Where: Varying distances outside Beijing
When: Constructed over thousands of years since the 2nd century BC
Built by: Originally by the Qin Dynasty, but added to and rebuilt by all those following, up to the Ming
History: Ironically, built to keep out foreign invaders, but now draws more foreigners than almost any other sight in China!
Go there for: A sense of the immense history and size of this ancient and extensive country
Where It’s At
The Great Wall of China is the longest structure ever built by man. It stretches 4,500 miles, winding along the mountains of Korea, the Gobi Desert and across five provinces like a medieval dragon and it is the only manmade structure which can be seen from the moon.
The construction of the Great Wall began with the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) and finally ended with the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The later dynasties such as Han, Sui and Tang also reconstructed and restored many parts of the Great Wall, making it one of the Wonders of the World. The Great Wall is basically divided into two parts, the Qin Wall and the Ming Wall. The Qin dynasty made their walls out of sticky rice and compressed dirt and parts of this wall can still be seen in remote parts of China. However, what most visitors today see of the Great Wall is what has been restored in the Ming dynasty, when stone slabs and bricks were used to create the formidable barrier.
Originally built to keep foreigners out of China, the Great Wall now brings them in by the busloads as a major tourist attraction.
For over 2000 years, the Great Wall was used as a form of defence for China. It started off as a series of walls built to protect the Zhou dynasty from attacks from the north. More walls were then added during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and some parts were connected to form a bigger defensive structure along the borders.
It was not until the Qin dynasty unified China in 221 BC, when the walls were joined to hold off the invaders from the Xiongnu tribes in the north. Emperor Qin Shi Huang also ordered the extension of the wall to more than 10,000 li (3,000 miles), giving the structure its original name ‘Wan Li Chang Chen‘ (the 10,000-li Great Wall). Emperor Qin ruled the country with an iron fist and he was notorious for banishing and executing many dissenting Confucian scholars. By unifying the warring states, the Qin dynasty created much of what constitutes modern China.
However, the present Great Wall we see today is largely the work of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), during which the watch towers in strategic areas were restored and strengthened as a form of deterrence to the Mongols, whom the Ming emperors had a long standing feud with.
Visiting the Great Wall Today
Crafted by one great dynasty after another, the Great Wall of China today stands as a testament to Chinese history.
From Beijing, visitors to the Great Wall flock to Badaling Great Wall, which lies just 40 miles north of the capital and is one of the most well preserved parts of the structure. Some parts of the road atop the wall are wide enough for six horses or ten soldiers to march side by side. This part of the Great Wall has seen about 80 million visitors from all over the world, including 300 heads of state and other celebrities from foreign countries.
Simatai Great Wall is known as “the best of the Great Wall” and is located 80 miles northeast of Beijing. Built on a steep mountain range, many structures found here are unmatched by any part of the Great Wall. A perfect example of this is the Sky Bridge, a 110-yard long passage that is just over one foot wide, just enough space for one brave soldier to cross from one tower to the next.
Deciding on the part of the Great Wall to visit will depend on your schedule. If you only have a day then Badaling or Mutianyu are your best bet as they are the closest to Beijing. They are also the most restored and the most popular. Both are served well by cable cars so you can have a fairly relaxed wall experience. If you have more time or if you want to do some hiking then you can start early in the morning and get a driver to drop you off at either Jinshangling and to pick you up at Simatai, or vice versa. It’s about a 4-5 hour hike and the scenery is spectacular.
Tours and Accommodation
If you start at Simatai and end up in Jinshangling, check if you can make a deal with the IWNC Group to rent their guesthouse, which is located just at the foot of the wall. They are an interesting management counselling group and their dormitory-style guesthouses can accommodate up to 23 persons. They also have an excellent in-house chef! Check out their website, listed below.
Another option is to tour the Wild Wall, which takes you to parts of the Great Wall not usually frequented by day-trippers. Contact Mark Yen, a great guide who has been trekking the wall since he was five. He knows the wall really well and can customise the perfect trip for you, for more information, take a look at his website.
China News on the Great Wall
Archaeologists discover an additional 500km to the Great Wall
By Melvyn Goh