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Exploring the Great Wall of China with author John Shors

5th September 2017

#TalkingLocationWith… author John Shors “Exploring the Great Wall of China”

As the author of seven novels, which are all works of historical fiction set in Asia, I’ve been blessed to travel to some of the most interesting places on that extraordinary continent. My literary journey began with a trip to India and the Taj Mahal—a profound experience that compelled me to spend the next five years bringing the one of the world’s greatest love stories to life on the page. That effort finally emerged as my debut novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, which went on to become an international bestseller and is now in twenty languages.

Photo: thesun.co.uk

Over the past decade, I’ve traveled all over Asia, searching for places and stories to write about. One location that particularly inspired me was the Great Wall of China, which I visited several times over a multi-year period. These research trips gave me a comfort level with not only the Great Wall, but with China’s complex history and culture.

My novel about the Great Wall, Unbound, was just released, and I believe that my story will inspire readers to search out more information on this legendary fortification, and perhaps to plan trips to China. For anyone interested in traveling to the Great Wall, I’d like to take a moment to pass along a few suggestions.

There are many tour companies that operate out of Beijing and take tourists to the Great Wall. Joining a large group, or hiring a private driver and guide, aren’t difficult propositions. What’s tricky is deciding which part of the Great Wall to visit, as many different areas of the fortification are easily accessible from Beijing.

Exploring the Great Wall of China

The author on the Great Wall of China

The most popular location with locals and tourists is known as Badaling. This part of the Great Wall is about a two-hour drive from Beijing. Badaling has been completely restored, and features magnificent watchtowers, ramparts, and walkways. When visiting Badaling, it’s easy to get a good sense for the size and scope of the Great Wall. And yet, I wouldn’t recommend Badaling to the first-time visitor as the area is overrun with both tourists and vendors. It has a carnival-like atmosphere, and fails to deliver a magical experience.

Badaling Photo: Wikipedia.org

Mutianyu Photo: Wikipedia

A popular section of the wall to visit among foreigners is known as Mutianyu. This area is only a 90-minute drive from Beijing, and also has been wonderfully resorted. It’s child-friendly and features a cable car, which provides easy access from amenities near the road. Mutianyu boasts many wonderful watchtowers, and is surrounded by a forest of pine trees. People interested in a hike should walk toward Jiankou. For anyone with limited time, a journey to Mutianyu only takes a half-day, and will create a wonderful memory.

Jinshanling Photo: Eric Ho

For travelers with a full day to spend on an adventure to the Great Wall, I recommend visiting Jinshanling, which is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Beijing. Jinshanling has been partially resorted. This section of the Great Wall crosses a series of mountain summits. Visitors can access the Great Wall here via cable car, and can enjoy a descent via a long alpine slide. Jinshanling is much less crowded than the sites I’ve already mentioned, and it’s possible to walk for miles in either direction. I’d recommend walking toward Simatai, which is a moderately challenging, three-hour hike.

I’ve visited many parts of the Great Wall, and after much thought, decided to set my novel, Unbound, at Jinshanling. I thought the walk toward Simatai was the most beautiful and dramatic of any that I’d experienced. The views are extraordinary.

In general, I’d recommend leaving early for any site along the Great Wall. Try to arrive ahead of the crowds, which tend to appear in the late morning and early afternoon. You don’t need to be in excellent physical shape to visit any of the areas mentioned above, as they are easily accessed by cable car. But if you are in good shape, I’d recommend getting to the fortification, and then walking away from the entry points. The farther you walk, the fewer people you’ll see.

Ming Tombs Photo: Crystallinks.com

Whichever section of the Great Wall you visit, consider stopping at the Ming Tombs on the way to, or return trip from, the fortification. The Ming Tombs are located between Beijing and the Great Wall, and are an amazing collection of thirteen mausoleums that hold the remains of the Ming Dynasty emperors.

Visiting the Great Wall is a one-of-a-kind experience, and I suggest spending some time to determine a strategy that aligns with your schedule and expectations. Be sure to check with local authorities as to which sections of the fortification are open, as sometimes areas are closed for renovation.

As you walk on the Great Wall, you’ll feel history come alive beneath your feet, and you’ll never forget the experience.


John Shors is the internationally bestselling novelist. He also leads small groups of readers to the settings of his novels.

You can buy his books through TripFiction and do visit his own travel company. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and connect via his website

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