Huangya Pass

Winding its way through the mountains of Tianjin’s Ji County at an average altitude of 701 metres (2,300 ft.), Huangya or “Yellow Cliff” Pass represents one of the most integral yet overlooked sections of the Great Wall. Its unusual name is derived from the cliff rocks to the east of the pass, as they are mostly yellow in colour. At sunset, they are said to appear as though gilded in gold. The Huangya section actually stretches for a whopping 42 kilometres (26 mi), from Malan Pass in Hebei province to Jiangjun Pass in Beijing. As part of the Great Wall, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. 

It was originally constructed sometime during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD), but was rebuilt and reinforced with bricks and towers by a military general named Qi Jiguang during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). As if that wasn’t enough, it was heavily renovated in 1984 as part of an incentive proposed by politician Deng Xiaoping to “Love China, Restore the Great Wall”. This colossal renovation project meant that over 3 kilometres (2 mi) of the Huangya section, including 20 watchtowers, one pass fort, and one gatehouse, were given a much-needed facelift! Nowadays, although it may not appear as authentic or “wild” as other parts of the Great Wall, Huangya Pass is the ideal place for a challenging historical hike without having to battle the tourist crowds.

Nicknamed the Eight Trigrams Fortification City, the pass is known for the 40 crisscrossing streets within its walls, which were designed after the shape of the Bagua(1) or “Eight Trigrams” symbol. At the centre of this labyrinthine system lies the Great Wall Museum, which once served as the Dispatcher’s Office during the Ming Dynasty. With spectacular exhibits of the weapons and items used by soldiers patrolling the Great Wall, it offers a fascinating insight into what life was like during the height of the wall’s importance.   The museum also highlights the strategic military significance that this stretch of the wall once held. Watchtowers form a focal part of this section. They are either solid or hollow and come in a variety of shapes, from round to square. 

While the watchtowers are a common feature throughout any part of the Great Wall, the Huangya Water Gate is reasonably unique to Huangya Pass. This giant bridge spanning the nearby river was built with five arches, which could be closed or opened in order to enable or impede the flow of water. During wartime, the arches would be closed and soldiers would settle gun barrels along the battlements of the bridge in order to defend against any enemy utilising the waterway. In short, Ming soldiers knew how to handle themselves during a water fight!

Another unusual feature of this section is the Huangya Sky Ladder, the steepest stairway along this stretch of wall. Its nickname derives from the fact that it appears to rise at an almost vertical slant and, from its base, it looks as though it leads straight to the sky! Once you’ve conquered this challenging climb, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of a primitive stretch of the Great Wall that dates back to the Northern Qi Dynasty.

On the opposite end of the Huangya section, you’ll find Taipingzhai or the Taiping Mountain Stronghold. Spanning just 1,000 metres (3,281 ft.), it once played a focal role as a vital mountain fortress during the Ming Dynasty. A statue of Qi Jiguang marks the entrance, commemorating the general whose noble efforts helped to protect China’s northern borders. To the west of the main stronghold lies the Widow Tower, a two-storey square beacon tower that was built using funds donated by twelve widows whose husbands lost their lives while building the wall. If you look closely, you’ll notice intricate dragon’s head sculptures and statues of qilins (Chinese unicorns), phoenixes, and lions crouching on the eaves of its roof.

Although you can enter the Huangya section at the Huangya Pass entrance, it’s usually recommended that you start your hike from the Taiping Mountain Stronghold entrance, since the downhill slant will provide you with some respite from the wall’s mercilessly steep stairways. Once you reach the pass, which typically takes between two to three hours, there are plenty of farmhouses dotted about serving up fresh, rustic meals for weary hikers. If a leisurely pace is too slow for your speedy sensibilities, you can always consider taking part in the Great Wall Marathon!

Every year in May, a marathon race is held along the Huangya section of the Great Wall, with thousands of runners taking part annually. While there are now numerous marathons being held on other sections of the Great Wall, the Huangya marathon is one of the oldest and has been held since 1999. Over time, its popularity around the world meant it developed into an international event that is now acknowledged by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS). The full marathon covers the entire 42 kilometres (26 mi) of the Huangya section, although there is an optional half marathon, 10-kilometre (6 mi) run, 5-kilometre (3 mi) run, and child-friendly 8.5 kilometre (5 mi) Fun Run. If you think the run is too difficult, just remember: this was all in a day’s work for a Ming Dynasty soldier!  

(1) Bagua: The eight trigrams used in Taoist philosophy to represent the fundamental principles of reality. In their most simplified form, they symbolise the sky, the lakes, fire, thunder, wind, water, mountains and earth respectively.



Often eclipsed by its neighbour Beijing, Tianjin is a much-underrated city and municipality in northern China with a fascinating history and colonial twist. Bordering the Bohai Sea to the east and Beijing Municipality to the northwest, Tianjin has been a vital trading port for centuries, connecting China’s capital with the sea. However, up until the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the region was a sparsely populated marsh. Like the ugly duckling, Tianjin has transformed from boggy swamp to bustling metropolis!

Although the original settlement was quite small, it was developed into a major garrison town during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and prospered as the main gateway to the imperial capital of Beijing. By the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it had risen to become the main economic centre in northern China, thanks to its location at the northern terminus of the Grand Canal(1). However, its strategic importance and trade potential soon attracted some unwanted attention. After China’s brutal defeat during the Second Opium War, the Qing Dynasty was forced to sign a treaty that granted Britain and France the right to extraterritoriality in Tianjin, as well as opening the port up to free trade.

Tianjin02Although this treaty only officially authorised that Britain and France should receive foreign concessions in the city, concession territories were soon granted to a number of other foreign countries, including Japan, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Belgium. From 1860 onwards, these foreign countries began constructing banks, hospitals, churches, residential houses, and all manner of buildings in their given concessions. In a matter of decades, the city was filled with magnificent colonial architecture of various styles, from the bold shapes of French Art Deco to the characteristic deep reds of German Brick Gothic. The last of these concessions was only ceded back to China in 1947, meaning Tianjin had experienced a strong foreign influence for nearly 100 years.

Nowadays, over 200 of these spectacular colonial buildings remain and have been preserved as popular tourist attractions. Among them, the Jing Garden within the Japanese concession is of particular historical significance. When the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Puyi, was forced to leave the Forbidden City in 1924, he relocated to Tianjin and took the Jing Garden as his private residence in 1929. It represents a fluid mixture of traditional Chinese and contemporary European architectural styles. The building now serves as a museum, where visitors can wander through the many rooms and admire the various exhibits of period furniture and ornaments.

Tianjin03Tianjin Ancient Culture Street acts as a perfect complement to these foreign concessions, providing visitors with a welcome slice of traditional Chinese culture. Although it was only officially opened in 1986, it features a variety of ancient buildings, such as Tianhou Palace and Yuhuangge Taoist Temple, which were originally built in 1326 and 1368 respectively. Hundreds of stores line the street, offering up famous local handicrafts like Yangliuqing paintings, Zhang’s painted clay figures, and Wei’s portable flying kites. With such an array of souvenirs on offer, you’ll be sure to take a piece of Tianjin’s history home with you! Alongside these ancient buildings, there are several other historic houses of worship dotted throughout the city, including Dabei Monastery, which is the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in Tianjin, and St. Joseph Cathedral, a stunning Roman Catholic church located in the French concession.

The municipality itself goes far beyond the confines of the city, spreading out across a vast expanse of flat plains near the coast and hilly grassland to the north. Its proximity to the sea means that it benefits from a continental climate, with four distinct seasons. Summer temperatures average at a comfortable 27 °C (81 °F), while temperatures in winter can regularly plummet to a chilly −4 °C (25 °F). It is important to note that the dry and windy spring is occasionally menaced by sandstorms blowing in from the Gobi Desert, and severe winter storms are also common.

Located approximately 15 kilometres (9 mi) west of Tianjin’s city centre, the town of Yangliuqing has played a significant role in the history of the region and is renowned for its Chinese New Year-themed, traditional woodblock print paintings. It is also home to the Shi Family Grand Courtyard, which dates back to 1875 and is the former residence of a wealthy merchant named Shi Yuanshi. With over 275 rooms, 200 attached houses, and its own theatre, this colossal complex would put even the finest mansions to shame! Nowadays it serves as a museum, with a large collection of folk artwork bedecking its walls.


(1) The Grand Canal: It is the longest canal in the world and starts in Beijing, passing through the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang before eventually terminating in the city of Hangzhou. It links the Yellow River to the Yangtze River and the oldest parts of it date back to the 5th century BC, although most of its construction took place during the Sui Dynasty (581-618).