Thru-hiking the Great Wall

Thru-hiking is the “Holy Grail” of Great Wall hiking. But unlike thru-hiking of a trail like the Appalachian Trail, thru-hiking the Great Wall can mean different things to different people since the Great Wall is not a single, continuous path.

Hundreds of people thru-hike the 3380-kilometer (2100-mile) Appalachian Trail every year. They all take more or less the same path. An average of about one person per year thru-hikes the Great Wall. No two of them ever take the same path unless they are together. Thru-hiking the Great Wall is a much different undertaking than thru-hiking a well-known hiking trail, largely because so few people do it.

If you are considering thru-hiking the Great Wall, you have a lot of decisions to make. This is not an activity that hundreds of people do every year like some other thru-hikes. Many people claim to have thru-hiked the Great Wall, but every individual (or group) has done it differently, so you can't just do it as it has been done in the past.

Whatever parameters you select for your thru-hike, remember that you are not in a contest. People seem to like to claim to be the first to complete this and that accomplishment, but no matter how you thru-hike the Great Wall, you will be the first to do it exactly the way you do it. There are just too many different possibilities and permutations to make meaningful comparisons.

As you read on, you will learn that doing a “complete” thru-hike of the Great Wall, even just the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, is not a possibility. You will not be able to claim that you have done a complete thru-hike, but only how close to complete you came.

Picking your Wall

Your first basic decision is going to be which Great Wall to thru-hike, since Great Walls built in different dynasties are located in different places. You might choose to hike the Han Dynasty Great Wall, for example, or the Qin Dynasty Great Wall. While these would be extremely interesting thru-hikes, most people would prefer to thru-hike the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. It is the most complete and it has the fewest gaps. It's also the newest and most robustly constructed, so in general, it's in the best condition today.

You also may not want to focus on a single dynasty. Another possibility is to hike from one place to another, west to east for example, following the most prominent or most interesting or least traveled Great Wall sections as you go.

Defining your starting and ending points

Once you have decided which Great Wall you want to thru-hike, you will need to decide on your starting and ending points. If you've decided to thru-hike the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, the western end is at Jiayuguan in Gansu province, so that choice is easy. But the eastern end is a different story. Traditionally the eastern end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall was said to be at Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall terminates at the Bohai Sea. But it's accepted now that Shanhaiguan is not the eastern end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, for a branch that starts just to the west of Shanhaiguan heads north and then east all the way to Korea, far away from Shanhaiguan. There is not a lot remaining of this branch of the Great Wall, and so you will find many very large gaps. In fact, you will not find much Great Wall at all along this stretch. Probably less than five percent of your hike on this branch will even be within sight of any Great Wall. Including this part of the Great Wall is going to greatly increase the effort involved in your thru-hike. It will make it much more nearly complete, but it may not make it much more interesting or educational. So knowing your priorities will help in making this kind of decision.

Picking a direction

Once you have defined the end points for your thru-hike, you will decide which one is the start and which one is the finish. This decision should correlate with the seasons. If you can pick your time for your hike, then you can decide on direction and then pick a starting date that works well for your route. Conceptually, on a Ming Dynasty Great Wall hike, you are hiking in the mountains in the east and in the desert in the west. It would not be wise to hike in the summertime in the desert; it's simply too hot and you would have to carry and consume a tremendous amount of water as well as bearing great discomfort and even danger due to the heat. And you would also prefer not to climb the mountainous areas in the winter when it would be extremely cold and there would be danger of snow and ice, which could make the steep areas of the Great Wall too dangerous.

Most people that thru-hike, or begin an attempt to thru-hike, the Great Wall begin in the west at Jiayuguan and hike eastward. There are advantages to this approach. You can defer the decision on whether you want to hike all the way to Korea or end your hike at Shanhaiguan until you've completed a long distance and gained experience. The terrain is more flat at the beginning of the eastbound hike which will allow you to achieve conditioning before you reach the more challenging, mountainous terrain towards the east.

There are also disadvantages to hiking from west to east. Hiking in the desert can be more challenging and dangerous due to the long spans with little civilization. There can also be extreme differences between daytime temperatures and nighttime temperatures. You must have endurance and you must avoid getting lost. These challenges will come up at the beginning of your hike when you may not be in the best shape mentally and physically.

The advantages of hiking from east to west are the disadvantages of hiking from west to east, and likewise the disadvantages of westbound hiking are the advantages of eastbound hiking. Neither direction is ideal, but one might fit your individual situation better than the other. What is more challenging and difficult to you, the heat and desolation of the desert in the west or the demanding terrain of the mountains in the east? And would you rather put the greatest difficulties behind you early on or save them until you're in condition to tackle them?

Eroding purism is common to thru-hikers. We start out with the best intentions of walking every inch of a trail, but as time goes by, we accept detours and gaps more readily. Many times, eastbound thru-hikers reach the steep mountains of the east and begin walking through valleys and along roads rather than attempting to closely follow the dangerous and fatiguing route of the Great Wall. If you think you want to do better, it may be wise to start in the east and immediately reach the mountains, while your motivation—and naivety—are at their peaks. You may get a better result, or alternatively, you may reduce the amount of time you will spend deceiving yourself.

Defining hiking parameters

Now that you have defined your starting and ending points, it's time for the really difficult decisions. As you know, the Great Wall is far from a single, continuous path, so defining the details of your route will present you with many possibilities. For most of them you're defining the difficulty and the completeness of your thru-hike. At one extreme, you could follow the most direct route from the beginning to the end, but you would only cross over the Great Wall here and there along the way, so this is not really an attractive option for anyone other than someone who just wants to be able to say “I did it” to those listeners who don't know the difference. The other extreme is to follow every part of the Great Wall between your end points, a task that would require years and would involve a tremendous amount of backtracking and circling. You must reach a compromise at some point between these two extremes.

You might have already envisioned your solution: follow as much of the Great Wall as possible while going from start to end without any doubling back or circling. Unfortunately, it's not going to be that simple. First of all, there will be places where you cannot follow and you must find your way around. Even if you're an expert rock climber and nothing is too steep or difficult, you'll find places that are legally off-limits. You'll find places that will require varying degrees of straying from your main course, and each one will require a decision of whether or not to devote the time and effort. Here are some examples.

Imagine you're following a line of the Great Wall. Then there is a gap of a few kilometers to the next span. But in between the two spans, but offset to one side or the other, is a fragment of the Great Wall. Do you take the time to walk this fragment? If it's close then you will; if it's far then you won't. But at what point do you draw the line? And what if the fragment is far away but very big, or close by but very small? What if it's a line of towers with no wall in between?

Next, imagine you're following a line and you come upon a spur that extends for a distance that you could walk in five minutes and ends. You can easily walk to the end of that spur and return rather than skip it. But what if it would take you five hours, or five days? What if that spur connects to another wall?

Now imagine you're following a line and you know it's heading for a river. There's no river crossing available at that point even though the Great Wall continues on the other side of the river. Do you get off at the road that leads to the bridge? Or do you walk to the river and then reverse your course to return to the road?

All of these choices and many more will have to be made when deciding how to hike from point A to point B.

If you're considering a more complete hike than a basic route from point A to point B, you will have more decisions to consider. Imagine the wall you're following splits in two like a Y. Each of the forks runs parallel down into a valley and up the next mountain, where they rejoin. Will you skip one of these two parallel paths? What if there is another wall parallel to you, but the two walls never join? These kinds of situations happen on both small and large scales. Sometimes there are several parallel walls, and sometimes they are separated by many days of walking. To complete all of them would be a lifelong endeavor. So you are just going to have to settle on what works for you and be satisfied with that.

There are even more decisions to be made while defining your thru-hike. How much danger are you willing to accept? There will come a time when you don't want to walk the Great Wall and you decide to bypass it. Imagine a very long, steep, and crumbling section which has an angle of well over 45 degrees and where there is nothing to hold onto. I've been in this situation plenty of times. In photographs, it looks like a nice challenge; in person, it looks suicidal. There's one notorious span of about 100 meters that's called Sky Bridge. At about one half a meter wide (the width of two bricks side by side, some of which are loose or missing), with drop-offs of better than 100 meters on both sides, and steps of up to a meter high, many people take one look at the Sky Bridge and turn back. Those that do cross it often do so by inching along without actually standing upright.

More decisions: If there is a long gap with no Great Wall at all, do you have to walk it or can you find transportation? Will you do the entire hike uninterrupted from beginning to end, or will you do it in sections, occasionally returning to towns and restarting from your last stopping point? If you take these breaks, will you use ground transportation? Will you limit your time off between sections?

There is no right or wrong to doing a thru-hike. Do it the way you like, and no matter what, you'll still have an achievement that you can be proud of forever.

Suggested locations for thru-hikes

Listed here in chronological order are people that have traveled the distance of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. Their actual starting points, ending points, and walk details vary. However, no judgments of the “legitimacy” of their walks are involved. These people made it from their starting point to their destination.

The actual distance of the Great Wall, including the actual locations of the starting and ending points, what branches and paths need to be followed, and what constitutes walking the entire distance, is controversial. This is because the Wall is not a single, continuous structure, but consists of several different walls built at different times and places for different purposes. Often existing walls that had been built earlier were joined up at later times to make longer walls, and in several places, there are multiple layers of walls separated by varying distances.

Therefore, we have not tried to judge who did and did not make a “legitimate” trek, but just listed people that have made it from their starting point to their destination.

Dr. William Edgar Geil of the United States was the first to travel the distance of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall from Shanhaiguan to Jiayuguan. He did not travel on foot, but his 1907 journey was very impressive and you can read about it in his book.

Liu Yutian of China was the first documented individual to travel the distance of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, completing his journey from west to east in 1984.

Dong Yaohui of China was another early Great Wall trekker. Leaving from Shanhaiguan in 1984, he and two companions explored the Great Wall for 508 days, exploring branches and eventually reaching Jiayuguan in 1985. He is currently the president of the China Great Wall Society.

Si Lai of China was still another early Great Wall explorer. He traveled from Shanhaiguan to Jiayuguan as described in his 1986 book, Journey Along the Great Wall.

William Lindesay of England is known as the first foreigner to travel the length of the Great Wall. His first attempt, leaving Shanhaiguan heading to the west, was unsuccessful. His second attempt, leaving Jiayuguan in 1987 heading to Shanhaiguan, was ultimately successful, carrying him 2470 kilometers, although he was repeatedly detained and delayed.

Eddie Davis and Beau Bacevicius of the United States in only 109 days in 2000 walked 2900 kilometers (1800 miles) from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan.

Gayle Hall of the United States was the first woman to walk the distance of the Great Wall. She traveled with two Chinese companions from Yumenguan to Shanhaiguan over 174 days in 2002.

Izabela Jankowska and Miranda Ford hiked from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan from April through October in 2002 and April through August in 2004.

Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas of Australia completed the distance from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan from June, 2006 through July, 2007.

Diego Azubel of Argentina completed the journey from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan in 2000 to 2001, accompanying Nathan Gray for part of the route.

Nathan Gray of New Zealand completed the journey from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan from 2000 to 2002.

Kevin Gilbert Jones and Paolo Antonelli also accompanied Nathan Gray and Diego Azubel at the beginning of their trek, but I do not think they completed the journey to Shanhaiguan.

Jamie Bradish of the United States went from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan and then returned to Jiayuguan to journey all the way to Dandong from 2006 to 2008.

Tarka L'Herpiniere of France and Katie-Jane Cooper of England traveled 4300 kilometers from Yumenguan to arrive at Tiger Mountain in Dandong in 2007.

Mark Scholinz of Australia hiked 4780 continuous kilometers from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan including many alternate loops and offshoots over 276 days in 2007.

Robert Loken of Norway began his thru-hike at Jiayuguan in March of 2009 and reached Dandong in December of 2010.

Turner Savard and Alexa Williams of the United States began their hike at Jiayuguan in March of 2010. Alexa decided she had had enough and went home, but Turner made it to Shanhaiguan in September of 2010.

Ooi Thean Hin of Malaysia hiked from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan, three thousand kilometers over seven trips and 165 trekking days from September, 2009 through October, 2016.

Andreas Lehman of Germany hiked, explored, and documented more of the Great Wall than anyone else we know of over a period of many years. He finished the complete route from Jiayuguan to Shanhaiguan as well as finding and walking walls from many other dynasties.

This page will be updated as new and better information becomes available. Please feel free to contact us if you have additional information or corrections.

No known people have thru-hiked any Great Wall other than the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

Feature: A great walk along the Great Wall

2014-05-20 23:24:45 GMT2014-05-21 07:24:45(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

By Xinhua writers Lyu Qiuping, Zhao Qian

YINCHUAN, May 20 (Xinhua) -- In a poem, frenchwoman Sylvia Berjas-Morales, 69, calls her journey along China's Great Wall "a great walk... in heaven and a little hell".

She has traveled over 3,000 km along the Great Wall from west to the east, walking alone since 2008, the year of Beijing Olympics.

"By walking along it, I can learn not only about the Great Wall itself, but about the real China," she said.

Farmers fetch water from wells, plow field with cattle and cook on wood fires, things that are never seen in Beijing or Shanghai, she said. "This is the very root of China. I hope more people can see this."

The idea of walking along the Great Wall came to Berjas-Morales in 1999, when she was a nurse caring for an Alzheimer's patient in Australia.

"The patient had been to China and kept telling me about the country," she recalled, adding he was so depressed when he realized he was going to lose his memory that he could not stop crying until Berjas-Morales mentioned "something very big and very important" -- the Great Wall.

"I said to him, 'Max, if you stop crying, I will walk the Great Wall of China'," she recalled.

Berjas-Morales had kept the promise in mind, but it didn't come true easily. In 2003, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It took much of her energy and savings to fight the disease.

She finally left for China in 2007. In walking the Great Wall, she is raising funds for a cancer charity. The journey started at Yumenguan, northwestern Gansu Province, where the Wall dates from the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).

"It was amazing. It's incredible that's still there after all these years," she said, adding that was the first section of the Great Wall she had seen.

On her journey, she carried little candles with her and lit one every hundred kilometers to acknowledge the people who built the wall. "It was such achievement. It deserves a little bit of respect."

Dating back to around 200 B.C. when the first emperor of Qin had fortifications built to stop invasions by northern tribes, the Great Wall has been rebuilt many times. As most of the wall sections were built in remote areas, walking alone is anything but safe.

Near Gansu's Anxi County, she woke up finding her tent surrounded by footprints of wolves. In the Gobi desert with a daily temperature difference up to 40 degrees Celsius, she did not dare sleep at night. There was one time when she ran out of water and got lost on her way to find more: "Luckily, a truck driver found me and helped me call the police," she said.

She plans to finish the trip next November by walking around the Bird's Nest, the main venue of the Beijing Olympic Games, as a symbol of the Olympic spirit on her 70th birthday.

She has written poems on what she saw and how she felt along the journey, and plans a book.

"China is very big. It is not just Beijing, and it deserves to be known and to be seen," she said.

Web links of past thru-hikers

William Lindesay
William Lindesay
Kevin Foster (bicycling)
Eddie Davis and Beau Bacevicius
Eddie Davis and Beau Bacevicius
Eddie Davis and Beau Bacevicius
Gayle Hall
Gayle Hall
Gayle Hall
Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas
Diego Azubel
Nathan Gray
Jamie Bradish
Tarka L'Herpiniere and Katie-Jane Cooper
Robert Loken
Rachel Dickinson and Diwen Cao
Alexa Williams and Turner Savard
Alexa Williams and Turner Savard