Although the Great Wall of China isn’t visible from space, the experience can be out of this world if you take a little time to plan a proper visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. For the craft beer traveler, this also means bringing along a suitable beverage while you marvel at one of the most astonishing feats of engineering in the world.
Meandering from Jiayuguan in the sparsely-populated desert region of western China to the narrow coastal strip of Shanhaiguan on the Yellow Sea, there are countless places in between to visit the Great Wall. Only, there isn’t just one continuous wall.
Between the 8th and 5th centuries BC, warring states were already building defensive fortifications from tamped earth. When King Zheng of Qin conquered his opponents and became the first emperor of a unified China in 221 BC, he ordered a massive wall building project employing hundreds of thousands of workers. This first Great Wall consolidated and extended the existing northern frontier defences against the Eurasian Steppe nomads.
The Wall was extended westwards under the Han Dynasty between 202 BC and AD 6. After that, however, beyond local initiatives, it was forgotten and even fell into decay. It wasn’t until the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 that an extensive building program was initiated under the supervision of General Xu Da. These were more elaborate, sturdy fortifications of brick and stone. This is the Great Wall that we know today.
My first experience at the Wall was in May 2013 with a China specialist tour company that I was working for. I joined a group of retirees on an excursion to Mutianyu, 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing. While we were all profoundly impressed with the formidable barrier capping the verdant mountain slopes, I found the experience wanting. We were set loose to explore on our own for a mere 90 minutes without a guide to explain the wall’s unique features. Souvenir hawkers were as regularly spaced as the watchtowers. It felt like “hit & run” tourism.
This time, traveling solo, I was determined to do it right. That is, I wanted to go to a lesser-visited section to do a proper hike. I was also intent on celebrating the moment with a flavorful local craft beer, not a thawed can of macro lager.
I chose to visit Jinshanling because I’d read years ago that it was one of the most picturesque sections of the wall. For this reason, I had told my professional photographer friend, Brian K. Smith, to go there. He’s been there twice and his photos vividly confirmed this. There are also a lot fewer tourists because Jinshanling is 154 kilometers from central Beijing. In contrast, Badaling is only 60 kilometers from the capital and is conveniently reached by train. It sees 10 million annual visitors.
Our small group of two Americans, a Brit, a Salvadoran, and a Venezuelan set off for Jinshanling in a minivan with our Great Wall Hiking guide, Danny, and the driver. Aside from scrutinizing the details of the terrain, the house architecture, or any obvious means of people’s livelihood (e.g. farming), the drive itself became rather monotonous, as freeway driving often is.
The plains surrounding Beijing eventually gave way to low, rugged mountains whose distorted sedimentary layers flanked the the highway winding through the shallow valley. Two hours out, I suddenly noticed the unnatural outline of the ridge at Gubeiko. The Wall! Three days later, we would have started our hike from here, as Jinshanling was closing for renovations. However, we drove another 15 minutes to reach Jinshanling’s visitor center.
Most people probably take the cable car up to the Wall to a path just below the Small Jinshan Tower. We trudged up a track through low, dense vegetation to the watchtower at Houchuan Pass, then followed the wall east for three hours along the ridge to Zhuanduo Pass. Scanning the broad vista of successive forested mountain ranges, these in itself seemed to present a formidable barrier to any invading army.
Capped by stone battlements seven meters high and six meters wide, this imposing fortification is punctuated every 100 meters by a ten-meter-high watchtower. Two isolated beacon towers acted as forward observation posts to provide early warning to the defenders. It would take a lot more than cavalry to breach these defences. Curiously, the nearby village of Hualougou is on the invaders’ side of the Great Wall. In the event of an attack, residents would have had to retreat over the wall for protection.
The sky was cloudless, albeit smudged with haze towards the horizon. When exposed to the elements on the rampart, you felt every bit of the 30°C beating down on you from the molten sun. The dank interiors of the bulky watchtowers, on the other hand, easily persuaded you to dally in their cool shade while mesmerized by the crenelated barrier snaking above the undulating landscape visible through their arched windows. Intermittently, we encountered couples or small groups. Otherwise, the Wall felt virtually deserted.
To appreciate this remarkable encounter with world heritage, I had brought with me three beers from one of Beijing’s earliest craft breweries, Great Leap Brewing. In one growler was their Honey Ma Gold, a 6.3% Golden Ale made with floral Sichuan peppercorns and organic honey from an apiary near the Great Wall. This was GLB’s first brew and won a 2014 Asia Beer Cup Silver Medal.
In the second growler was something with a little more punch. The Little General IPA is what GLB calls a “Chinese-style IPA”. With an ABV of 6.5% and 75 IBU, it’s full-bodied, yet well-balanced. What makes it Chinese? The terroir. Little General is brewed with Chinese base malts and unprocessed, whole Qingdao Flower hops from Xinjiang province. This sets it apart from other China IPAs that use imported specialty malts and hops.
To cap off our Great Leap on the Great Wall, I also brought a bomber of just-released 2017 Wall Builder. This 8.1% Imperial Stout is aged in Scotch barrels for four months to create a full-bodied, complex brew rich in chocolate and roasted malt flavors with notes of vanilla and whisky. Being young, there was still a slight alcohol burn on the palate. Needless to say, this is not a beer you would normally think of drinking in the blazing heat of summer. I held off opening it until after lunch in the air-conditioned restaurant when our sated group of hikers savored it as a digestif.
The return journey to Great Wall Hiking’s Sanlitun meeting point takes about two hours, which still gives you the evening to continue your Great Leap craft beer adventure after freshening up at your hotel. Each of their three locations has its own personality. Discover the one that’s right for you.
Beijing is easily reached via direct flights from major cities around the world. You’ll need to secure a visa before traveling, unless you qualify for a 72-hour visa-free transit. Generally, spring and autumn are the best times to visit. Avoid travel during the Lunar New Year and National Day holidays as these are the world’s largest human migrations.
I wrote an e-book, called How to Drink Beer in Mandarin, to offer craft beer travelers some practical information for China. You may also want to read my article, “Less is More: The Virtues of Traveling Light“, for advice on how to maximize luggage space for beer.
To take a Great Leap on the Great Wall near Beijing, I recommend booking your excursion with Great Wall Hiking if you are short on time and don’t speak Chinese. The day before your epic hike, visit Great Leap Brewing at either their #6, #12, or #45 locations. Fill up a growler (or more) with beer of your choice.
If your hotel has a working minibar in which you can keep your beer chilled overnight, great! Mine didn’t, so I had to get some ice from the front desk and use the bathroom waste bin to do the job. Great Wall Hiking had a small cooler in their van that they use for bottled water. I emptied out most of the water and used this to keep my beer cool on the trip out of Beijing. I then had a thermal bag to keep the beer cool to the point of consumption.
Note: at the time of writing, Jinshanling was closed for renovations. Check Great Wall Hiking’s website for updates. They can also recommend alternative itineraries.
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