessible from Beijing.
Brief History of Shuiguan Great Wall
This section of the wall was constructed by the Ming Dynasty about 400 years ago. In Chinese, shui translates as “water” and guan means “pass”.
The great wall at this location is there in order to seal off the “Water Pass”. Additionally, this section of the great wall crosses a very steep valley.
At the valley entrance visitors will encounter the “Zhengguan Arrow Tower”. In ancient times there was a small river running through the tower which helped provide a natural defense system. However, the river has since disappeared.
Best Hiking Options for Visitors
Visitors have a choice of climbing the western or the eastern sections of the valley. The eastern section has a more moderate incline and is more suitable for easy going tourists.
However, the western side of the valley features more commanding views at the top and therefore the approach is more challenging. The picture below is taken from the top of the western section looking eastwards across the “Water Pass”.
Best Reasons to Visit Shuiguan Great Wall
The renovated section of the Shuiguan section of the Great Wall of China is about 5 miles long and features 8 towers. Additionally, this section of the wall has far fewer visitors compared to neighboring Badaling and Juyongguan Great Wall. This makes a great option for visitors who want to avoid the crowds.
Technically speaking, the best time to visit is during spring or fall. During the spring months (April and May) the flowers are blooming and the temperatures are moderate. Additionally, October is a great time of the year to visit because the leaves turn red and the fall colors cover the surrounding hills. Unfortunately, I visited during January and was unable to see natural wonders of spring and fall. However, the views were spectacular nonetheless!
In contrast to Badaling and Juyongguan Great Wall, Shuiguan is a much more intimate Chinese experience. There are no tour groups here and as far as I know I was the only tourist around. Everybody was Chinese except me.
Brisk Hiking at Shuiguan Great Wall
However, certain sections of the climb are rather steep and they advise visitors to walk backwards and hold the rails when descending. Some of the more challenging steps are 20 inches high. As a result, it is worth the effort to come here!
From the top of the western section it is possible to venture out onto some little hiking trails. The trails lead to small temples and different viewpoints.
The picture below shows the gate blocking off the passage beyond the renovated western section at Shuiguan Great Wall. As a result, I needed to turn around here and begin my descent back down to Zhengguan Arrow Tower.
On the way back I encountered a very rare species of visitor. Indeed, it is very rare in China to see anyone who would prefer to dress like a leopard instead of a China panda!