Ahh the Great Wall of China. Or as the Chinese like to say, Chángchéng, literally, the “Long Wall.” Every kid in the world has heard of the Great Wall and until I double-checked, I was among the many that said things like: “The Great Wall of China is the only man-made thing visible from the moon.” Nothing man-made is visible from the moon except for swirling carbon clouds around the poles, but that won’t stop people from sagely pointing out that the wall that almost kept out the Mongols and the Manchus is one the most ambitious construction projects man has ever undertaken.
The Great Wall of China is now a tourist attraction that stretches from the border with North Korea west to just passed Dunhuang, where it slumps into the desert, exhausted and dusty.
Much of the wall is attributed to that famous tyrant, Qin Shi Huang, but most of what we today call the Great Wall was built up during subsequent dynasties, most recently during the Ming Dynasty. As the map below demonstrates (click on it for a larger image), the Great Wall is actually a series of wall sections that were built separately over several centuries.
The Mighty Dragon
The wall served as a deterrent to uncivilized bands of horseman drooling over the fat heartland of the Yellow River Valley, it provided a (slave wage) day-job for unruly peasants and a tour of duty for excess soldiers and dangerously competent generals with an eye on the Imperial throne.
But for today’s China, the Great Wall is much more than just a “defensive bulwark,” it is also a symbol of China, of the Chinese people and an icon of strength and longevity: a winding, sinuous dragon of stone representing the ancient Chinese civilization.
Building the Great Wall of China
The image in my head of a continuous brick wall split by towers that rolls across northern China is only part of the truth. The vast majority of the wall building happened during the Warring States Period, the Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty — between 2,000 and 2,600 years ago. During this period, the ancient Great Wall stretched for 3,700 miles from the ocean in the east to the edge of the desert in the west.
Building and defending the wall required thousands of laborer-soldiers, brought north from the heartland to help build, defend and settle the buffer lands along that wall. When the Han Dynasty fell, the ability to maintain the wall and the desire to defend it waned and it left the collective memories of the people for some time. Only after the Ming armies threw out the Yuan Dynasty (Mongols from the north who managed to break through the wall) did the wall regain its importance as a line of defense.
The Great Wall all of us have seen in photos is more likely to be the walls built during the Ming Dynasty, between 500 and 700 years ago. The Ming Dynasty was one of the strongest and most advanced civilizations of its time, but they still had to deal with those northern warriors, so the leadership built up one of the strongest walls ever built: a 3,500-mile-long crenellated brick wall across northern China with thousands of watchtowers and a dozen choke-points, all defended by a massive army.
Mutianyu Great Wall
If you’re planning to see the Great Wall, you’ll need to decide which part of the Wall to go to. Most tourists squeeze a half-day trip to the well-restored sections of Badaling or Mutianyu into a busy Beijing sightseeing itinerary.
However, unless the only reason you want to go to the Great Wall is to check it off your to do list, Badaling is a tourist trap that is best avoided. If you’re pressed for time, Mutianyu is a decent compromise option; it’s only an hour and a half’s drive from downtown Beijing, but unlike at Badaling, it is possible to get away from the crowds if you keep walking beyond the restored section.
However, a longer trip out to one of the other sections is well worth the time and effort. Read on for an overview of the sections organized by location and take a look at our Great Wall Google Map to see where they are.
The Great Wall n
One of the best sections near Beijing is Jinshanling, a fairly remote part of the wall that gives you the chance to explore away from the groups but is still accessible as a day trip from the capital. Until 2010, Jinshanling was also a great starting point for hikes to Simatai, a section once popular with in-the-know hikers and Beijing expats for its tourist-free authenticity. Unfortuantely, the land around Simatai was gobbled up by property developers and the section was officially closed for four years while a five-star hotel, golf course and faux watertown were built. Simatai is now reportedly only open to tour groups.
Not far from Simatai, heading west along the wall, is the Gubeikou section, a windswept region of reflection where travelers can try and imagine hordes of barbarians to the north, smelly, cold companions lying beside you in the tower and soft beautiful women far, far to the south…
The Great Wall retains its remote and forgotten aura west of Gubeikou, north around the Minyu Reservoir and back down to the Mutianyu section, 70 km outside of Beijing, which attracts travelers with a combination of well-restored walls and bright seasonal plumage.
Further west of Mutianyu are the remote and beautiful ruins of the Jiankou section. After the Jiankou section, the wall doubles back on itself and then just as quickly swerves back west before reaching the Huanghua Pass, a section of the wall 65 km outside of Beijing and known for fields of small yellow flowers that bloom here each year. This section also weaves around three lakes and a reservoir and is one of the most scenic section of the wall near Beijing.
The wall at Juyongguan is only 50 km (31 mi) north of Beijing and was the most heavily contested part of the wall. The Guangou Valley mouth was a major route for invading northern armies, so the fortifications here were most important. Unfortunately for the defenders, this section also serves as a reminder of the Great Wall’s failure to keep out the Mongols: the Yuan dynasty erected a marble tower here, the “Cloud Viewing Platform,” to commemorate their conquest of the Chinese heartland.
Not far from the Juyongguan section is the most famous section of the Great Wall, Badaling. This section in particular has a reputation as a tourist attraction—thousands of tourists labor up this part of the wall any given day. This is where you will see the famous quote from Mao Zedong: “You’re not a real man till you’ve climbed the Great Wall.“
Check out this comparison of five Great Wall sections near Beijing for a more detailed head-to-head of Great Wall options near the capital.
The Great Wall in the Northeast
The Great Wall meets the ocean at Shanhaiguan (Shanhai Pass), a fortress on the sea near the coastal city of Qinhuangdao. This part of the wall was a vital defensive point, lying at the sea and at the mouth of a wide valley leading from the north down into the heartland.
Heading back inland is the Huangya Guan (Huangya Pass) section of the wall with its marvelous sunsets and the Great Wall Marathon. Huangya Guan is officially located within the municipality of Tianjin, but at 126 km (78 mi) north of the city center, this unspoilt gem is actually closer to Beijing (96 km or 59 mi east of the capital).
Running north from the sea, toward Dandong in Liaoning Province, is the Great Wall at Hushan (Tiger Mountain), which forms part of the border with North Korea. This section of the wall sees little tourist traffic and its proximity to North Korea might prove alluring for some travelers — it is also considered to be the easternmost fortification of the Great Wall and a relic of the ancient Yan State, a powerful rival to the Qin more than 2,000 years ago.
The Great Wall across the North
It’s easy to associate the Great Wall of China with Beijing, but the vast majority of the fortifications are nowhere near the city, but spread out across several provinces: starting with Liaoning in the northeast and snaking across Hebei (which surrounds the municipalities of Tianjin and Beijing) and west through Shanxi, north a bit into Inner Mongolia and then west along the fringe of the Gobi Desert through Shaanxi, Ningxia and ending at the mouth of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu.
The Great Wall in Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi is the longest stretch of the wall, but also the section most affected by time and the elements. In the east, around Beijing, Hebei and Liaoning, the builders were able to use stone and bricks. Farther west in the grasslands, the wall becomes a thick rampart of packed earth, pressed reeds and mud and whatever else the local laborers could get their hands on.
This made for a thick and imposing wall, but also a wall susceptible to erosion. Across the north, the wall is dotted by small settlements and fortresses marking a time when this region of China was much more fertile than it is today. This stretch of the wall is great for long hikes and camp-outs, horse and motorbike treks and awesome trips like the Mongolian Bike Challenge, which cross some of the same country.
The Great Wall in the West
The Great Wall out in the deserts of Ningxia and Gansu provinces can hardly be called such; this part of the wall is so vastly different from the solid symbols of strength and longevity in the east that it hardly seems it could be the same thing. Only the fortresses of Jiayuguan and Yumenguan, which have been reconstructed and are open for tourism, can conjure up the idea of imperial defense against hordes and the border of civilization. As soon as it leaves behind the rebuilt towers of the fortresses, the Great Wall becomes solitary brown heaps, sagging atop rocky dunes and crumbling into sandy hills.
The edges of the Great Wall also mark the edge of ancient China’s imperial reach. The Han, Tang, Ming and Qing all exerted some control as far as Central Asia, but mostly along established trade routes protected by fortress-settlements or alliances with nearby Turkish, Tartar or Mongol warlords. The contact zone between the Chinese empires and the western world straddles the edge of the wall here: Dunhuang has a fascinating mix of Indian, Greek and Chinese influences and China’s far west province of Xinjiang is a melting pot of cultures. The Great Wall, as often as not, proved as a catalyst for communication between different cultures, as much as it kept people apart.