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Hiking the whole Ming wall

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  • Hike! Hiking the whole Ming wall

    Hi guys,

    Firstly, thanks for viewing. Secondly, I apologise as you must see this planned hike 1000 times before - I've looked through a bunch of articles and they all seem to follow a similar route - of course.

    Anyway, lets get into it. As with seemingly everyone on the planet, we think this hike is exceptionally appealing for a thousand reasons. A friend and I, somewhat adventure enthusiasts, plan to do this hike but to professionally film the entire trip. I know this might sound ridiculous to begin with, that's somewhat the point, but he has major backing from sponsors (Mario Rigby - he just hiked from Cape town to Cairo on his own over 2.5 years - google him!) and I am a professional cameraman wanting to make a living from extreme sport/adventure filming - I've spent lots of time hiking in the Himalaya, working as a Sherpa in the Pyrenees and cycled solo across Europe. We are not strangers to brutal conditions, big fitness tests and getting inevitably lost at times.

    The idea is to capture the raw beauty, difficulty, culture and whatever else it throws at us with the hope of it landing on Netflix or a similar platform. Huge ambitions and arguably undoable, we know, but there is only one way to know for sure.

    There are lots of questions to be asked and I will keep reading through other threads to try and find them in the meantime, but there are a few things that I can't find information on/has got me questioning particular things -

    1 - I heard that a non-Chinese tourist is not legally allowed to carry a GPS signal? Does anyone know if that's true?
    2- One thing that always comes up is the placement of military bases in certain areas. Would it be absolutely impossible to avoid these following the Ming wall or would we have to detour? (If we have to legally, then fair enough, we can't change that). If we were to accidentally pass into the bounds, especially with camera equipment (I'm worried mostly about using a drone) - what do you think would become of me? Being arrested isn't a major concern, it's more like confiscation of equipment/deleting of footage that bothers us.
    3 - Where do you, as enthusiasts, see the wall's 'end point'? I know that Shanhaiguan is considered by some but I know that there is an alternate point that it heads onwards and into North Korea (of course we all know the situation with that), with Hushan being the last realistic finish point. From what I believe, and forgive me if the translation is bad, the section from (roughly) Shanhaiguan to the Korean border is called the Liaodong wall - but I don't really know the general state of this section because it doesn't seem to have a fixed answer anywhere. Has anyone been there/done it?
    4 - We want to push ourselves hard and ideally do the whole hike in one go. This comes down to visa restrictions as well as personal dates elsewhere that we can't miss. How long, for fit men pushing themselves hard, do you think we could realistically do it in? I've been on contact with Tarka L'Herpiniere before and know that his trip took 6 months. They encountered a few issues but I wouldn't be as naive as to think we won't either... Plus filming will slow us down at times.
    5 - Also, similar as to number 3, is the start point. Most suggest that it's around Jiayuguan, but I know that Tarka went from Yumenguan. I've done a bit of research but would appreciate your input as it seems that a lot are very knowledgeable here.
    6 - Of course I've seen many people conversing about the option of hiking East-West or West-East. Weather and difficulty aside, we have chosen to walk West-East solely because it has a much more defined finish point (whichever we choose). This, from a filming point of view, is a big deal and one that we can't miss.
    7 - Maps. The big question that everyone seems to ask. Where would I be able to get detailed OS maps? (I know it's been asked many times, but of course websites/companies come and go and I would like an updated view).
    8 - We would like to give something back as we go. Whether that'd be to the communities themselves or to the future of China. Is there anything, above others, that needs to be addressed along the wall? Whether that'd be local schools, water supplies, agriculture, etc etc. I would like to believe that we can do some good at the same time as doing our trip. We're all ears!
    9 - (Again been asked many times...) The dates, very roughly, would be this coming Autumn (2018). Of course with the length of the trip, we would have to overlap somewhere with summer/winter (not ideal we know!) but we're playing around with different dates. We don't want to hike in July, the heat will be ridiculous, but it may be inevitable to complete the trip before the bitter winter strikes in the mountains of the East. What would be regarded as 'worse' - the heat of summer months in the West or the cold conditions of the winter in the East?

    Thanks everyone for your patience in reading. Any feedback really is appreciated. Of course I understand that people will tell have differing views, as may we, but I really do value your knowledge.

    Max and Mario.

  • #2
    Well, you're right, we see this many times in one variation or another. Good luck, is the short version! I will answer as best I can, having not done the whole thing, not by a long stretch, but having visited some parts out in Gansu and been caught in a sandstorm out there more than once, and being very familiar with nearly all of the Beijing area wall.

    1. Maybe but given every smart phone has GPS, it's somewhat difficult to police. I have carried my garmin all the time and it's been looked at once by military with no issue. If you're very unlucky some over zealous nationalist might report you to the police but I'd be surprised.
    2. I don't know the answer to the first part but the second part could range from interrogation and release without harm, to a fine, to arrest, to instant deportation. Who can say? Various people have had experiences on that spectrum. Times are changing here. It might depend on whether you have permits to film for commercial purposes and what visa category you're on.
    3. Chinoook has done it all. He's vanished without a trace in the last year but if he pops his head in here perhaps he can help.
    4. Six months seems rather ambitious.
    5. Yumenguan is more commonly associated with the Han Dynasty and Jiayuguan with the Ming.
    6. W to E seems more sensible.
    7. No.
    8. Don't trash it, would be the main one. Think practically about what you can do in remote places where you presumably won't have any support. Are you planning on carrying text books to hand out at schools? Probably the best thing you can do is treat the wall with respect and approach wall scientifically. Rather than just taking a long walk and filming yourself taking a long walk, what will your trip contribute to knowledge about the GW? What are some of the unanswered questions? Maybe you can help work them out.
    9. The desert in summer can be 45+ C with no water available. The mountains in winter can be -25C during the day. You can choose.

    Now to our standard caveat. The endeavour you propose is an expedition of mammoth proportions. I mean no disrespect to your experience or fitness, but crossing China on foot via the Great Wall is not remotely similar to riding a bike across Europe. Minus the gunfire, it's going to be more like Mario's trip. But the logistics challenges alone are enormous. What are you going to eat and drink? What will you do if you fall and are hurt? Some parts of the wall are literally in the middle of the desert. How much water do you think you can carry, with your cameras, and food, for how long? I'm not saying you can't do it, but you need to really think that stuff through. Can you speak Chinese? Even if you can, who would you call? If you can't, what then?

    Even the Ming wall isn't unbroken along the route - there are long stretches along the Ming line where there is no wall at all (in one case over 80km but many other shorter ones). How are you going to traverse those and how will you navigate them?

    There are many other things to think about.

    I personally doubt that it can be achieved unsupported by two people in six months. Consider that Chinoook did the whole Ming wall in one or two month-long instalments per year over something like seven years, and during each instalment he more or less hiked from dawn to dusk unburdened by a load (because he had a support person who met him at the end of each day in a jeep). It took him more than six months under those conditions, in which he could surely travel further per day than people under load, and bearing in mind that at the end of each of those month long sessions he had months in between to recover. I've been with him in both the desert and the mountains and he's a tough character, and a reasonable benchmark. Remember, too, some of the other through-hikers have not necessarily covered all of it. They may have done the majority but in the absence of a gps trace, it's hard compare one with the other in terms of time/distance.

    If you can find a support mechanism you might be able to do it.

    anyway, that's my take on it. Don't give up but refine your plans a bit.

    If you're tired of the Great Wall, you're tired of life.
    Journeys, &c


    • #3
      Hi Bianfuxia,

      Thanks a lot for your swift reply. I'm going to reply in similar style to the previous posts to avoid confusion.

      1 - That's really good news. Of course, as you mentioned in the 2nd question, no one person can read the future and know whether I'll get that one officer on a bad day - but it's good to know that it doesn't seem to be a massive bullseye.
      2 - I have looked into the visas with that and got in contact with Chinese authorities already. The J2 journalist visa (which I was considering) is only a 15-day visa and, unless I stick a rocket to my back and hold on tight, isn't quite enough time to cover the wall. For that reason I'm stuck with having to go with a 6-month multiple entry 'L' class visa. I'm very much hoping that this doesn't get me in to trouble but I am aware of the risks... I only have myself to blame if the visa backfires.
      3 - I did send Chinook a message earlier enquiring about a few things as I have seen that he seems to be a source of knowledge in these forums. Lets hope he pops his head up soon. In the mean time, do you have any input as to which you would consider a more viable place to call an 'end point' if you were to undertake trying to walk the whole thing? I'm leaning towards heading right towards Korea but, of course, it depends on so many other factors first.
      4 - Six months is what Tarka/Katie took to do the full hike - from Yumenguan to Dandong. Granted, they're both incredibly fit, but they had a few issues that put them back some time. It seems physically possible, but just very difficult - would you agree with that?
      5 - That's very interesting, thanks! I'm not too sure why Tarka/Katie used that as their starting point in that case, I suppose that's why I asked? I had always assumed the most Westerly point was Jiayuguan. There was also something that I read about something called the 'overhanging cliffs' or something of that nature - just westwards of Jiayuguan? Does that sound familiar or was I reading something with little credibility? And if so - is there a place further west (on the Ming wall) then Jiayuguan?
      6 - Thanks for the nod of approval
      7 - Can I ask - is this because you don't know of any good places for OS maps of the wall, or are you just not wanting to hand them out to strangers? I'd understand the latter of course, everyone has their principles.
      8 - Of course I wouldn't trash it. Then again, I'm sure everyone says the same thing. Also, I wouldn't carry text books around, no. The weight would be far too much given the circumstances. Raising money from potential film sales and investing that into text books, however, could be arranged. That's actually what I meant by my question though - I would like to know if there are any unanswered questions/research/conservation/restoration things that we could be doing along the way that immediately spring to mind? It'd seem like a waste to just walk the wall for the sake of it as I could walk thousands of miles anywhere - but I'm not - I'm walking the Great Wall. Understanding the wall, the history, the culture and even the future of the wall would make the whole trip far more worthwhile and if I can help to answer anything, it'd really make the trip that much more special.
      9 - I'd definitely prefer -25, as would Mario. We've both had run-ins with dehydration before and it's absolute top priority to avoid getting into a sticky situation out there.

      Regarding the rest, thanks for expanding! I never meant to sound like I was comparing cycling across Europe to hiking the GW on foot, of course it's not the same thing. We always knew that this trip would be much more like Mario's trip than my previous trips, that much is obvious, but the experience from my own experiences will definitely help at some stages. We're in contact at the moment with many sponsors and think that we will have 'drop off points' along the way with dehydrated food supplies - every 500km or so. It's also my understanding that we will encounter some (few!) shops/stalls/markets along the way to resupply if we're getting low. Am I correct in saying that?

      Water is my main concern, as I think it would have to be for anyone. This is something that I'm working on at the moment - firstly a fixed route, then fixed dates, then all the specific details to make such a mammoth hike possible. We're going to break down the trip into as many small chapters as possible to make sure that we have a checkpoint as frequently as possible, using these, we can contact a 3rd person back at home with details of our progress and they will have regular updates - if we miss these - then at least there is some sort of warning and rough location in place. This also helps us plan water/food pickups along the way - of course the amount of food/water will depend entirely on each individual leg.

      No, we can't speak Chinese. The plan is to learn key sayings and have them pre-recorded to use as an SOS transmission if needed. Also, we would have some written details on us regarding who we are, what we're doing, where we're going, etc etc. I remember, in Nepal, this worked surprisingly well even in the most remote parts. Trust me, I really want to do this expedition - but I want to actually survive it! Safety is a top priority and being stupid won't help anybody. Thanks for the word of warning though, you guys have been there and know how perilous it can be, we haven't.

      I was very aware that the wall is not complete and that stretches would have to be navigated using a map, compass and bearing. These are obviously the most dangerous parts as it'd be all too easy to make a mistake when you're exhausted and end up in the middle of nowhere. I can see on a few vague maps where the gaps appear to be - but do you have any more accurate information? This is why I'm looking to find a good OS map of the area, so that I can pre-plan these challenges. I'm all for 'winging it' in certain scenarios, but scenarios like this need a bit more research and thought going it them...

      Thanks for the elaboration on Chinoooks adventures (along with your own!), it really is food for thought. I guess, realistically, there is only one way to find out how long it'll take us to complete such a huge hike. If it takes longer, it takes longer. If we get caught out by sandstorms/blizzards and it sets us back, then fine! We are doing a few test hikes with similar weight backpacks (and on similar terrain) to see approximately how much ground we cover in a day - from there we hope to set our sights on a fixed pace. It would be nice to hear Chinoooks feedback on this but, as you mentioned, everyone is different and the difference in a few weeks over such a long hike is a relatively small margin.

      Again, thank you so much for all of your feedback. It's unbelievably appreciated and has all been taken on board!


      • #4
        No problem. Good that you realise how big an undertaking it is. We get people writing in who did six weeks on the Pacific Trail and think it's the same. As far as I know, not one person who has written in since I've been here has actually done it.

        Re the maps, no, they don't exist. Only the Chinese military has topo maps, as far as I know. Somewhere on the forum is a link to some large scale WW2 era CIA maps but I don't know if they cover it all.

        I just reiterate the point that it's hard to base any estimates on others' trips, because you don't know how much wall they actually covered. Their journey may indeed have taken six months, and may have started at A and ended at B, but you don't know - unless they tell you - what precisely they did in between. Even a few years ago, not all the wall was known to outsiders, and much of the current knowledge is based on increasingly better google earth imagery.

        On 8, I don't know, I'm afraid. I don't know too much about the "missing links" as for me it's hard enough to work out what is already known. I know a bit more about the Beijing area but that's a drop in the ocean.

        On water, everyone is different, but I tend to think that over a longer walk (say more than a couple of days) you need at least three liters of water per day, more if you plan to rehydrate food, and a lot more if it's hot. A liter of water weighs a kilo, so I think the water drops or resupplies need to be much closer.

        You might want to consider, as Chinoook did, having a person who can mirror your journey by vehicle and meet you every few days. He would be able to find the old cart trails up to/near the wall and bring you water. Chinoook then stayed most nights in villages by this method, but you could of course camp and just use it as a resupply. I can put you in touch with Chinoook's guy. He is great, very reliable, but doesn't speak English. Naturally you need to pay him a salary and costs but if you have corporate sponsorship perhaps you can do so.

        re the visa issue just be careful. If it's decided you're working as a journalist on an L visa, you'll be gone before you know what happened. But if you are travelling and recording your travels, it should be fine. The issue will only come to a had, of course, if you blunder into a military zone. This is a very foolish thing to do but the honest truth is, unlike in the US, UK, etc where there is a big sign saying "military zone, you'll be shot on sight" or whatever, here, there is usually nothing. So it's happened to many of us that suddenly there's a soldier in our face. I think as Mario would have plenty of experience in, an honest and open non-aggressive response goes a long way in determining the tone the authorities will take. Not much you can do about it but hope it goes your way.

        Also, don't worry that we think you're some upstart - I meant nothing by the biking Europe comment except the plain meaning - it's just that it's a big, big expedition and we have, as a group, taken the view that we just tell people the reality of how it is.

        Feel free to stay in touch and if it does go ahead, of course, let us know. I have a few good contacts around the place who could maybe hook you up with Chinese coverage if you wanted it (perhaps towards the end so there's no risk).

        If you're tired of the Great Wall, you're tired of life.
        Journeys, &c


        • #5
          To do the whole thing as one consecutive walk is about impossible. I did the entire walk in ten years, my longest walk was about three months in the easy east. As soon as you enter the loess plateau things become difficult. Calculate a whole month on the northern loop, one and a half month for Liaoning, two to three month along the Hebei and Beijing walls.
          Everything with a heavy pack - no way in my opinion. All people who claim to have done this before walked rather roads than the wall.

          To cover winter is impossible in my opinion (bianfuxia?), high summer not being easier.

          And obove all: Without solid knowledge of the Chinese language it would be no fun at all.

          chinoook's 1st law: Structurally weak walls tend to have double structures.
          chinoook's 2nd law: Newer walls are built next older walls, not over them.
          chinoook's 3rd law: Similar problems lead to similar solutions.

          The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of people, who have not viewed the world. (Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), German naturalist and explorer)


          • #6
            You're alive! Hao jiu bu jian, lao pengyou.
            If you're tired of the Great Wall, you're tired of life.
            Journeys, &c


            • #7
              Yes winter hiking with a pack on the wall is slow going. I usually calculate one km/h as a rule of thumb when planning routes on tough wall, slower if it's covered in snow. The most I ever did in a day, with a daypack, was 20km or so and that was basically dawn to dusk. I was knackered afterwards too, so I wouldn't want to be trying that day after day. 7 to 10km a day is much more realistic as an average. Some days you'll easily do 20, another day will take you all day to cover a few kms.
              If you're tired of the Great Wall, you're tired of life.
              Journeys, &c


              • #8
                I moved this thread to the Thru-hiking section.

                Please check out the three sticky threads there if you haven't already.

                Thanks and good luck!


                • #9
                  I'm not surprised that nobody has done it, it's not exactly a brisk walk in the park. I'm expecting this to be far bigger than anything I've ever done, more difficult than I imagine and far more painful. But if I go in thinking this, it can only serve me well...

                  I suppose that I can only use the tools that are given to me, if it turns out at a later date that more of the wall is discovered - then I'll be able to sleep at night knowing that we gave it a shot with the knowledge we had. As said before, the only way to know is to do it. Hopefully then I can get back to you all with a solid outline of what we did, the pace we covered, the issues we covered, etc etc. Still then, as you raised twice, I'm sure it'd be such a personal feat that it would only ever be a rough guide to someone if they were to undertake it again in the future.

                  I'll have to get in touch with Chinoook to find out more about the missing wall, hopefully he can shed some light on it. Luckily, we're not naive enough to think that it's one, long, continuous wall (I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised by how many people think so!). With regards to the water pick-ups, I didn't mean picking up water every 500km - we'll do that at absolutely every occasion that comes our way. I meant more like packaged food, clothing, camera stuff, etc as the geography/weather/tourism of each stretch will change. For instance, there is no point having massive weight of food/safety equipment if we're around Beijing. The water on the other hand is a close call but I'd rather take too much and have tired legs than get dehydrated - ditching it as we go if we find that we don't need anywhere near as much as thought. Sound sensible?

                  It would be very interesting to enquire about the use of help. I will send you a personal message regarding this as I wouldn't ask you to post his details here. I know that we would like to spend time in local villages along the way as, for me, that's what really sticks in your memory. Plus I'm sure that Mario and I will run out of conversation at some point and even effectively playing a miming game would help! Thanks for the tip-off there, it could become very valuable.

                  Again, thanks for the warning. I've done what I can with regards to visas and I'd definitely make it much more like a travel journal rather than a full-blown film set. The drone is my worry. We will have to see what happens. I mean no disrespect in asking this, it's the sad truth in a lot of places, but do you think that a friendly bribe would help us in that situation? Say, if we were to be pulled by the military... It's awful but we've both been there before!

                  I take no offence at all, you're well within your right to warn us. I much prefer honest criticism than fake optimism. Everyone has to start their first big adventure somewhere, right?

                  We will definitely be in touch with this forum as it gets closer to the time and even en-route if it's possible. Given the nature of this website and everyone in it, I think you would really appreciate it and I know that it'd be nice to give back any information that we can along the way. With regards to coverage - you're absolutely right! With a week or so left, we'll definitely have to look into getting some airtime in China Thanks!


                  • #10
                    Now to Chinook -

                    Thanks for your response. It's great to hear your feedback!

                    Although the opening line is a little discouraging, I totally get your point. It's one hell of an endeavour - we are expecting to be absolutely broken from day 1. Getting it done isn't my worry, it's getting it done in one go and at a realistic pace is where I agree with you. I think that we've picked the best route and best time of year based on research but figuring out our expected pace with backpacks on is where it becomes almost impossible. It's nice to hear your estimates, all-in-all they don't seem too different to our own. I will make a plan B and plan C in case we're badly delayed over certain sections, we won't accurately know anything until we try.

                    The language barrier is a big one, totally agree, but I don't think that it'll make us not enjoy the trip (aside from being broken of course). I totally agree that it'd be more rewarding if we did speak it fluently, but we don't, not by a long shot! This was actually another reason that we were considering getting a native Chinese speaker to accompany us - nothing more than a passing thought for the time being, but an idea. We are also looking into how to converse (basic conversation) using certain technology. It may be slow and difficult - but I think it's possible? After that it's a case of researching as much before we go, observing as much along the way and then, if there are any burning questions, maybe you would be able to help out in answering them?

                    As I said to Bianfuxia, thanks for the help! I appreciate the honest truth because it's the only way we can realistically plan to even a relatively close degree. There are problems, there always will be, but we'll find solutions


                    • #11
                      You could enrol in a basic Chinese class before you came. That would help alot. Even if you can say a few basic things like who you are, what you are doing, where you are from, and ask a few things like can I buy food or water here, how do I get to that village or whatever, you'll find things a lot easier. Neither Chinoook nor I are remotely fluent in Chinese and you don't need to be. In the time between now and when you start you could easily pick up some basics.

                      As for pace with backpacks, on the weekend I had about 10kg as I was planning to camp out. I covered 20km, most of it on the wall, the last 4km or so on a trail then a bit on the road. I was pretty pasted at the end, noting (a) that I'm 45 and (b) it turns out I had a terrible flu (which is why I came home instead of camping out). You are probably younger and fitter than me but I know I'd struggle to turn around and do the same again day after day.

                      So for the Beijing area, and similar wall in Hebei either side of Beijing, I do think that 1kph overall average (and about 2.5kph moving average) is a fair rule of thumb for estimating your progress. Or mine, anyway. But I am a reasonably fast mover. That calculation includes access and exit routes which are usually on paths but not always.

                      The thing to remember for estimating a longer hike is that, even in Beijing, you need to get from section to section. If you plan to walk those gaps, you will massively increase your journey time. For example - assuming you've downloaded the forum map of the Beijing area wall - take a look at the space between Qinglongxia and Shichengzhen. It's dotted with towers, but no wall (as far as we know anyway - for all we do know there could be some in there but it's not visible on GE). The line is roughly only 15km long. But my guess is that it would take a week to traverse it on foot because it is nothing but one high mountain top after another. To go by road seems to be only about 16km too. So depending on what model you want for connecting the gaps, you need to calculate the time much differently. Of course, hopping a ride with someone would take half an hour.

                      There are other spots where it's impractical to get between sections by any other means than walking, because the gaps are out in the middle of nowhere. That can mean big climbs up steep hillsides with no paths and thick forest, including thorny undergrowth (especially in the long autumn, winter, early spring months). In such places, it can take a couple of hours to cover a kilometer of ground distance, and of course is pretty tiring so you need to factor the impact of those sections into your overall capacity.
                      If you're tired of the Great Wall, you're tired of life.
                      Journeys, &c


                      • #12
                        It will be difficult for me to go for all these difficulties. While I can have many websites available to provide tour service. After a recommendation of my friend, I have already decided to book a ticket for me on a website called Greatwall Trek club because of its popularity and well service with a friendly tour guide.