Many thanks to Bryan of the Great Wall forum for writing this page. Bryan and the forum members have been very helpful in the planning of the route for the walk.
An unimaginable building achievement
The Great Wall of China was last built on a large scale by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and the work that they did has left the world with a structure that absolutely boggles the mind. Millions of people visit the Great Wall every year. They ride on a cable car or, in some cases, climb hundreds of steep steps to reach high vantage points from which the Great Wall can be seen twisting and turning, rising and falling, following the high points of the terrain as far as the eye can see. These people marvel at the huge amount of work that must have been required to build this massive structure in a remote and inaccessible area using only manual labor. Sometimes they wonder how even one of the huge stone foundation blocks could have been carried up the mountain into place. And occasionally they stop and think that they are only looking at a fraction of a percent of the entire structure. If they do, they realize that the effort required to achieve this achievement is nearly unimaginable.
Most people visit the Great Wall because they are in China, but there will always be people who are in China for the express purpose of visiting the Great Wall. Some of them, like me, will return again and again to explore more of the Great Wall. They will never grow tired of it or become bored, and they will never run out of new areas to explore. For the Great Wall covers an unbelievable amount of territory as it winds its way across highly varied terrain of the northern border of China.
Loops, branches and offshoots
The eastern end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, at the border of China and Korea, is thousands of kilometers from the western end in the desert, but by no means does the Great Wall take a direct path. Viewed from a large scale, it winds repeated north and south to a great extent. Viewed from a closer vantage point, its path is even more tortuous as it winds its way from place to place. In many areas, there are two or even more redundant walls. There are loops, branches, and offshoots. And there are separate watch towers. Stretch all of these fortifications out in a straight line and nobody knows how long the result would really be. Estimates range from 6000 to 10,000 kilometers.
Defining the ends of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall
It’s inevitable that adventurous people want to hike along the Great Wall, and many of them aspire to hike long distances. Many people have traveled along long portions of the Wall. But only a few have attempted to traverse its entire length. First of all, walking the length of the Great Wall can mean many different things. The first issue involves defining the ends. While the western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall is accepted to be at Jiayuguan, around 98 degrees east longitude, the Han Dynasty Great Wall reaches much further west, to around 94 degrees east longitude, a difference of some 350 kilometers. So we revise our goal: to walk the distance of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. This makes the western end easy to define, but not so for the east. For many years, the accepted eastern end of the Ming Wall was Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea, at around 119 degrees east longitude. But recently, scholars have agreed that the Ming Dynasty Great Wall actually extends to the Korean border, at about 124 degrees east longitude and traveling much farther north and then south again to get there.
Then there’s the issue of how to get from point A to point B, and there are two factors in this issue. First, is it necessary to follow all of the loops, offshoots, and multiple layers of Walls, or is it just necessary to follow the shortest route. The difference in magnitude between the two approaches is tremendous. And second, is it necessary to follow the actual Wall, or just to take its general path but go around obstacles that the Great Wall may actually go over rather than around, such as steep mountains. Again, a tremendous difference. Of course, there are no rules and adventurers do what satisfies them. But the more of the Wall that is covered, and the less that is missed or bypassed, the nearer the hiker comes to the ideal but probably impossible fulfillment of hiking the entire Ming Dynasty Great Wall.
Walking the entire Great Wall
Hiking the entire course of the Wall is possible, but a great amount of time and a lot of doubling back would be required. But what I believe is not possible is following the actual path of the Wall for this whole distance. There are many places where the Wall cannot be walked upon legally because it is protected or because military zones have been declared which encompass the Great Wall and are forbidden. There are may places too where the Wall is extremely steep, sometimes nearly vertical, and the surface is so badly deteriorated that it is not possible to gain a foothold. Of course the obstacle of permission is theoretically surmountable, as is the climbing aspect. But I doubt anyone will ever overcome all of the physical, legal, and time obstacles to complete an uninterrupted, complete traverse of the Great Wall. It’s really just a matter of how close one comes, and in truth, nobody has ever come close in the past. In addition, some claims of partial success have been made but not substantiated. In my opinion, the first person to ever hike from the eastern end of the Ming Great Wall to the western end, in either direction, following the Great Wall as much as reasonably possible and publishing GPS tracks of the entire route, will deserve great respect as the first to achieve a very difficult and impressive feat.