Where is the best place to photograph…the Great Wall of China?

Join the hoards at Badaling during 'Golden Week' Holidays. 2006

In the second of my series of “Where is the best place to photograph…” (view the first one can be found here), I want to tackle possibly THE most famous landmark in the whole of the country: The Great Wall of China.

This iconic landmark is photographed like no-other and has fascinated photographers, all looking for the best vantage point in order to capture this amazing structure. But the question is; Where is the best place to photograph the Great Wall of China?

In this post, I shall offer up 4 suggestions. These are not the only locations of course. I have not visited every part and these are just my choices. If you know of, or want to recommend interesting/photogenic parts you have been to, please feel free to let us know in the comments section below and vote in the survey.  So, let’s begin….

1. Simatai 司马台

Simatai was the first piece of the Great Wall that I visited back in 2005 and as an introduction, I couldn’t of asked for a more beautiful piece of the Wall. Located just over 100km north-east of downtown Beijing, it isn’t the closest piece to the city but it well worth taking that little extra effort to get to.

A vendor on The Great Wall of China at Simatai. 2006

Simatai is characterised by very steep inclines and descents which makes for a photoshoot cum workout feel to your day. Don’t forget your walking boots for this part of the wall. It’s dramatic inclines make for some great shots if you can find a good vantage point.

Many parts of this section are in disrepair, which makes for interesting shots, however you may need to get there quick as plans are afoot to renovate it

2. Jinshanling 金山岭

If you follow the wall from Simatai for about 10km, you arrive at Jinshanling. Located near the town of Gubeikou 古北口, Jinshanling is just as impressive at Simatai and has a great selection of watchtowers (many crumbling) which can offer you impressive views.

Me (left) trying to get some good light on a subject at Jinshanling (c) Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos 2008

This site is quite popular with domestic Chinese amateur photographers. For those completely dedicated to their craft, hire a mini-bus from downtown Beijing at around midnight and make the journey to Jinshanling. Once you arrive at about 3:00 a.m.. hike up to a vantage point and get ready to shoot a spectacular sunrise over the Great Wall. You’ll probably be rubbing shoulders with a few other photographers but it’s a unique experience and one you won’t forget quickly.

3. Badaling 八达岭

One of the closest part of the Great Wall to Beijing, Badaling is actually my least favourite part of the wall. “So why am I recommending it?”, I hear you ask. Well, it’s proximity to downtown is its biggest plus point. If you are on a tight schedule, this will be your best bet at experiencing the wall. What you must be prepared for however is a wall without a brick out of place, the hoards of tourists, the vendors/hawkers and even a KFC.

The Great Wall at Badaling during 'Golden Week' October Holidays. Be prepared for crowds! 2006

If you happen to have the misfortune of finding yourself there in ‘Golden Week’, or October National Holiday, you will be rubbing shoulders with literally thousands of other visitors. It is actually a sight to behold. Tourists are funneled in their hundreds through the narrow ramparts, occasionally climbing over each other on particularly steep parts. If you like photographing humanity in a small place, this is the part of the wall for you!

4. Gansu Province 甘肃省

Leaving Beijing behind completely, my next recommendation for photographing the Great Wall is in the western reaches of the country. Incredibly, the Great Wall stretches two-thirds of the way across China ending in the dry and arid province of Gansu. Here, the wall takes on an image completely different to that at its beginnings near Beijing.

The Great Wall in the dry and arid western province of Gansu. 2009

The most famous part of the wall in this region is Jiayuguan (嘉峪关), situated in the Hexi Corridor heading west to nearby Xinjiang Province. The area is barren which makes the presence of the wall really quite dramatic. Many of the sections in this region have been battered by hundreds of years of wind and are threatened by desertification, so are therefore sometimes hard to distinguish as actual parts of the wall! In the desert setting though, these remnants can make great subjects for capturing a unique side of the wall.



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One Comment

  1. Very interesting information, Sean, as usual. My husband Nick is a keen hiker, and I would love to join him, but I slow him down, always stopping to take photos. So in the past I have driven him to Jinshanling, dropped him off there and driven to Simatai to meet him two hours later. So while he does his walking thing, I do my shooting thing and everybody is happy. If you have your own means of transport, there’s a new expressway from Beijing that goes all the way up to Simatai and Jinshanling, but it is still not included in the latest version of my car’s satnav GPS. It was not difficult to find, as the signposts are good (in Pinyin, too!) Last time we drove there, early July 2010, Simatai was closed for repairs, I don’t know if it’s open yet. Hope this is useful. Chelin

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