Sign up for our newsletter

Can you cycle the Great Wall of China?

In-depth
17 Jan 2020
Advertisement

Cyclist and photographer Daniel Hughes journeys to the Great Wall of China to see if it can be ridden on a gravel bike

Which of these statements is true? The Great Wall of China can be viewed from space. The Great Wall of China was an impenetrable fortification 3,000 years ago. Today, you can walk, or even ride a gravel bike, its entire 8,850km length.

Actually, none of those statements is true, but that last part I really wanted to try.

We call it the Great Wall, but for locals it’s more accurate to call it the Long Wall, or even the Long City. The construction of the wall went on for almost 2,000 years, with the last and most famous walls being finished by the Ming Dynasty in 1644, which is often the section that is most visited and photographed.

Far from being one impenetrable wall that spanned the continent, the Great Wall is actually a collection of hundreds of separate walls and fortifications, with hundreds of trails. Anyone envisaging a 8,850km point-to-point epic gravel ride will be sorely disappointed.

None of that, somehow, deterred me from an insatiable desire to ride along the Great Wall of China. It was an adventure bike itch that I couldn’t scratch. Was it possible, I wondered. Was it practical? It appears it was, but doing it was far harder than I expected.

 

Bucket List

We all have our bucket list dreams. Mine had been fostered by flying over China many times, and looking down to hunt for the infamously visible Great Wall. It didn’t take me long to confirm that, far from being visible from space, it was barely a speck from 33,000ft.

But on one flight I did manage to make sight of it, and armed with a detailed map and a lot of patience, the seed was sown. I needed to go there.

For me, though, visiting with a tourist group wasn’t enough. I had to ride the Wall.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no information about where you could ride a section of the Great Wall. I could find only one solitary YouTube video of someone doing it. It was enough to show me it was possible, if a little impractical.

After some research, I found a company called Serk Cycling – one of China’s only cycle touring companies.

I discovered pretty quickly that you simply can’t turn up to the public sections with a bike under your arm and start rolling around the wall. Bringing a large camera, or a drone, with you didn’t improve your chances, unsurprisingly. But if there was ever a time you should make use of a drone, a ride on the Great Wall is it.

Night after night I was hunched over Google Earth, or trawling through DJI (drone manufacturer) materials to find a section where we might be able to film.

 

The Great Ride in China

The big day arrives.

I land in Beijing with the plan of going to the Great Wall and seeing whether it is possible in any sense to ride it.

The weather is cold – as low as -12°C – but clear bright blue skies sit above us, and there is not a wisp of the infamous smog. It also couldn't be drier. There’s hardly any moisture in the air as the mountains make the area in and around Beijing exceptionally dry and barren.

After a quick catch up with my guide from Serk, we set off in the darkness of the early morning for our three-hour drive. An incredible sunrise throws light over a maze of mountain trails around us. The views are already awe-inspiring.

Our starting point isn’t what I had in mind. It’s a slightly strange place with desolate hollowed out buildings. What begins as a path turns into a rock climb. I'm armed with a Pinarello Gan GR Disk gravel bike, fitted with 38mm Panaracer Gravel King SK tyres, but I'm beginning to wonder if I shouldn't have brought some climbing boots.

I hoist the bike over my shoulder, cyclocross style, and scramble up rocks so sharp that they begin to destroy my shoes. It’s hard work, but worth it for the views that greet me at the top of the climb.

I’m on top of one of the Ming Dynasty guard towers. I can see the wall meandering for easily a 100 miles in one direction, and in the other direction the wall goes up an over a range of mountains. It’s breathtaking, to the point that it almost borders on the spiritual.

 

I take a moment to regain my focus on the job at hand. Ahead of me is the Great Wall, and riding it in the normal sense is clearly impossible. Impossible for a few reasons: firstly because most of it is in pretty bad shape; secondly because of the landscape that it has to contour.

There simply aren’t flat sections. It's all a jumble of steps, steep inclines and broken walls. Oh, and there’s a big drop on both sides if you don’t get your line correct. Undeterred, we decide that going north offers the best clear run.

I ride along the wall and discover a long and largely interrupted sequence, perhaps 15km in length. Every few hundred metres I come across some steps – some I ride, others I walk.

 

Someday perhaps Danny MacAskill will scale these same steps. He'll do wheelies along the crenellated outer edge and make 30ft jumps across different sections. For me, though, I’m simply thrilled to be doing something I could only dream of a few months ago. Blasting across the elevated trail, and in and out of guard towers at speed is like a surreal dream.

As a pilot, cyclist and photographer, I’ve been blessed to see some of the most extraordinary places on Earth. Riding the Great Wall of China is exceptional, though. Stunning, spiritual and simply incredible fun.

Is it mission accomplished? Totally.